There was a distinct chill in the air, and for some reason I felt a tinge of melancholia as I pushed open the door and walked into the lobby of the Diogenes club, on the first day of the new year. Henry popped out of nowhere, and was at my elbow as I shrugged off my overcoat and scarf.
"Happy New Year, Henry."
"Thank you Sir. And seasonal felicitations to you. Your usual drink, Sir?"
"Yes please, Henry. Are the others here?"
At that moment I was hit by a blast of icy air as the front door was pushed open again.
"Oh, Hello Travis." I said, as Henry took my hat and gloves.
"Afternoon, old man. Hello Henry. Happy New Year and all that."
"Thank you Sir."
"What do you want to drink, Travis?"
He handed his coat to Henry, and then said "Oh, a glass of Ardbeg for me, I think. Cheers."
Henry headed towards the cloakroom and we walked into the warmth of the library.
For once, Manton was sipping his drink quietly, and it was Abrahams, our resident academic, who was holding forth.
"It's getting very difficult to understand the governmental directives these days."
"In what way?" asked Treworthy.
"Well, if we take on too few students, and don't meet our targets, we will be penalised. If we take on too many students and exceed our targets, we will be fined several thousand per student. It is a most ... unsystematic approach."
This was clearly a cardinal sin, in Abrahams' well-ordered world.
"It makes perfect sense to me." replied Treworthy, somewhat unsympathetically.
"Yes, but the trouble is that we always take on a few more students than our targets, because we know that some of them will drop out."
"Well, clearly you must ensure that they don't."
"But they always do. Every year. You always lose a couple of students, whether it be for personal reasons, financial reasons or something else."
"Hang on a sec," interjected Travis, "what you are saying is that you are being fined by the government for meeting targets that were set by that same government."
"Yes, that's precisely the problem."
"Oh it just sounds like the usual rubbish." I said. "Ignore it and it will go away eventually."
"Yes, but the other problem is that we are going to get our funding cut by DIUS."
This finally roused Manton out of his reverie.
"DIUS? What in the name of insanity is that?"
"The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills." said Treworthy, helpfully.
"As ever, Treworthy, your insider knowledge of Her Majesty's Home Civil Service has proved invaluable. What happened to the DES?"
"The Department for Education and Skills has been demerged."
"Is that even a word?"
"Some of its functions have been taken over by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, whereas the oversight of Universities became the responsiblitiy of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills."
"Oh God." Manton sank deeper into the black depression from which he had briefly emerged. "Anything with the word 'Innovation' in the title is doomed to failure. I don't know how you put up with it, Treworthy."
"I find it fascinating, actually. As a matter of fact, the DIUS has since merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and is now called the 'Department for Business, Innovation and Skills', so Abrahams wasn't entirely accurate."
"You're starting to scare me now, Treworthy." warned Manton, as he took a huge gulp from his glass.
"It does seem ominous that the word 'Universities' does not even appear in the name anymore." said Abrahams.
I leaned over and said "Are you alright, Manton? You seem a little under the weather."
"You would be feeling under the weather if you had spent Christmas with the venomous hell-spawn that I was once married to."
"What on earth possessed you to spend Christmas with her?"
"It is a story too complex and, frankly, too embarrasing to relate here. Suffice to say that rather than repeat the episode, I would rather be stranded on a particularly small asteroid and be left to experience the heat-death of the universe totally alone."
"Never mind about all that," interrupted Treworthy, "what about Abrahams's problem?"
"I've lost track." said Travis, "what is his problem?"
"Well, in essence, the DIUS, or the DBIS or whatever it is called, is going to cut university funding by 400 million, next year." said Abrahams.
"We live in uncertain times, Abrahams," said Manton. "Don't forget, there are a lot of bankers out there who need their bonuses paid. That 90 million that we gave them has to come from somewhere. Money doesn't just grow on trees you know."
"It doesn't need to. We can just print more of it. It's called quantitive easing. Do keep up Manton." said Travis.
"Yes - how exactly does that work Travis? On the one hand, we can just print more money, but on the other, we still have to make cuts in education?"
"Well lets face it, if you are going to print more money, you aren't just going to give it the education sector are you." I had decided to stir things up a bit. "You know what they are like."
"Yes, no doubt we would start to pay each other huge bonuses." said Abrahams dryly. "Mind you, Mr Mandelson did write us a nice letter asking us to protect quality and continue widening access to higher education, during this difficult time."
"Hah," shouted Manton, "marvellous isn't it. I don't suppose he gave any pointers as to how you could go about doing that, within a framework of budgetary cuts?"
"He was slightly vague on that point."
"Not so fast, Manton." exclaimed Treworthy. "I read something about this in the paper this morning. Quite a few MP's have got an exciting new idea which might help in this regard."
"I'm all ears, old boy."
"Well, degree courses. Do they really need to be 3 years long? Couldn't we fit them into 2 years?"
"I thought that was what these Foundation degree things were for?"
