In London you are never more than 12 feet away from a rat, or so the popular legend has it. I don’t mean the two-legged variety that can lurk in the corner of an underground carriage or a faculty common room. No, I am thinking narrowly, of quad-footed vermin. At the beginning of the academic year rude evidence of their presence confronted a Goldsmiths student as she strolled through the back streets of south London. A rat had been freshly ironed into the asphalt by a superior creature with four wheels.
The shriek of this first-year student – whom I had just had the pleasure of teaching – drew my attention. I scurried up the street to see the evidence for myself. The vertically challenged beast was a pretty unpleasant sight. The stain on the road gave weight – if not depth – to the urban myth that these monsters are among us at every turn.
A strange sense of responsibility to the new students is strongly felt. Perhaps the dread on their faces reminds me of my own initial encounter with the College as an 18-year-old. Whatever the reason, I feel a strong impulse to do something that pre-empts a repeat. So, off I go to the porter’s lodge in search of a plan. ‘There’s a dead rat in Laurie Grove that’s been splattered all over the road.’ Mick, the head porter, shrugs his shoulders, ‘There’s nothin’ we can do about it.’ ‘Well, do you have a shovel?’ ‘Yeah, there’s one ’round the back.’ He returns with a tool that has been left, perhaps predictably, by a building contractor who hasn’t returned to finish a job. He hands over the large shovel that is coloured with a green patina by what builders call affectionately ‘muck’.
It must have been a bizarre spectacle. An hour ago I had been proselytizing from the lectern about the merits of the ‘sociological imagination’. And now here I was wandering around the college wielding a large shovel for no apparent reason. I bump into a couple of students from the morning’s lecture who look bemused. ‘We’re building the universities of the future’, I explain and get a cheap laugh in return. This is only half a joke. The realities of packing more students into the same lecture rooms and the financial constraints on higher education are causing a real accommodation crisis. Perhaps a bit of academic self-build is not such a bad idea!
Returning to the crime scene I see that someone has placed a prawn cocktail crisp packet over the cadaver of the ex-rat, maybe out of respect. The shovel is put to work. With cringing application and eyes averted, the task of extra-curricular housekeeping is completed and the rat is entombed in a ‘wheelie bin’. Return the shovel and that will be the end of it.
Walking back towards the porter’s lodge, I bump into Darren, one of Mick’s colleagues. I explain what I’d been doing. ‘What did you do that for?’, says Darren. ‘It took an art student hours to squash that rat . . . I think they call it installation art.’ It did cross my mind fleetingly that maybe he was right. If Damien Hirst can bisect a shark, why not squash a rat? Goldsmiths was voted one of Britain’s top fifty ‘coolest brands’. I am sure this is the result of its celebrity alumni including artist Hirst, comedian Julian Clary, poets and musical figures like Linton Kwesi Johnson and rock band Blur. This award and the absurdity of the whole ‘rat incident’ triggered the imagination.
Wasn’t a half-eaten mouse mounted on a cappuccino cup lid on this very street last year? Maybe an anonymous art terrorist, with Situationist tendencies, is hidden away in the ‘College of Kool’? Perhaps white tape should outline the place where this pesticide victim met its maker? This fable from the beginning of term put a completely different inflection on Walter Benjamin’s street walker ‘who goes botanising the asphalt’. On my next caffeine-induced wander I should perhaps take a flower for Dear Departed Ratty.
It is the politicians who need flattening, and they might do well to spend a week walking in the footsteps of first-year undergraduates. As Georges Perec said, ‘to live is to move from one space to another, while trying as far as possible to avoid bumping into anything’. Perhaps in our time it is also a matter of avoiding stepping on anything unspeakable.