Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Sudden Topicality of Shakespeare's BREXIT Cymbeline

Coin of Cynobelinus King of Britain
How about writing a play about a British leader manipulated into leaving a peaceful alliance with Europe and go it alone in barbarous isolation? Oh, hang on—Shakespeare did one. As the Brexit negotiations descend into pandemonium (my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen is a leading Tory rebel), I hereby beg my theatre friends to stage Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, topical as never before, more than 400 years since it premiered.

Shakespeare based Cymbeline on the historical British King Cynobelinus, whose reign began in the first decade CE. The bard admired Cynobelinus’ coins as drawn in the 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia, before which the historical Roman province of Britannia had never before been understood as a physical, material reality. When James I/VIth came to the throne in 1603, he projected himself as the Roman Emperor Augustus, who, after a long period of civil war, brought Rome to peace, alliances, and unity.

Brexiteers Cloten (left) & his mum work on intuitive Remainer Cymbeline
Cymbeline, educated on the Continent, is a happy ally of Rome. His xenophobic new wife wants to secure Brexit, kill him and Assume Total Power with her yobbish son Cloten. In the prescient Act III scene 1, she goads Cymbeline into insulting Caius Lucius, the virtuous and polite Roman ambassador. Anglo-European war is declared.

Fortunately, Queen and Cloten meet premature ends. Cymbeline realises in the nick of time that Britain will be happier Remaining. He closes by inviting his Roman allies to a feast in London, 'Lud's-town':

Publish we this peace
To all our subjects. Set we forward: let
A Roman and a British ensign wave
Friendly together: so through Lud’s-town march:
And in the temple of great Jupiter
Our peace we’ll ratify; seal it with feasts.
Set on there! Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were wash’d, with such a peace.

Self as Caius Lucius, Steve Mastin as Cymbeline
At the annual conference of the Historical Association in Stratford on Avon  last month, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote lecture on Shakespeare’s later Roman plays. Along with wonderful colleagues working with me to persuadeHistory teachers to introduce Ancient History to their schools/sixth-formcolleges, we performed parts of this play substituting EU flags and Union Jacks for the insignia of Augustus and Cynobelinus Rex. Cynical laughter abounded.

A recent Hollywood movie tries to topicalise Cymbeline by representing Rome and Britannia as two rival motorcycle gangs. Despite the usually superb Ed Harris as Cymbeline, it is dismally bad. But contemporary Britain has stumbled into providing this classic drama with a painful sudden relevance. I wish we could follow Shakespeare, put the 2016 referendum behind us in Act III, and move on to the joyous, cosmopolitan finale.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

A Deadly Serious Blog about Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide

Two high-profile suicides in a week have left many of us rattled. I know nothing of fashion and hadn’t heard of Kate Spade. I was scarcely aware of Anthony Bourdain, despite enjoying cookery shows. But I’ve been shocked to find myself compulsively reading about their close relationships.

A suicide in the family (and I am not including deliberated euthanasia by the terminally ill) inflicts a lasting community wound. My maternal grandmother committed suicide when I was three and a half. I do not believe that my mother, who died a natural death in 2016, ever recovered.

I starkly remember the day the news arrived, my mother’s howls, and how much I missed her when she disappeared to Scotland for what seemed an eternity. But most of all I remember her saying, when I was older, how bitterly she regretted giving me her mother’s name, even though one motive had been to try to alleviate Edith Henderson’s depression.

The ancient Greeks had the concept of an inherited curse to help them understand how suicide and other violence runs in families. I am sure Antigone found it easier to put that noose round her neck because her mother Jocasta had done so before her.  Suicide seems a more feasible option where there are precedents close to home. My grandmother had previously lost several relations to suicide.

I have experienced three periods of acute depression myself. One was post-natal and the symptoms were not self-destructive. But I did consider suicide during two depressions as a young woman, before I'd identified my life’s project and when I still believed, partly because of my own tense relationship with my mother, that I was psychologically incapable of good-enough parenting.

Allowing myself to have a child required seven years of therapy, Aristotelian Ethics and a tolerant boyfriend. I feel desperately sorry for everyone who suffers from depression. It’s just that I feel even sorrier for those they leave behind.

