Bill James, The Principals, Seven House publishers, 2016

 

Book Review

Bill James is one of a number of pseudonyms written by the Welsh Novelist James Tucker, best known for his televised works about the exploits of the detective duo Harpur and Isles. The Principals is a Campus novel

The Campus Novel

What is a campus novel?  David Lodge, himself no mean exponent of the genre, neatly captures the ingredients, sex and power, in a conveniently located self-contained bubble. His close friend Malcolm Bradbury helped shape the work of a generation of writers as mentors through their pioneering  reative writing courses.

This Campus Novel takes the reader into the familiar territory of the Machiavellian  intrigues of University life. The action in The Principals pivots between Thatcherian Britain of the 1980s, and the present day.

Its title refers to an existential battle between the heads (Vice-chancellors in all but name) of two Universities co-existing uncomfortably in the same city.  The central theme has been echoed in real-life as painful ‘mergers’ have taken place for political as well as educational reasons.

Personal Interests

To declare several interests, The author of this review writes with personal experience as an alumnus of one institution on which such a fate was visited, and many years later as  a faculty member directly involved in the contortions at another which had more than a few striking unintended parallels to the plot twists in James’ new book.  He is also author of a recently published campus novel which comes with the required declarations that the  characters  in it have no intended resemblances to real-life person unless explicitly mentioned.

The eccentric leaders

In James’s book, the protagonists are admirably eccentric. Lawford Chute of Sedge University is a distinguished scholar in the still-fashionable celebrity mold.  He heads a seriously reputable Victorian institution aspiring to a place among the ranks of The United Kingdom’s Russell Group Universities. Across town lies the upstarts of Charter Mill, led by his bitter rival, the equally unhinged Victor Tane.

Chute’s grandiose plans for Sedge University have ignored the financial consequences of his actions, not least of which is the cost of the shiny new concert hall honouring an internationally-famed alumnus. Out in the sticks, the less academically recognized former community college is attracting money and student popularity for its American-style sporting achievements and its courses on hair-dressing.

Dark humour

The genre lends itself to irony and dark humour. James does not depart too far from the well-beaten path, the cover blurb relating it to Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.  I enjoyed the familiar story-line, which beguiled me enough to accept the occasional doubtful note.  The author never completely convinced me of the relatively high-esteem in which Sedge is held in academic circles. The ease with which an academic working group can lose all grasp of realities of the world outside the committee room is far more convincing and amusing.

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