Wednesday 15th November

Agreement about unfinished version or passage, to a degree? (10)


Things to do before I die:

  1. Spend the night with Marie-Claire Goodwin …

Ah, Marie-Claire … sigh. Jet black hair, jet black eyes. (Yes, I know eyes can’t really be black, it’s just a trompe l’oeil). A slim, wiry, almost boyish figure. The way she sips her muscadet and inspects a canapé says don’t mess with me, you muthas. Not that there are many muthas, as such, in the Univ SCR tonight.

Univ? That’s short for University College, Oxford, the oldest and finest of the Dark Blues’ educational establishments. Balliol and Merton may dispute Univ’s claim to primacy, but Univ was founded by William of Durham in 1249, some years before those upstarts were even conceived. William hailed from Sedgefield, not too many miles from my own birthplace. For most of the last 700 years, it was a sleepy finishing school for the Durham gentry but during the twentieth century it reinvented itself as something of an intellectual powerhouse, home to such figures as C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking and Andrew Motion. It became a hotbed of left-wing politics – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Bob Hawke, et al – and the Beveridge Report which was to change Britain’s social landscape in the post-war period was written in the Master’s Lodgings in 1942.  Univ is definitely no Porterhouse – it is a cosmopolitan meritocracy of quite frightening intensity. Heaven’s breath certainly smells wooingly here.

So how on earth did I get in? Maybe the Durham heritage still counts for something after all. And I wasn’t a complete failure when I got here. Undergraduate life suited me quite well. It was only after I graduated in 2008 that life took a downward turn. I started an M.Litt. with the best of intentions (on the influence of St Teresa of Avila on Victorian literary culture) but somehow never got the nod to turn it into a doctorate. Most theses are exercises in nit-picking but perhaps there simply weren’t enough nits to pick in my tiny niche. The years went by and I even sleepwalked my way through a PGCE year in Norham Road and tried my hand at TEFL before acknowledging my own utter pedagogical incompetence and fear of the classroom. In the darkest days I stacked a few shelves in Iceland before Phil suggested there might be a little part-time work available in my alma mater’s Development Office. So here I am once more …

Tonight we are gathered in the Senior Common Room for the formal announcement of the Annual Fund total. My boss, the gloriously monikered Vladimir Lebedev, is bigging it up for all he’s worth:

“… and this year’s donor participation total, 31% of all alumni, places us once again in first place in the world rankings …”

Eat dust, Harvard. Put that in your pipe, Sorbonne, and smoke it.

“…further testament to the warm regard that almost all Univ Old Members feel for their alma mater and to the astonishing dedication of my colleagues, without whom….”

I’d like to take the credit, really I would. But having only been part of the Development Fund team for six weeks, my meagre efforts to date come too late to figure. So far my persuasive charms have earned pledges totalling 20 dollars. My boss, Mr Lebedev, AKA Vlad the Impaler to his many admirers, has trained me up as a phone-pest. Find out what you have in common, he advises me, and build on that. Do not discuss either Iraq War or Trump’s buffoonery. Do not mimic their southern drawls or ask whether they are a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Vlad the Impaler is quite clear in his demands, if not his marketing jargon….

“…our propagation planning continues apace and our transmedia storytelling is second to none. The challenge, as ever, is to humanize the brand through actionable analytics and omnichannel ideation…”

Lebedev drones on but at last the back-slapping is over and I sidle surreptitiously over to what I hope is Marie-Claire’s blind spot, sending a couple of rickety Old Norse professors tumbling to the threadbare carpet in the process. Marie-Claire turns her coal-black eyes on the carnage.

“This is no time for a re-enactment of the Battle of Maldon!” I jest. And Marie-Claire very nearly sniggers. I could be in here …


“Hello, don’t think we’ve been formally introduced, my name’s Alex,” I offer lamely.  Marie-Claire shows no sign of recalling any of our carefully engineered brief encounters to date.

“No, I don’t think we have. I’m Marie Claire. Pleased to meet you, Alex.”

I scour my addled pate for some sort of inspiration.

“What did you make of that … speech?”

The question almost dies on my lips but Marie-Claire seems content to catch the ball and run with it.

“I just love that accent!” she gushes. “Is he Russian, do you know?”

“I believe so.”

“I come over all Fish Called Wanda-ish when I hear a Russian accent.”

“Gosh. I’m half-Russian myself.”

The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself. I am not even slightly Russian. The nearest I have been to St Petersburg is Seaton Carew Golf Links. Marie Claire looks as though she is waiting for me to declaim a chapter or two of War and Peace, Cyrillic script and all.

“… although I don’t actually speak much Russian,” I add hurriedly. “It’s just that my mother was a Russian princess, fallen on hard times. So I am technically a prince.”

Marie-Claire almost chokes on her asparagus vol-au-vent.

“And, don’t tell me, your family lost out during the revolution?”

“Alas so,” I sigh. “One day I’m hoping to reclaim the family dominions near Omsk and, er, Tomsk.”

“Omsk and Tomsk?”

“Yes, they say you can walk all the way from Omsk to Tomsk without leaving land once owned by the Hoggatov dynasty.”

Hoggatov? Where on earth did that one come from? And dominions? I can’t believe she’s buying any of this.

“What, like St John’s College, Oxford and St John’s College, Cambridge.”

“No, that’s just an urban myth,” I scoff. “The Hoggatovs were richer than the tsar himself not so long ago.”

“Well, Prince Alexy, you must tell me all about it some time.”

She turns to go as if a genome is in urgent need of TLC back at the lab.

“I must, I must …” I’m floundering desperately now, but what have I got to lose? “Perhaps Thursday evening … I … I just happen to have tickets for the screening of Anastasia …”

“The pop star on Strictly? Or do you mean Anastasia Romanov?”

“The very same. A distant relative of mine, in fact,” I assure her confidently.

Some other lines from Macbeth keep sloshing round my brain:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

How can I backtrack now? I must be Prince Alexy. Still, at least I have bought myself some time to research the part properly.


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