Aristotle disapproved of suicide because we are all part of communities and the violent death of a member of any group, whether by suicide or murder, is in a sense an assault on the other members. He can’t have fully understood the torment that depression can inflict. The pain can be as bad as physical agony and the need to escape it just as urgent.

But I do think that the survivors of suicide by loved ones need far more support than in my experience they are offered. Otherwise the repercussions may be felt across the generations. In the UK there is an admirable organisation Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. It is just as important that we spread this information as it is to help people in suicidal crisis. 

Monday, 4 June 2018

The Cynical Spin-Doctoring behind the British Museum's Rodin Exhibition

I’m pleased by Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he supports the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles in their rightful Athenian home. I vote Labour but I’m also a proud member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and have blogged about this issue before.

I’ve been saddened by the gushing responses across press and media to the current Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum.  Few journalists have seen the cynical motives underlying the jamboree.

Suspicions that opinion-management was at work should have been aroused by the mounting pressure on museums worldwide to acknowledge the colonial rapine involved in amassing their collections. Even louder alarm bells should have been rung by the identity of the financial sponsor, Bank of America Merrill Lynch. BAML has its own desperate PR offensive at the moment—a bid to mend its ravaged reputation only weeks after having to hand over $42 million in settlement for defrauding customers between 2008 and 2013.

The two premises the Museum’s spin doctors ask its viewers to accept are contentious: (1) that without a visit to the British Museum’s amputated fragments of the art of the Parthenon and Acropolis Rodin might not have become the great sculptor he was (why couldn’t he have gone to Greece? He visited Italy to study Michelangelo); (2) that ‘sculpture’ always means freestanding individual works conceived, displayed and revered as autonomous works of art, like Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ or ‘The Thinker’. 

The category apparently excludes magnificent public monuments like the Parthenon and the other temples of the Acropolis, which combine serial images in different material media aesthetically celebrating an entire community’s aspirations, spirituality and political identity.
Cast from Rodin's Design for Gates of Hell at Stanford Uni

Alas poor Rodin—I am sure he would have been appalled at such blatant ideological abuse of his own work, especially given that many of his most famous statues, including ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker’, were originally designed as part of a public monument, ‘The Gates of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. They were commissioned by the French State as the portal to a new museum of the decorative arts which was in the event never built.

"Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone"
My own favourite Rodin sculpture is his ‘Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone’, originally designed for the top of the left pilaster of ‘The Gates of Hell’. I like to think that that the shocking sense of deracination and lapsarian despair she induces in the viewer was Rodin’s response to the miserable isolation of the solitary Caryatid from the Athenian Erechtheion stranded in London’s British Museum.

She's two thousand miles away from her sisters in the Acropolis Museum, named the The Best Museum of the World in a 2010 British poll. 

Let’s look beyond the media hype so expertly engineered by the Rodin exhibition, and use it instead as an opportunity for a serious public conversation about allowing her and the rest of the Athenians’ Acropolis sculptures to be reunited at last and seen as part of the Gesamtkunstwerk for which Pheidias & Co. originally designed them.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Jumping Frog: A Shocking Tale of Scholarly Plagiarism

I’ve been waiting for May 13, Jumping Frog Day, to roll round, so keen am I to relate a dastardly tale of plagiarism by a renowned teacher of ancient Greek. In his Introduction to Greek Prose Composition with Exercises (1876, but still in print), A. Sidgwick, who announced himself on the title page to be ‘Assistant-master at Rugby’,  included a text for translation into ancient Greek entitled ‘The Athenian and the Frog’.

One man beats another in a competition to test whose frog can jump further by secretly feeding the opponent’s frog small bits of stone or shot to weigh him down.

Sidgwick had taken every detail of the tale, besides substituting an Athenian and a Boeotian for two men in California, from Mark Twain’s short story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. The first of many versions was published in the New York Saturday Press in 1866. Its later incarnations were published under the title The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

When Twain met Sidgwick in 1899, the pedagogue admitted that exercise XXI on p. 116 of his famous textbook was borrowed from Twain. He had seen no need to say so in print.

