Launching equally incisive barbs at both traditionalists and reformers without ever succumbing to cruelty or bitterness, Camber’s satire of Seventies academia will bring joy to fans of Tom Sharpe. However – while the territory is familiar – Camber is not merely retreading the same ground: the neither-fish-nor-fowl status of homosexuals following legalisation is at the forefront of this novel, shown in its full absurdity but without prurience.
The miner’s strike is bringing the nation to its shivering knees. Homosexuality is legal, but publicly hinting you might wish to do more than think about thinking about it is still considered a criminal offence. Tucked away in the quiet streets of Cambridge, permitted yet shunned, stands St Paul’s College, founded to provide education and sanctuary to students and academics who might wish to do more than think about it.
A chance, or at least close enough to chance it can’t be proved to be assault, throws Dennis, a Fellow of St Paul’s, at the feet of Red, a young man more than usually unusual even for St Paul’s. When Red turns out to be homeless, Dennis’ offer of a cup of tea to his rescuer turns into charity, and then a crusade to leave his mark on college history.
While the disjunction between homosexuality being legal and suggesting homosexual acts still being an obscenity is at the heart of this novel, it is only one thread. Camber gives equal page time to the politics and absurdities of academic life. With a Master who never attends College and a Head Porter who would be happier if the Fellows would act like the dim-witted but socially superior officer-class he believes they are, the college will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with collegiate universities or indeed any hierarchical organisation.
The characters are equally multi-faceted. Whichever broad category their society might place them in, there are no characters defined only by their sexuality or gender.
Filled with the true educator’s desire to help others, but burdened with a terrible feeling of insignificance, Dennis is a highly plausible character. Genuinely seeking to do good, the obstacles his baser desire to not only improve the college but be remembered for doing it place in his path are both amusing and poignant.
Red forms a solid counter-point to Dennis’ ambition. Similarly decent, but only wanting the opportunity to not live a lie, Red is both burdened with the youthful belief that it is possible to just be yourself come what may, and gifted with the pragmatic view that university is a place for study before a source of petty status.
While all the supporting cast are nuanced and engaging, especial mention must go to the Archivist. Maintaining a network of sanctioned spies and detailed records of each member of the college past and present, he acts as a sanctioned blackmailer-in-waiting; a Sword of Damocles to ensure any who might consider renouncing actively disdaining their allegiance to the College in later years will not escape exposure. The reader cannot but wonder whether it is the openness of the post and not its existence that makes St Paul’s unique.
Overall I enjoyed this novel immensely. I recommend it to readers seeking a fast-paced satire.
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair review.