Many a lecturer, sitting through interminable faculty meetings brightened only by petty spats between various staff factions, must have dreamt of getting his/her own back by publishing a fictionalised, thinly disguised account of such proceedings – and some have, with hilarious results. Tom Sharpe’s Grantchester Grind is one of the books that capitalises on the claustrophobia of small academic communities in grand fashion.
Few contemporary novelists do farcical scenes of carnage and chaos as well as Tom Sharpe. In Grantchester Grind‘s precursor volume, Porterhouse Blue, incompetent ex-politician Sir Godber Evans has been offered the mastership of the college (distinguished in Cambridge solely by its excellent cuisine and resistance to change, and supposedly modelled on Peterhouse, the University’s oldest college) as a way of retiring him out of politics to prevent any further damage to his party. He proposes sweeping changes, including the admission of women and installation of contraceptive machines in College. Towards the end of the book Sir Godber dies as a result of an altercation with Skullion, the porter, whom he has fired. With his dying breath he names his murderer, but this is interpreted to mean that he has named Skullion as the next Master of the college. Upon hearing the news Skullion has a massive stroke, known as a ‘Porterhouse Blue’ (owing to the college’s rich cuisine, known to have induced several. At Cambridge a Blue is a top distinction achieved in sports, but the only distinction Porterhouse College is famous for consists of the colossal strokes brought on by its lavish cuisine). Skullion becomes master despite being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.
Grantchester Grind revisits the college some time after Sir Godber’s death, just as it is forced to accept funding from a dubious American religious television channel behind which hides a drug dealer on the run from the Columbians he has double-crossed, who intends to hide out in the College.
EXTRACT FROM: Tom Sharpe 2004  Grantchester Grind. A Porterhouse Chronicle. London: Arrow Books, pp 43-7.
[While] women had come to Porterhouse their numbers were negligible. And since the Senior Tutor was in charge of admissions as well as the Boat Club, those women who were admitted had certain characteristics that distinguished them from the girls in other colleges. Even the Chaplain, always a broad-minded man, had complained.
‘I know the world is a very different place these days and I try to keep up with the times’, he had said over the kidney ragout at dinner one night, ‘but I draw the line at young men wearing lipstick in public places. There is some man on my staircase who is distinctly odd. I found a tube of lipstick in the lavatory this morning and whatever aftershave lotion he uses is most disturbing’.
‘I don’t suppose there is any point in explaining’, said the Praelector, keeping his voice down. The Chaplain was deaf, but it was as well to take precautions.
‘Definitely not’, said the Dean. ‘if he ever found out their real sex, Heaven alone knows what he might get up to’.
‘I suppose we must be grateful he’s not interested in boys. A lot of the dons in other colleges are, I’m told’.
‘It’s amazing he can get up to anything at all at his age’, said the Senior Tutor a trifle mournfully. ‘Still, it was obviously a great mistake to put any women on his staircase’. They looked accusingly at the Bursar who was in charge of room allocations.
‘I only put two there’, he protested, ‘and I made sure they passed the Test’.
‘The Test? What is the Test? Apart from matches and rivers and things’, enquired the Praelector.
The Bursar hesitated. Dr Buscott and some of the younger fellows were down the table and he had no desire to be linked in their minds with the ‘Old Guard’.
‘It is an exceedingly outmoded way of ensuring -’ he began, but the Dean seized his opportunity.
‘The Bursar means that he has to examine the creatures before employing them as bedmakers to make absolutely certain that they are sufficiently repulsive to stifle the sexual urges in even the most desperately frustrated undergraduate’, he explained in a loud voice. ‘That is why it is called the Bedder Test. The aim is to keep them out of the beds they are paid to make’.
In the silence that followed, Dr Buscott at the far end of the table was heard to wonder aloud what century some people thought they were living in. The Senior Fellows chose to ignore him. Dr Buscott held a post in the University and that, as the Dean had said, made him no sort of Porterhouse man.
‘Not that the system always works, if memory serves me’, said the Praelector finally. ‘That young man who blew up the Bull Tower with gas-filled condoms was found to have been fornicating with his bedder at the very moment of the explosion. Name of Zipser, I seem to remember. Now what was the bedmaker’s name?’
‘Biggs. Mrs Biggs’, the Chaplain shouted suddenly. ‘Big Bertha Biggs I remember they called her. Wore tight boots and a shiny red mackintosh. A splendid woman. Most ample. I shall never forget the way she smiled’.
‘I doubt if anyone else will either, come to that’ said the Dean grimly, ‘though whether she was smiling when the Tower exploded we will, I am glad to say, never know. Not that I am in the least interested. Any sexual deviant, and a young man who could find Mrs Biggs in any way desirable must have been a pervert, deserves to die. It was the other consequences I found deplorable. Quite apart from the enormous cost of restoration, it gave that damned Master, Sir Godber Evans, the chance to exert his authority over the College Council. The only good thing to come out of the whole ghastly affair was that he died of drink not long afterwards’.
‘I always understood that he had an accident and fell over’, Dr Buscott intervened from the far end of the table.
‘He would not have fallen had he not been drunk.’
But Dr Buscott hadn’t finished. ‘And saddled the College with a Head Porter as Master. I have never been able to understand why he named Skullion. If, of course, he did’.
The Senior Tutor almost rose from his chair and the Dean’s face was suffused. ‘If you are accusing us of lying …’ the Senior Tutor began but the Chaplain provided a diversion.
‘Dear Skullion,’ he shouted. ‘I saw him sitting in the garden the other day wearing his bowler hat. He seemed to be much better and certainly much happier’.
‘Did he have his bottle with him?’ asked the Praelector.
‘His bottle? I didn’t notice. He used to have a bag, you know. It was on the end of a pipe and sometimes would slip out. I once stepped on it, quite by accident of course, and the poor fellow -’
‘For God’s sake shut up’, snarled the Senior Tutor and pushed his plate away. ‘I really don’t see why we should discuss Skullion’s bladder problems over the kidney ragout’.
‘I entirely agree’ said the Dean. ‘It is a most unsavoury topic, and not at all suitable at table’.
‘Savoury now?’ the Chaplain shouted. ‘But I haven’t even finished my main course’.
‘I think if someone would switch off his hearing aid…’ said the Praelector.