Patrick Skene-Catling

An unprincipled Principal

Brian Martin’s new novel revolves around the scandals lurking at the heart of a respectable Oxford college

An unprincipled Principal
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Holt College: An Oxford Novel

Brian Martin

Arcadia, pp. 254, £

‘Dreaming spires’? Yes, but sometimes there are nightmares. Brian Martin, awarded the MBE for services to English literature, is at home in Oxford, where he spent most of his career teaching, and seems to know all about the professional and psychological complexities of the university. Holt College, his fourth novel, written with dedicated probity and Baedeker thoroughness, is a suspenseful tragedy without a hero — just a few men and women who mean well. Concerned with the administrative deliberations and manoeuvrings of the fellows of a respected, ancient college, the story serves analogically to show how an unscrupulous individual of obsessive ambition and manipulative cunning can turn even the most idealistically conceived democracy into a dictatorial hierarchy. All fellows are created equal but some can become more equal than others.

The villain of this fluently readable piece, one Willoughby Morris, is the elected Principal, Holt’s first among equals, who contrives to dominate the fellowship’s formal and informal proceedings, with the support of two subservient cronies, the Senior Tutor and the Bursar. They are useful in committee meetings, and crucially influential in the seven-man finance committee, in which Morris needs only one of the four other votes to manage affairs to his advantage.

The novel’s narrator, Johnny James, a fellow in economics and an omniscient observer and commentator, with an immaculate code of collegiate ethics, reports all the details of Morris’s fatal decline. In his orderly private life, Johnny conducts his courtship of Estelle Treisman, a teacher of English, with the exquisite politesse of a sensitive garden lover, music lover, gourmet and oenophile. He nobly accedes to Est’s every wish. They do not occupy the same bed until she announces that she is ‘ready’.

Johnny’s romanticism contrasts vividly with his revelations of the Principal’s wickedness. Morris is unfaithful to his wife, and pads his expense accounts, especially when travelling abroad. His awfulness is portrayed with skill and obvious gusto: ‘As well as being a leading scientist at the top of his discipline, he was an irresistible social animal... a master at disguising his motives.’

Most of Holt’s fellows are apathetic. Very few are as conscientious as Johnny in exposing the Principal’s malfeasance. But assistance comes from the university’s newspaper and the national press, which deplore false bookkeeping, and from classical nemesis. The moral is clear: to maintain the integrity of a democracy, all voters should vote.