Twain was disappointed, but not because he hadn't been credited. When he'd first heard about the exercise in Sidgwick, he had inferred that there was an original Aesopic fable of this kind. Moreover, he decided it was exciting proof of the universality of frog-jumping competitions across human history, or at least in both ancient Greece and modern California, and published this theory in The North American Review,  No. 449 (April 1894).

Sadly, there is no such ancient Greek fable extant, although maybe one was told on Seriphos, home to a particularly fine species of Anura Neobatrachia, portrayed on the island’s ancient coinage. Sidgwick however provided an elegant Greek translation of his own English text to help teachers. Unfortunately I was unaware of this when I composed my own version in 1977 at Nottingham Girls' High School, for which I recall Miss Reddish gave me an Alpha minus bracket minus.  

Apparently the world record frog jump was achieved in 1986 by Rosie the Ribeter, who jumped 21 feet, 5 and three quarter inches. But I still don’t know why Frog Jumping Day is celebrated on May 13th. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Campaigning for People's Classics: Interim Report

It is exactly a year since work began on ACE, the project I’ve been funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to lead, encouraging the introduction of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in secondary education across the nation.  Huge strides have been made—I've visited many schools, and events to publicise the campaign have been run in Kent, Belfast, Glasgow, Bristol/Bath, Exeter and Leeds. We have identified plenty of teachers of other subjects keen to give the ancient world a go.

Cambrian Pottery Designs
This week we went to Swansea, crucial to my previous (related) project, Classics and Class in Britain. It was in the South Wales Miners Miners’ Library that colleague Dr Henry Stead and I became aware of the miners’ extensive reading in classics and ancient history. And the Swansea Museum houses several of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn’s famous line of inexpensive ceramics imitating ancient Greek models, produced in his Cambrian Pottery, in the mid-19th century.

Swansea's Dr Stephen Harrison in action
Our tireless partners at Swansea University bused in dozens of teenagers from all over the region to think about ancient Greece and Rome for a day. Did women in Greek myth get out of the kitchen/boudoir into heroic action? Which city had the coolest foundation tradition—Athens or Rome? And is the laughably racist depiction of Xerxes in the movie 300 true to the ancient Greeks stereotype of Persians? I got to retweet my first ever text in Welsh, celebrating the idea of Classics for the Many not the Few!

With our Keynote Speaker, Prof. Chris Pelling
Best of all was the keynote speech by Christopher Pelling, retired Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, who honoured us by returning to what he always calls God's Own Country. He confided in us about growing up in Cardiff and eventually deciding to be a scholar/teacher rather than a lawyer. Fascinated by modern as well as ancient history, he gradually became aware that the ancient world could be used for good causes, like fighting tyranny (as in many productions of Antigone) or very bad ones, like fomenting hatred (Enoch Powell quoting the Aeneid in 1968).

Some of the Swansea Attendees
Next week the ACE event is at Reading, and both the project’s Research Fellow, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I are speaking at the annual conference of the Historical Association, hoping to persuade hundreds of history teachers that introducing Ancient History or Classical Civilisation can only benefit everyone in their schools and 6th-form colleges, the world, the universe and space.

Between now and early July our partners in Warwick, Nottingham and Durham are also running events. And even better is the news that Arlene will be continuing in her role, at King’s College London, until at least 2021. The campaign continues. To quote Freddie Mercury in Welsh, Peidiwch ├ó rhoi'r gorau i mi nawr! DON’T STOP ME NOW!

Saturday, 5 May 2018

What Marx Learned from Boyhood in Roman Trier

Despite failing to persuade my Tory fellow villagers 
in Cambridgeshire to elect me Labour Councillor
this week, I remain persuaded that the people who
do the hard work deserve more than a derisory
share of money and power. This is one reason I 
admire the thought of Karl Marx, born two hundred
years ago today.  

Karl’s super-brain developed from infancy, during 
his classical education at Trier's Gymnasium, in the shadow
of one of the Roman Empire's most imposing relics. What 
the Material Boy found in the Material World just
outside his home at Trier was the very material Black Gate.

Karl Marx's house is one of those to the left of the Porta Nigra
On October 1 1819, when Karl was not out of nappies, his  father Heinrich 
bought the house at Simeongasse 1070 (now Simeonstra├če 8). This was at 
exactly the time when Rome Two, Roma Secunda, ‘Roman Trier’ was rediscovered. 

