This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In the course of the past fortnight Professor Cheryl Partington has, in no particular order, appeared on Start the Week, reviewed a biography of Sylvia Plath for the Observer (“crisp . . . finely judged . . . a fresh jewel in the diadem of Plath studies”), contributed a “My Cultural Fix” column to The Times (Bauhaus, Picasso, Kanye West) and featured in an online symposium about diversity in English Studies. She has also given several lectures, conducted half a dozen tutorials and marked a box file of student essays. This is quite an achievement for an academic at an obscure provincial university. How has it come about?
Five years ago, Cheryl — she was plain Dr Partington then — newly appointed senior lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Uttoxeter, had published a solitary book (Ezra Pound: Modernist Monster) and occasionally wrote fiction reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. Then, quite by chance, Dame Edna Firebrace, doyenne of modern cultural studies, found herself unable to appear on the Today programme to discuss a controversial new book about the university system: a desperate producer, who had known her at Cambridge, fixed on Cheryl as a stop-gap.
Not only did the discussion go well, and not only were Cheryl’s forceful remarks about certain university vice-chancellors “living in the last century” picked up bythe Guardian, but they happened to be heard by a commissioning editor from BBC Four who was making a documentary about the modern novel. Within six months, rather to her surprise, Cheryl found herself on television talking about the Booker Prize with Hermione Lee and Jeanette Winterson and being invited to select her “Books of the Year” for three weekly magazines.
Since then Cheryl has judged the Costa Prize, received a substantial advance from Messrs Faber to write a book about the literature of cyberspace, filed TV reviews for the New Statesman (her piece about Call the Midwife, “Subverting the Cosy from Within”, caused a sensation) and been promoted to full professor. If her judgments are occasionally suspect and her knowledge of her subject not quite as compendious as her sponsors sometimes assume — there was an embarrassing moment on a Radio Four quiz show where she was unable to identify the quotation “If music be the food of love” — then it has to be allowed that she certainly gives value for money.
There is a Mr Partington and three small children, but no one outside Uttoxeter has ever set eyes on them. As for her students, Private Eye last week reported the appearance of a graffito on the wall of the unisex lavatory: “What is the difference between Cheryl Partington and God? God is everywhere. Cheryl Partington is everywhere but here.”
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