Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau



An extract from


A Novel


Tan Teck Howe

Email: chendhao@pacific.net.sg

The Oxford tutorial system is the most expensive method of instruction in the world and costs the British taxpayer millions of pounds a year. Strangely, nobody knows where the money goes to since the undergraduate course at Oxford is basically a self-study one. Lectures are not compulsory, often irrelevant and useless. The only supervision comes from meetings with one’s tutors for an hour once a week or fortnight, which, depending on whether the student or tutor has been drinking the night before, varies greatly in quality. Many tutorials exist solely for their entertainment value.

            You can, if you choose, not do any work at all. The weekly essays that have to be churned out can easily be disposed of by copying large chunks from textbooks, articles and journals, and passing them off as your own. The trick is putting together the montage so that it comes out looking like a seamless piece of work based on diligent research and analysis.

            For most students, tutorials were just one of those things which had to be done and got over with. The amount of work you had to do for each tutorial varied considerably depending on who your tutor was. I did almost no work at all for Roman Law in my first year. A lot of it (in fact, all of it) had to do with the fact that I had H L Highbottom as my tutor. Henry Luke Highbottom of Percival College was one of the more colourful personalities inhabiting the Oxford universe. He was a small, frail-looking man with sunken cheeks, white shaggy hair and a deep booming voice that was strikingly disproportionate to his diminutive size. He exuded eccentricity and had a blank, faraway kind of look in his eyes which suggested (quite accurately) that he was completely out of touch with reality. Highbottom always wore the same navy blue turtle-necked sweater regardless of the weather or the time of year. He walked with a comical lopsided loping gait accompanied by a broad, frenetic swinging of the arms, always staring straight ahead and never stopping for anything or anybody. He invariably failed to recognise me whenever I greeted him in the library - and George, Ellie and Salmah when they did the same. It seems he used to keep a kind of parrot once and was inconsolable when it died some twenty years ago. He was never quite the same after that. The thing used to perch itself on his left shoulder and he was occasionally still seen talking to it.

            I remember the first time we met him. We entered his room at about six in the evening to find him seated, staring at the door with his back to the window. The first thing we noticed was that his room was uncomfortably cold. An old heater set into one of the walls had an ineffectual solitary bar turned on - we later discovered that this was kept on throughout the year. Books lined the shelves that reached up to the ceiling and encircled the room. On the floor were stacks of even more books and papers, so that you had difficulty seeing the carpet underneath. This was actually not an uncommon sight in Oxford tutors’ rooms. His desk was completely covered by more papers - again, very common. What was unusual about Highbottom’s room was that it was dark and filled with the stench of stale tobacco smoke.

            ‘Please sit down,’ he said, in a slow, booming, unhurried voice.

            George and Salmah took the two single chairs while Ellie and I squeezed into the sofa after removing several piles of books and a mass of files from it. We introduced ourselves and Highbottom replied with a grunt after each name. He then proceeded to light a pipe and puff away, staring blankly at us. He seemed perfectly content to continue with this state of affairs until George spoke up.

            ‘So, which books do you recommend we get?’

            It was five seconds before he responded. He inhaled deeply and then began, ‘Well... Roman Law is a very old subject, of which a tremendous corpus of literature has been produced. The best thing about them is that they never grow out of date.’ He spoke very slowly. It must have taken him half a minute just to get that out. He paused to chuckle at the last sentence and then continued, ‘I suppose I have to say that Gaius and Justinian cannot be ignored since they form the bulk of the primary sources of Roman Law...’ He went on to list a series of books that in his view were required reading. ‘But,’ he concluded, adding a very important point, ‘they are all sadly out of print.’ He seemed genuinely mournful as he reflected on this. He then took a puff from his pipe and continued, ‘Does any one of you read Afrikaans?’

We shook our heads.

‘Ah,’ he said disapprovingly, ‘I see standards are slipping... There is an excellent introductory book written in Afrikaans by’ - I can’t remember the name of the author (Blokenfelt or something like that) - ‘which we used to read in our day. Unfortunately, the only copy in the Bodleian has been missing for years. Most unfortunate.’ He then stopped abruptly, like a clockwork toy that had wound down, and stared blankly at us.

            A minute passed.

‘Er,’ said George, ‘are you going to give us our reading list?’

            ‘Yes,’ replied Highbottom, coming to life again. ‘Over there,’ he said, pointing in the general direction of a heap of papers by the sofa. After ten minutes of rummaging about we managed to find the reading lists behind a pile of books in a totally different corner of the room. I looked at the single sheet of paper in my hand. It read : ‘Roman Law Reading List Week One - 1965’.  The reading lists for 1958, 1976 and 1987 would show up later in the following weeks.

            ‘Would you like to give us our tutorial times?’ asked George.

            ‘Yes, of course. I shall see two of you at five on Wednesday evening and the other two at six. I shall leave it to you to decide amongst yourselves the details.’

            ‘Which parts of the reading list shall we concentrate on?’ asked George.

            ‘Well...’ Highbottom began answering George’s question when a soft, rhythmic percussive music began playing in the room directly upstairs. It wasn’t very loud but was nonetheless loud enough for the periodic thumps to be felt in the room. Highbottom, without realising it, slowly began to speak to the rhythm of the music. He went on for some minutes before suddenly noticing this, whereupon he leapt up from his chair, lurched towards the door and left the room. Five seconds later, there were loud screams and a crash from the room above, followed by a deathly silence. Another five seconds followed and Highbottom returned with a smile plastered on his face. He settled himself into his chair and continued, ‘Now, where was I?’

            We soon got used to Highbottom, although tutorials with him were a chore and intolerably boring. We didn’t learn a shred from him and had to make up a list of questions to ask him for each tutorial simply to fill up the time. It was either that or spend a whole hour in silence in a freezing room staring at him and breathing in smoke. Even then, the questions usually ran out after about twenty minutes since Highbottom’s favourite answer was ‘Well, we don’t really know because…’ Ellie miraculously managed to get him talking about rowing for a full thirty minutes once. At the end of the term, we all got pretty decent reports from him. Of course, we all did terribly for Roman Law at Mods with the average grade being a gamma minus – except for George, who got an alpha, I think. The swot.

©2000 Tan Teck Howe