"No, no, a full BSc or BA. After just 2 years. Think of the possibilities."
"Oh I am, Treworthy. A generation of youth who are even more illiterate and innumerate than the current one. A complete inability to even maintain our current technological infrastructure, let alone improve it. The removal of yet more challenging content from courses in pursuit of an easy qualification that we can label as a 'degree'. The possilities are clearly endless."
"I afraid this is the sort of attitude that restricts reform in the public sector, Manton. Thank God you are not involved in implementing these policies."
"Something that I give thanks to our Lord for on a daily basis, Treworthy. Or at least I would if I believed in Him. And if you want to start reforming something, I feel you should start with the Civil Service itself."
"That is a completely different case, Manton. Not comparable at all." blustered Treworthy, as he got up and headed to the bar.
"Yes, I rather thought it might be. Put your own house in order first, Treworthy." called out Manton, at his departing back.
"But surely the politicians don't really believe all this rubbish they are spouting, do they?" asked Travis.
"There is a very easy way to determine that. If Oxford or Cambridge are made to reduce their degree courses to two years, I think we can take that as a sign that the politicians are sincere." said Manton.
"It's all rather depressing really, isn't it." I said, my melancholia suddenly resurfacing. "Why is it always a struggle to keep sight of what should be self-evident truths. It's like we have constructed a society which is deliberately designed to obscure the view, and distract us with trivialities."
We all sat, pondering this thought whilst watching the flames dance in the fireplace. Treworthy returned from the bar with a fresh drink.
"I think it's a rather deeper problem actually," said Manton, after a few minutes reflection. "It puts me in mind of something that I learned from an old fakir in a temple in Amritsar during my days on the hippy trail."
Travis started choking as he tried not to spray his mouthful of whiskey all over the carpet, and I glanced at Abrahams, who looked as stunned as I'm sure I did. Only Henry showed absolutely no sign of surprise.
Manton sipped meditatively on his drink in silence, allowing us time to compose ourselves. Treworthy was the first to recover the power of speech.
"Manton, you don't seriously expect us to believe...."
"I expect nothing, my dear fellow. I only offer up this piece of wisdom in the same spirit that it was imparted to me. I have not always been a merely sedentary seeker of truths."
"I didn't think that you had ever been outside of the British Isles, Manton." I said.
Manton shrugged and gestured to Henry for another drink.
"Or even outside the M25 for that matter." muttered Travis. If Manton heard him, he gave no sign.
"It may interest you all to know that in my youth, having read Hesse, Marcuse and similar tracts, I embarked on a journey to the East, an essentially spiritual search, seeking out those wise and holy men that could help me in my quest for enlightenment.
It was whilst I was in the aforementioned city that I learned of the concept of Maya. It is the name that certain philosophers give to the limited, physical and mental reality in which our consciousness has become entangled. It is held to be an illusion, a veiling of the true unitary self. Many religions and philosophies seek to 'pierce the veil' of Maya in order to glimpse the transcendent truth, from which the illusion of physical reality springs."
I ordered another drink from Henry. This new side to Manton was a somewhat alarming one, and I was going to need more than one glass of finest Malt to get used to it.
"So what you are saying," said Abrahams, "is that mankind always has trouble seeing the truth - that it is in our nature to look no further than the surface, be distracted by the superficial."
"It is an ancient idea. I think our modern industrialised society is just the latest manifestation of it. We are becoming more and more dependent on technology, because it enables us to pay less attention to the constraints of nature, and even gives us the illusion that we can ignore them all together. We think we are free, but in fact we have built incarcerated ourselves inside a prison of our own making."
"Wait a minute Manton," exclaimed Treworthy, "I distinctly remember arguing with you about this very matter some years ago. You were pouring scorn on my environmental concerns."
"No, Treworthy, I was pouring scorn on the solutions that you were offering. If people want to recycle their bottles, or buy a carrier bag with a Greenpeace logo on, then so be it. I just don't think that they will have the slightest effect on the welfare of the planet. We have locked ourselves in our prison and are currently bricking up the doorway from the inside to stop ourselves from escaping. Not only that, we are also poisoning the air, food and water supply, into the bargain. I said it then and I will say it again now. We are all doomed and it is no better than we deserve. All that technology does, is allow us to hold reality at bay for a while. Until it goes wrong. Which it always does, sooner or later."
At that moment, the lights all went out. The room was dark, save for the flickering firelight.
I don't mind admitting, I was quite rattled, and I wasn't the only one.
"What do you think about all this, Henry?" I said, in a attempt to break the silence.
"I am reminded of a passage from Plato's Republic, sir."
"Ah yes indeed," whispered Manton, staring trance-like into the flames. "We are all still stuck in the cave, watching the shadows on the wall."
"Quite so, Sir. I shall endeavour to procure a candelabra, in an attempt to dispel some of the shadows, in here at least."
"Thank you Henry. Unlike most of the people in the cave, we would be most grateful."