The great Professor Stort’s Oxford Lectures

The sound of university bells rang aloud through the old streets, which summoned, guided and admitted students from their places of residence to the place of learning. Anthony Gordon Law felt fresh in his heart and walked to the first lecture of his first year with confidence. He could still feel his parents’ pride resonating within him, however misplaced it might be. They had already told all their friends of their son’s success and enjoyed it thoroughly. 

Lingering at the entrance to the lecture hall, a group of students in that sickly nostalgic tweed of an Oxford undergraduate walked ahead of him, laughing and joking, but with forced laughter and hollow jokes. They stayed out on the pavement and chatted books, while others, with rolled up trouser bottoms and knitted tops, made cigarettes from expensive tobacco and chatted cinema. 

Anthony had wanted to have the great weight of his own language impressed upon him like a seal on wax, which is why he secretly had hoped to study English epic poetry. Instead, his first series of lectures would be on early Romantic poetry. Though he had read a fair amount according to the reading list he had diligently followed, he felt that these were wisps of literature and not the serious, heavy tomes with which he wanted to set out on his university journey. 

“John Keats and the bleary-eyed Romantics; Keats is a fucking joke!” Exclaimed one of the students, spicing up the dull small talk that happens at the beginning of any academic year. Anthony was almost shocked at this coarse, yet casual, regard to a poet he yet considered superior. However, he did not question him and instead let him go on pursuing his train of thought as they made their way into the lecture hall. He took a seat somewhere in the middle of the auditorium and extracted a couple of sheets of white graph paper. 

Anthony took out a pad of lined paper and wrote out the date and title of the lecture. He caught someone’s friendly eye was looking over at his writing, a friendly gesture. Anthony smiled and noticed on his classmate’s desk a very fine, leather-bound notebook. He looked around to discover that others had similar, more exquisite notebooks and some many as well have been writing their titles with quill and ink. 

A slight embarrassment came over him, as he noticed this grandiose stationary conformity. His peers had clearly already had an education in note taking; he would have to update his materials. The arrival of the professor broke his thoughts, so he pretended to write something down. 

The professor was a man who knew he was a young professor and liked to think that everyone knew him to be the great Professor Stort, genius of comparative literature. He wore a dark blue shirt with cuffs affectedly rolled up and there seemed to be silver stars studded into the cloth. Tan brogue boots, not worn in, stuck out over his trousers – he didn’t bother tying his shoelaces. His prematurely grey hair covered the sides of an inflated brain, while his bald crown finished off a face that was cocky, clever and stupid all at the same time.

Anthony started to note down what he thought he was supposed to be writing. The professor’s handout contained thick chunks of quotations from Keats and his contemporaries. The professor rushed through these as if the students had already read and digested them. Anthony tried to write down the professor’s every word, while others seemed not only to be writing notes with ease, but also leaning back on the stiff lecture hall chairs and comfortably absorbing wisdom. 

“And then one of my good friends, Mr Eisenbach, delivered a fantastic keynote address at the Keats Club, which I managed to get an invitation to, despite being a lowly masters student. It was a great reception, with fantastic hors d’oeuvre and some pretty good home county wine…”

At this moment, Anthony stopped writing. What the hell was this guy talking about, he thought to himself feeling his cheeks go slightly red. He put down his pen and looked around.

“… Mr Eisenbach was of course a member of the French movement back in the 1980s. He set out with six other academics -Heuser, Steiner, Horrock, Catsley, Shingelnickel and, as you all know, Slazel – in search of the origins of English literature. He was looking for the elusive palimpsest of Shakespeare, the Beowulf of before, the first folio of Lindisfarne. It was in 1968 that Eisenbach first had the idea, when he saw the damaging effects of evolution in France, and fifteen years later he returned to the UK with a well-thumbed copy of Keats…”

Everybody in the auditorium, as far as Anthony could ascertain, was riveted by the talk. Either they were hastily copying everything down or were slowly nodding their head in agreement, effervescently shaking it in concerted disapproval, or stroking their beardless chins to better mull it over. Anthony did not know what he wasn’t getting and started to doubt himself. This was the great Professor Stort who was speaking – the guy who had literally written the text book on the early to mid Romantics – and what he was saying was clearly too superior for the likes of Anthony. Who hadn’t been educated in the same way as the others; who didn’t roll cigarettes like them; who obviously didn’t have the same taste or knowledge of stationary. Clearly he, this blockhead of a back-countryman was the one who was not getting it. And so he sat in silence, trying to keep one eye on his notes and the other on the professor. 

With a final, slightly humorous anecdote, the professor got down from the lectern and left the building. One or two students, the more obvious sycophants, the future leaders of their country, stood up and clapped. The rest shuffled off in humbled awe, reverently swapping superlatives, while Anthony wondered what he was doing there.  

Anthony walked back to his college, making half friends en route. There were some students who were keen to meet everybody they could, and then there were those who found their group immediately and would stick with them for the next few years. Anthony belonged to neither side and seemed to take pleasure in going with which ever group tried the most to get his attention.

‘So, what did you think of the lecture?’ Asked enthusiastically a student called Matt.

‘I don’t know if I quite got it.’

‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I had only heard of four of those French movement scholars.’

‘Ah, I hadn’t heard of…’

‘Of course, this professor really knows his stuff. Have you read his latest book?’

‘I was unaware that…’

‘It is simply amazing – he really talks about poetry and presents it in such a readable way. Do you know who you’ve got for tutorials?’

‘Well, actually, I’m not yet…’

‘Nice talking to you,’ he said before making off once they had arrived at the lodge of Ketchup College.

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