Christina Patterson: Let's preserve the dotty, dying don

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The Independent Online

If I were rewriting Dante's Inferno, I'd ensure that the catalogue of punishments included a PhD. Perhaps for the bankers – the men in Armani, seeking instant fortunes from hot air – a seven-year sentence, in corduroys, in libraries, on semi-colons in Finnegans Wake. There'd be no Starbucks. No Blackberries. No shrieking or baying or bragging. Nothing except piles and piles of lit-crit, time stretching out to an invisible, distant horizon, and silence.

For many Eng lit graduates, of course, this would be paradiso. Silence! Words! Books! Nothing to do but gaze out of a window and dream. Time to think, muse, watch the dance of semi-colons on a page, spend hours – weeks, months, years! – formulating your response to them, crafting the ultimate, perfect, definitive word on them, knowing that, having done so, you could finally rest in peace. Somewhere, in a library (or perhaps the store-room of a library), there would be a slim, self-published volume bearing your name.

For some of us, however, it would be purgatorio. Take me to a library and I instantly want coffee and cake. I want a chat. I want a sofa. I want a break. Put a book on a desk, and it metamorphoses from friend to foe. Those words that looked so alluring on the sofa are now marshalled against you, swarming in hostile formations, plotting to catch you out. Bad enough for a morning, but for a year? For five years? For a lifetime?

The life of a scholar, I think it's fair to say, is not for me. Sure, I love books, but I like to gobble them up, like a tasty chocolate muffin, not pore over them, like forms for the Inland Revenue. Sure, I like to write about them, but in little chunks, to regular deadlines, and not to a whopping great mountain of a deadline looming years ahead. Luckily for me, there's this thing called journalism, where you can do exactly that. You can immerse yourself in the worlds of politics, arts or books and respond to things as they happen.

Journalism, as we all know, is in jeopardy. But scholarship's in jeopardy, too. "I'm going to be making an impassioned plea," said a Cambridge professor of classics on the Today programme yesterday, "for the sort of boffin-style, library-based, very badly dressed research that you associate with us traditional dons".

The "don" was Mary Beard – a classicist, incidentally, who also writes for newspapers, including this one – and she was talking about a debate due to take place at the British Library last night on "whether the age of the scholar is now over". She planned to argue, she said, that the goal-oriented "evidence-based" bias of the funding structures for higher education was leading to a research environment in which "curiosity research, Darwin research" was in danger of turning into "a jumped-up version of A levels".

"I'm quite happy," said Beard, "that research ends up being useful, but we don't know if that's going to be in 200 years' time, or for what. I think that research contributes to human civilisation and happiness and almost everything that makes life worth living."

She is, of course, right. The truth, even for those of us who might well choose hara-kiri over research, is that we all need all the thinking we can get. We need quick thinking and we need slow thinking, the kind of thinking that stews, and brews, and bubbles away in the unconscious and emerges one day with a "Eureka!" shriek, or doesn't, because that's the risk of research – it may, or may not. We need people who know stuff properly, and in depth. We need people to say to prime ministers, "you don't know your history, please learn some history before you send more teenagers to die" and people to say to chancellors, and bankers, and regulators, "you don't know your economics, please learn something about bubbles and cycles and boom and bust before you allow our economy to implode". We need people to distinguish between the people who know, and the people who bullshit, and these people are called voters. And so we all need to know more, much, much more. We can only know more if other people know more than us and we are willing to learn.

And the semi-colons? I don't know about the semi-colons. But I do know that life would be poorer without Joyce, poorer without poetry, poorer without the mad tumble of words on a page that makes you feel that this is what it's like to be alive.

When rising to a challenge means diving really rather deep

If the Tories think they've got it hard – struggling not to look as though the high office for which they were born and bred was but a blink of the eye away, and dressing their wives in special pleasing-the-masses cheapo, high-street attire – they should spare a thought for the Maldives government. The dress code for a cabinet meeting later this month is, shall we say, a bit of a first. Wet suit. Flippers. Masks.

Yes, the cabinet meeting, specially convened to ratify a treaty calling for an international cut in greenhouse emissions, will take place under water, and every single member of the cabinet has first to learn how to dive. Having tried it in the Maldives a few years ago, I can only sympathise. Just the sight of all those rubber arms, dials and pressure gauges was enough to set my heart racing, and the fact that they were all related to my oxygen supply, and therefore my life, didn't help one bit. I was glued to the instructor; wouldn't let him go. The fish were nice, but my ears were exploding, and I'll never do it again.

Desperate times, however, demand desperate measures. A few more years of global warming, and rising sea levels, and the Maldives will themselves be under water. In such circumstances, you can hardly regard it as a gimmick. The President, by the way, Mohamed Nasheed, is a qualified diver. Probably just as well.

Password, please? Er, pass...

When Kafka wrote The Trial, he missed a trick. Who needs the Committee of Affairs, or mysterious agents accusing you of a crime you didn't know you committed, or a strange visitor telling you that you won't be acquitted, because no one ever has been, when you could simply have a password?

So simple. So lethal. One word – your dog's name, perhaps, or your mother's maiden name, or that place you went on holiday – and the gates to everything, your bank account, your computer, your mobile phone account, your subscription website, are opened. If, but it's a big if, you can remember it.

At one time, you could have the same password for everything. Then somebody decided that was far too easy and so you had to come up with different words for everything, and just to make it more fun, they should have a certain number of characters, like a haiku, or a tweet, and maybe a number in the middle, but it's best not to make them a place or a name. And you're not allowed to write them down. Result, in my case, total, baffling, screaming, murderous chaos.