In 1804, Napoleon had ordered it to be returned, in a symbolic deletion of the
Holy Roman Empire, to its former glory. Its medieval Christian accretions were
removed. The complete Napoleonic transformation of the Rhineland through 
bourgeois revolution was achieved in less than the generation immediately 
preceding Karl's arrival on the planet. The Porta Nigra was operating during 
his childhood as Trier’s Museum of Classical Antiquities.

It is no coincidence that Karl Marx came from a town so intimately associated 
with revolutionary change, founded by Augustus, the architect of the Roman 
revolution, as Augusta Treverorum, in about 15 BCE. It was later from Trier 
that Constantine masterminded the conversion of Europe to Christianity, at 
the time when feudalism became the dominant mode of production. 

The Ruins of Roman Trier are present in much of Marx's work (as I've discussed
in an article I'll send anyone if they email my two names separated by a dot, especially his classic 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis 

"The question to be solved, then, is how it came about 
that the popular masses in the Roman Empire so far
preferred this nonsense—preached, into the bargain, by 
slaves and oppressed—to all other religions, that the 
ambitious Constantine finally saw in the adoption of this 
religion of nonsense the best means of exalting 
himself to the position of autocrat of the Roman world."  
How, he ponders, are people so easily deluded by cynical leaders? 
Well, in election weeks that always seems a good question to me. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Why THIS Elderly Classics Prof. IS on Strike

The phrase 'I’M ALRIGHT JACK' has been boring a channel between my ears ever since the University and College Union, of which I am a longstanding member, asked us to strike after an overwhelming majority voted for industrial action over pensions.  Like so much UK slang it originated in the Royal Navy. ‘Jack’ is slang for sailor. When the last sailor climbed on board he would say, ‘I'm alright Jack, pull up the ladder’. 

But the phrase has changed meaning. That sailor presumably ensured that everyone else was safely on board before he said it; the contemporary meaning, that the speaker is not prepared to put themselves out in the slightest to help others, may have been cemented by the 1959 comedy, appropriately about a strike, I’m All Right Jack. This seems to me to be the position of all the large number of senior and retired academics who are neither striking nor at least speaking up in support of the strike. They are happy to pull up the ladder while younger colleagues emit distress signals below.

All pension money already ‘paid in’ to the system before the proposed changes kick in (April 2019) is guaranteed to be ‘paid out’ as a fixed percentage of earnings, not left to the mercy of the stock market. This means that I, like everyone else who has been paying in for many years, have a relatively secure future financially. I am alright Jack. So are academics who have already retired.

KCL Classicists Young and Old!
But my young colleagues who have joined the Universities Superannuation Scheme more recently are in a precarious position. And when they signed up for an academic career on a salary which is tiny relative to what they could be earning in other professions, they did so believing they would receive a fixed-percentage-of-earnings pension. They have been conned.

Academics have been polite about not criticising non-striking colleagues. I do accept that some people, for political, religious, or ethical reasons, do not approve of industrial action in any context and/or feel concerned about the welfare of their students. But the strike will be over most quickly, and the students suffer least, if senior academics stop propping up the daily activities of the university.

And what I believe is really motivating most of the large number of retired academics in not speaking up, and senior academics  in not striking, is, in philosophical terms, the 'Rational Egoism' of Ayn Rand: they have convinced themselves that no action is justifiable unless it maximizes their own self-interest. Or, as Henry Sidgwick put it, the agent ‘regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself alone important in choosing between alternatives of action.’[i] They are not prepared to have their own wages docked on strike days, or deal with any disruption to their routines, even in support of younger, poorer colleagues.

Yet it is precisely the senior academics who have most job security, can best afford to lose a few days’ income, wield institutional clout, and can activate the loudest voices in the media. The quietists are in my of course very personal view guilty of committing what Aristotle called a ‘wrongdoing by omission’. I would ask non-strikers, as the action continues, at least to reconsider their position one more time, and retired academics to begin writing those collective letters to parliament and the mainstream press.

[i] The Methods of Ethics  (1872).