Sunday, 14 May 2017

Eurovision's Collective Ethnic Psychosis

Some of Lucie Jones' Personalities
‘This madness we’re running through…/It’s madness, it’s madness’ sang the three fragmented avatars of Britain’s Lucie Jones last night. As well she might. Europe is in Ethnic Denial. I became increasingly perturbed as the Eurovision final wore on at the impression the show would have given to any visiting Martian that all Europeans had light complexions. 

Quite apart from the historic debt owed by popular music to people of non-European descent, especially those with ancestry stretching back to Africa and the Caribbean, more than 15% of all Europeans really are brown or black.

The headcount last night (for which the strapline, astonishingly, was Celebrating Diversity) was shocking. With the single exception of Hungary, every lead singer was white. Otherwise only Sweden managed to put dark-skinned people, even as backing singer-dancers, on stage at all.

Bipolar in Croatia
Europe, quite frankly, is in a denial of psychotic proportions about the identity and appearance of Europeans. And an unconscious acknowledgement of that psychosis leaked out in the lyrics, which suggested delusional experiences in a concentration never before heard on Eurovision. I speak as someone who has had treatment for mental illness and once spent time in mental hospital.

Belgian Stockholm Syndrome
Croatia’s Jacques Houdek made Eurovision history as two of his split selves, one a countertenor and the other a bass, sang a bipolar duet about Being Friends and The Force of Destiny. Belgium’s Blanche had been abducted by a mysterious stranger when ‘all alone in the danger zone’ and was suffering, dilated-pupils and all, from Stockholm Syndrome.

Sectioned in Norway
Greece’s Demy complained she can’t get rid of the ‘echo in my head’. Azerbaijan’s Dihaj is ‘deep into high extremes’ of ‘fantasy’. In Israel, Imri Ziv is feeling ‘a bit fragile’.  Meanwhile, in Moldova, SunStroke Project are worried about their mother’s mental health (Mamma, mamma, don’t be so mad/Mamma, mamma, ma…)

Jowst of Norway have simply given up and seem already to have been been sectioned:

   They read me like a book that is open
   While punching on a bag and I’m choking
   I’m looking for a sign while they’re stepping on my mind


   Try to keep myself calm while my head was getting bombed…
   I’m gonna kill that voice in my head

Thankfully, our visiting Martian, if she/he/it understood Hungarian, would have had the collective psychosis explained by Hungary’s brilliant, brown, Romany Rapper Joci Pápai. Along with a beautiful brown woman dancer, he explicitly addressed everyone else’s ethnic denial :
Total Exception: Brown and Proud in Hungary

Why did you lie to me
That the colour of my skin doesn’t matter?
You knew that my eyes are brown
It never changes
I don’t need you anymore
Get out of here, leave me alone
I don’t want to see you
You’ll be cursed forever, forever.

Rather how I feel about the white people of European descent who run the global media right now.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

On Seeing the Wood despite the Tory Trees

When Small I thought Tory was short for Conservatory
Times are tough for the British Left.   For four long years, since UKIP broke into the mainstream by returning 147 elected councillors in the 2013 local elections, the news media have been obsessed with issues of national identity. The debates leading up to the referendum were dominated by immigration rather than sovereignty or socio-economic wellbeing. I voted Remain, but there are other things that matter besides our relationship with Europe, which in general worries the mobile, professional-class elite far more than the poor. But you would not know it from the news coverage on offer.

When I was a child I thought that the name ‘Tory’ was short for ‘Conservatory’ and that it meant rich people with big enough properties (i.e. not back-to-back terraces and council flats) to support greenhouses full of exotic blooms tended by obedient gardeners. The Conservatory Party, I believed, existed to stop less rich people upgrading their accommodation.

It was only when got interested in the English Civil War that I discovered the real, original meaning of ‘Tory’.  This may seem baffling in the light of the Tories’ historic attitude to Irish independence, but it comes from an Irish word tóraidhe (modern tóraí), which means ‘pursuer.’


Tory Pin-Up Boy James II
In the 17th century it was an insulting term applied by promoters of English imperialism to Irish outlaws, equivalent, according to one historian in 1693, to ‘Robbers, Thieves, and Bogg-trotters’. This was transferred in 1679 to the ‘Abhorrers’—the Cavalier, pro-Stuart, often Roman Catholic devotees of James, Duke of York, later James II, who had support in France and Ireland. After James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the Tories became one of the two big political parties and took to their historic missions of (1) conserving limits to parliamentary representation; (2) conserving economic inequality; and (3) conserving the privileges of the established Church.

It wasn’t until the early 1830s, when the Tories hit an all-time low in popularity, that they tried to abandon the name Tory and turned themselves into ‘Conservatives’. This was described in Hansard Commons for 25th May 1832 as ‘the fashionable term, the new fangled phrase now used in polite Society to designate the Tory ascendancy’ and by John Stuart Mill in 1861 as ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’.

Pimenta, Hero of People's Health
They may be the stupidest in the grand scheme of things, but they have been canny in keeping so many current emergencies off our collective radar. The NHS can’t last much longer unless we pay attention: see this brilliant short video explaining why by junior doctor Dominic Pimenta.

