Feeding time for the Morlocks

13th July 2007 at 01:00

Eating people is wrong! It's one of those phrases like "there's no such thing as a free lunch" that you can't really argue with. The expression came to mind recently when preparing a class on HG Wells's science fiction classic, The Time Machine.

On one level the short novel, first published in 1895, is a Boys' Own yarn in which a Victorian inventor creates a machine to transport him into the far future. But once Wells starts to describe the post-human society he finds in this distant futurity, the book becomes more of a social critique of his own times.

The late 19th-century division between men and their masters, labourers and capitalists, the working and the middle classes, has become so pronounced some 800,000 years later as to have created two entirely separate species: the Eloi and the Morlocks.

Above ground live the gentle Eloi, the descendants of those Victorian masters whose world is a sort of playground, where they pass their time "in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion".

Deep below, in dark tunnels and even darker caverns, live the former workers, or Morlocks as they have become. Shut off from all natural light, these repulsive specimens "bleached, obscene and nocturnal" according to Wells's horrified description, have degenerated into shambling lemur-like beings, with pale, chinless faces and large pink- grey eyes.

Ah ha, I couldn't help thinking as I pondered this division, is it not a suitable metaphor for what is currently happening in colleges? On the one hand you have the managers increasingly a highly paid breed apart, and rapidly becoming more so as colleges merge and expand in size. On the other are those educational troglodytes, more commonly known as lecturers. Like the Morlocks, they are the ones who do the real work but reap few of the rewards, condemned as they are to skulk around in the metaphorical half-light of corporate neglect.

Ok, so there are some obvious differences between the two scenarios. Unlike the duality of Wells's imagination, lecturers and managers still for the present at least have occasional contact. And it's true that not many managers actually spend their days engaged in the Elois's favoured pastime of carnal dalliance; they're too busy churning out all those e-mails full of yet more things for their bug-eyed subordinates to do.

But then Wells's men and masters had until the year 802,701 to evolve to their polarised position. Compared to that the colleges' process of separate development essentially since incorporation in 1992 is but the batting of a time traveller's eyelid.

The more you look at it though, the more you are struck by the similarities between the two positions. As outlined above, Wells's two species live out their existences in entirely separate domiciles. In colleges it's noticeable how often the top managers now concentrate their offices in some isolated

but salubrious part of the building, which, by happy coincidence, also happens to be handily placed for the car park.

And just as the Eloi wear distinctive clothing purple tunics gathered at the waist so you can instantly spot a manager by what he or she is wearing. For the men it usually comes down to choosing between the blue-grey suit or the grey-blue one. The women have a little more choice, but you can be sure that whatever the label, it won't be that favourite stand-by of the female Morlock sorry lecturer: Primark!

But wasn't there something earlier about eating one another? Aye, and there for the managers at least is the rub. Devoted Darwinian that he was, Wells believed strongly that evolution followed circumstance. Thus, once his Eloi had perfected their above-ground world and had nothing left to strive for, they lost their drive, vigour and intelligence. And this enabled the Morlocks to come marauding out of their tunnels on dark nights to capture, kill and eat the now enfeebled Eloi.

Perish the thought that such grisly fare might find its way onto the canteen menus of the nation's colleges. Apart from anything else, some of the more mature members of the managing classes might prove to be tough going.

But if it has to be, it has to be. Or, to put it another way: pass the ketchup!

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