Wandering through the grounds of the Old Naval College it is easy to see that the university has brought many good things, including refurbishment of buildings and a pretty good stationery shop and, indeed, the freedom to wander through the grounds. P.J. Vanston’s book Crump, set in a ‘fictional’ university firmly located in the heart of Greenwich, looks behind the facade into the workings of a new university; to say that he doesn’t like what he sees is putting it mildly. The contrast between the dreaming domes of Wren’s buildings and the standard of education within is at the heart of this acerbic comic novel. I confess I haven’t spent much time thinking about what happens inside the Naval College since its transformation to a university, and this book has set my mind wondering.
The onomatopoeically named Crump, a lecturer in English, arrives in Greenwich with hope in his heart, a spring in his step and filled with a desire to educate. He is quickly cast adrift in the stormy world of burkas, multiculturalism and gender-neutral linguistics and soon his spirit is crumpled by the weight of education-speak and political correctness. Whatever else the book is it is thought provoking, holding many sacred cows of political correctness up for ridicule in what should be compulsory reading for the Daily Mail book club – if such a thing exists. There are uncomfortable passages when Vanstone challenges the reader’s own political correctness; there is no doubt that the book can be quite outspoken in confronting issues of race, gender and sexuality.
Crump is very readable, events come thick and fast, assaulting and mugging both Crump and the reader. This means that the author leaves us little time to digest events before we’re into the next outrageous catalogue of catastrophes. A moment for us to catch breath would have been helpful, perhaps allowing descriptions of characters to be more fully viewed through Vanstone’s comic eye. There is much common sense in the pages of this book, but there is little to distinguish between the author’s voice and Crump’s voice, making passages of the book a barely concealed manifesto against university education as we know it today. The book is not wholly negative though, praising as it does aspiration and academic learning, but is does yearn for the days before admission fees and courses of dubious progeny. This certainly strikes a chord, and many readers working in university education will identify more strongly with the political thrust and main character than I did.
The references to Greenwich are very specific, with glowing descriptions of the park and the Cutty Sark. The pubs get short shrift and Vanstone’s characters don’t explore Greenwich much beyond the town centre – Crump might have been more chilled had he found The Union, or if he had been able to look out of his office window towards The Old Brewery. The inner workings of the university were illuminated a little when I went on the tour of the library, or ‘learning zone’, on Open House weekend and Vanstone has certainly captured the impersonal utilitarian atmosphere that I detected. The use of Greenwich as a backdrop for the book is effective and lingers in the imagination; although not nearly in the same class as Conrad and Ackroyd, you should think of adding Crump to the your literary Greenwich reading list.