Even the Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael, admits that by 2020 there will be such a shortage of teachers that the quality of secondary education will be under severe threat. The serial reductions in benefits, especially to young adults, and austerity cuts hitting local councils, charities and mental health services have made thousands more people homeless even than a year ago.

All of which means I’ve stayed in the Labour Party despite everything which the BBC, especially their snide, irresponsible Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, has done undemocratically to belittle it and its leader. And I would start calling the Tories ‘bogg-trotters’ as well as ‘Abhorrers’ and ‘thieves and robbers’ if it weren’t offensive to our free Irish neighbours.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Birthday Bash for Britain's Best Bard

Tony Harrison, who likes alliteration even if you don't, is 80 today.  He is far and away Britain’s most important living poet. 

I spent Thursday-Friday  at the British Academy, convening a celebration of his work, which caught the attention of the Guardian. His committed, radical voice, which swerves between joyous mischief-making and snarling despair at human cruelty, has reached far beyond the inward-looking Poetry Establishment. His life has affected yours whether you know it or not.

Harrison Fan Andy Burnham
Over these two days, Lee Hall said that he could not have made Billy Elliot without Harrison’s example.  Simon Armitage said that his own approach to poetry and the possibility of fusing literary sophistication with everyday experience were direct results of his youthful encounters with Harrison’s work. Andy Burnham said that he would never have gone into politics if he hadn’t read Harrison as an undergraduate.


The Story Harrison's Artistic  Example Underlies
Blake Morrison beautifully dissected Tony’s revolutionising of the English sonnet. Jo Balmer showed how he has transformed approaches to translation from classical languages globally. Peter Symes illustrated how he had pushed the boundaries of what is possible artistically on TV further than any other person.

Sian Thomas in Harrison's Fram
Theatre superstars Vanessa Redgrave, Jasper Britton, Sian Thomas and Barrie Rutter performed his verse with gusto and affection.  Sirs Melvyn Bragg and Richard Eyre acknowledged their long and sometimes tricky relationships with the uncompromisingly socialist Bard from Leeds. A superior class of  gatecrasher turned up in the charismatic form of Sir Tom Stoppard, who also joined our delicious feast, laid on for Tony by my admirable colleagues in the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.

I was already walking on air when we gathered at the British Academy on Thursday, after listening to Tony’s latest play, Iphigenia in Crimea, directed by conference guest Emma Harding, and a documentary about his work. They were both broadcast on BBC last Sunday and are still available

Having him with us throughout the entire event was a surprise pleasure. A selection of his prose works, which I’ve edited (and supplied a Foreword of which you can read a version of here) is published this week. He'll be discussing it with me at a ticketed do on 24th May at Faber's London HQ.

Kicking Off Events on Thursday
Tony's spending his birthday today, Sunday 30th, doing what he does better than anyone—a public reading of some dazzling new poems at Salts Mills in West Yorkshire. He's found a  new generation of fans amongst the young (a conspicuous proportion of the attendees were in their twenties); he's Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite poet. His theatre works have begun to enjoy a major revival, beginning with the brilliant staging of Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Jimmy Walters’ Proud Haddock theatre company in January.  

χρόνια πολλά!
I'm sure the cosmic satyrs of the celestial spheres will join us all in singing Happy Birthday Tony! Please Continue Inspiring Us  χαρούμενα γενέθλια!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sacramental Eggs Ancient & Modern

Baby Helen Says Hello
I have been amused by the painfully Little-Englander-middle-class spat between Anglicans, Cadbury and the National Trust over the secularisation of egg hunts. What is needed to reclaim the egg for longue-durée Human Studies is clearly a brief homily on Ovates in Classical Greek Art. 

Leda perturbed by finding a gigantic egg on the temple altar
  This means, if we move swiftly on from the masculinist Cosmic Egg of the Orphic mystery cult, from which hatched the primordial male Ur-being Phanes, that we need to talk about Helen.

"I'll smash it with my mallet and pour the contents into your bucket"
Helen was hatched from an egg laid by either Nemesis or Leda, depending on which ancient author you are reading. Nemesis was an important goddess worshipped in the well-preserved seaside town of Rhamnous, 45 km north-east of Athens. Zeus was believed to have impregnated her there in the form of a swan or goose while she was asleep; none too happy with the product of this rape, she dumped the egg on Leda, who incubated it and became Helen’s adoptive mother.

The Dioscuri, Literal Egg-Heads
Nemesis' Egg at Disgraced Theme Park
Nemesis’ Sub-Terra egg, a capsule in which terrified passengers were dropped into a dystopic abyss, was until recently to be avoided at the theme-park Alton Towers. But the other version of Helen's story is now better known. In this, the biological mother of Helen, the Dioscuri, and sometimes Clytemnestra, was Leda. One smartass Greek poet, Lycophron, claimed that the Dioscuri’s dome-shaped hats memorialised their antenatal egg-shell, split in two. Note the baby with half an egg-shell on his head in the Bachiacca painting below.

