75 years  

Department for International and Comparative Education 1985-1995

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Professor Guy Neave: Professor of Comparative Education 1985 – 1990

Guy recalls a departmental retreat and the Chairman’s strategy for encouraging cooperation amongst staff by means of a heated game of croquet:

"One of the more pleasing aspects of congratulating an Institute on its century of existence is that one can, in the same breath and with no less sincerity, also express the hope that the next hundred years will be as flourishing and prosperous – if not more so. 

Being asked to recall some event, some memory of the Institute when I was of its number, is no small task.  So many come crowding in: faces, folks, incidents and episodes, many happy, indeed full of nostalgia and some best not mentioned at all, the better to protect the guilty, to tickle the curiosity of the innocent and to help forge that most necessary of all things – the Institutional Saga. 

Of course, when pushed to it, there is always one incident that stands out above the rest.  And in this case, it was memorable for its surrealism and quasi insanity.  It had to do with a croquet match, and a situation not too far removed from Alice in Wonderland, but without the flamingos.

When I joined what was then the Department of International and Comparative Education in the mid Eighties, we had the occasional habit of going on retreats to determine what today would be called ‘high strategy’.  Where we went, I cannot for the life of me recall.  It was somewhere deep in the countryside, in a species of Grace and Favour Residence, some three hundred years old, with that patina of age, which shone from well polished and antique floor-boards and with – a croquet lawn.  So deep in rusticity it was that we almost lost Kevin Lillis in the highways and byways.  Kevin was the Department’s proud owner of a Morgan Plus Four – a splendidly exotic sports car that caused dark mutterings and envy amongst all those who were not owners of Morgan Plus Fours – that is to say, the rest of the Department.

Like most Meetings of the type, the Agenda bought out the best in the Chairman, and the worst in everyone else.  At one point, more heat being generated than light, the Chairman decided it was time to cool things off.  He suggested a break and, casting a chairmanly eye toward the greensward that lay beyond the windows, suggested a croquet match. 

For those who watch it rather than playing it, croquet is a game where light elegance, exquisite manners and a certain cultivated nonchalance seem to attach to the croquet-playing classes.  Nothing could be farther than the truth.  Croquet is a confrontation where the most blood-thirsty schemes and murderous intent are politely disguised behind gently smiling jaws.  And as the members of DICE found out, so it turned out to be. 

True, no-one sought actively to smash the skull of their partners into small shards with a mallet.  But the wish was there.  And whilst no opponent found themselves pinned to the earth with a croquet hoop driven into the soil either side of the neck and beaten into a bloody pulp, many were they who entertained the intention.  So execrable was the atmosphere that it communicated itself to the full-sized poodle, a splendid creature who belonged to one of our lady colleagues.  Sensing the strong emotions swirling around it, the beast uttered a howl and galloped off to dig a slit trench in the flowerbeds, immaculate with snap-dragons and peonies. 

Croquet balls volleyed and thundered like canon shot.  And, if they did not take off legs and sever arms, they inflicted a goodly number of bruised ankles, swollen shanks and caused an even greater number of ungentlemanly comments about each his colleague’s ancestors!  The casualty ratio amongst the men and women of DICE was in every way comparable to the Battle of Borodino, one of the Corsican Ogre’s less brilliant and more costly victories during the Russian campaign of 1812.  Indeed, DICE displayed a curious similarity to Napoleon’s Grande Armée on the retreat from Moscow. 

Eventually, the maimed, the walking wounded and those who had not quite yielded up the ghost, made their way back to the Meeting Room, uttering heart-rending and piteous groans. Curious to relate, the Agenda was completed rapidly and with a totally untoward harmony and concord.  Which goes to show the Chairman, a man of infinite ruse and charm, was more cunning than any of us were prepared to credit. 

I remember this incident with unstinting admiration.  There is good reason for this.  Neither the International Association of Universities in Paris nor the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at Twente University in the Netherlands, two of my current haunts, has a croquet lawn. So it is impossible ever to replicate the Chairman’s Strategy for persuading colleagues and influencing people.  Still, from time to time, the wish is there – and the memory lingers also."

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Compiled and edited by Clare Bentall and Angela Little. First issued Spring 2005.