Lady Gaga hatching at the Grammys
The tradition of Helen’s egg had a spectacular potential, as Lady Gaga knows well. This made it a popular theme on the ancient Greek stage. Vases show Leda’s stupefaction at the gift Nemesis has deposited for her; others comically depict various spectators puzzling over the egg’s contents, wondering whether to smash the eggshell with a mallet, or watching Helen actually emerge.
Terracotta  Egg (όν)  

Alternatively, Greeks could buy a painted egg, made from pottery, perhaps showing Paris and Helen in a chariot, in an allusion to Helen’s birth. Some terracotta eggs were made, like prototypical Kinder-eggs, with a sweet little baby girl crouching inside. 

Instead of which, in my teen-dominated household at least, the confectionery of choice this year is an entire E-Number sty-full of alliterative pigs and piglets. I think I’ll be sticking to roast lamb.

Bachiacca's Leda & Swan have FIVE egg-babies

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Classical Comedy, Cannibalism & Commentary on BBC Radio

Lucian's ship ascends to the Moon
I spent most of the last 8 days at Broadcasting House. First, live recording 2 episodes of Natalie Haynes’ Stands up for the Classics. This dazzling classicist and comedienne interviewed me on the topics of Sappho and Lucian, the second funniest ancient Greek author after Aristophanes. 

Matthew Sweet and I argued about the varieties of vegetable attached to the bodies of the extra-planetary beings whom Lucian met when he visited the moon in his ironically titled sci-fi novella True History—hominids with cabbages attached to their behinds and others with lettuce wings.

Thyestes, who eats his own sons unwittingly
The food theme continued with a bizarre invitation from the World Service’s award-winning Food Chain programme to discuss mythological cannibalism, or anthropophagy (human-flesh-eating). In 'revenge anthropophagy', an aggrieved individual makes his enemy unwittingly eat his own child: in Seneca’s Thyestes there is a disturbing ‘recipe’ for this, followed by Atreus, when he joints, roasts and casseroles his cuckolding brother Thyestes’ infants. You can download the programme here.

Erysichthon, Autophage
There are also battlefield threats to sink one’s teeth into the flesh of a combatant—Achilles makes this threat to Hector (Iliad 22.347).  One hero, Erysichthon, is punished for sacrilege by hunger so relentless that he consumes himself (autophagy).

Most foul is the devouring of babies at birth, as Cronos feasts on his newborn sons, through terror of being toppled by the upcoming younger generation. But psychoanalysts say this reflects the breastfeeding post-partum infant’s confusion of bodily orifices, parental flesh and alimentary processes.

'I usually prefer Fromage Frais'
Polyphemus, no baby but an outsize hominid, usually sticks to dairy products but happily devours several of Odysseus’ crew. Perhaps he constitutes a folk memory of Palaeolithic humans whose struggle for survival was so desperate that any old flesh, dinosaur or human, tasted as good as any other.

At New Broadcasting House with Daughter
Fresh from these gruesome tales, yesterday I took up my 6-monthly role as commentator on the World Service’s Weekend programme, presented by Julian Worricker. The (in my view) crass and illegal US airstrike on Syria dominated, but we got to discuss the Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, Gibraltar, sustainable food policy (to continue the week's main theme) and masochistic Scottish cyclists as well. I have talked myself out and am trying not to speak for the remaining Easter holiday. What are the odds on my succeeding?

Friday, 31 March 2017

Adventures in Classical Theatreland

One of the best things about my job is involvement  in exciting productions of classics-related plays. Right now I’m getting down and dirty with three creative teams. They’re doing a Greek tragic trilogy, a comedy based on the Roman plays of Plautus, and an English tragedy based on part of Virgil’s Aeneid respectively.

50 Terrified Egyptian Suppliant Maidens
The Actors’ Touring Company’s Suppliants of Aeschylus was a runaway hit at Edinburgh Festival last year, with a chorus of local citizens, and is currently playing in Manchester. Last Saturday I got stars in my eyes when I was invited at five minutes’ notice to perform the opening libation to the theatre-god Dionysus, and am now expecting an Oscar nomination.  

ATC are bringing the production to London, and are expanding it by adding new material to reconstruct the other three plays with which it was performed in its original group. So I’m thrilled to be helping them with the fragments and other evidence. It will open at the Young Vic on November 13th so get it in your diaries!

Fun with Plautus at the RSC
Meanwhile, I met the hilarious cast of Vice Versa, a new comedy by Phil Porter based on Plautus’ Braggart Soldier, opening in Stratford next month. The delights include a talking monkey, fake twin prostitutes, an exceptionally clever slave and lots of updating. Since the obscenity is confined to Latin swear-words I provided being muttered in asides, it is a perfect introduction to Roman ribaldry for all the family.

As one of those weird people who prefer Marlowe to Shakespeare, I couldn’t be happier than to be made official consultant on Dido, Queen of Carthage, directed for the RSC by the innovative Kimberley Sykes.  Opening on 15th September, this promises to be an unsettling, noir-ish experience complete with Carthaginian iconography.


With Tony Harrison, Jane Harrison & Sian Thomas
 in the Greek theatre at Sebastopol
And to take the biscuit, Tony Harrison’s long-awaited Iphigenia in Crimea, with which I’ve been involved from its inception, is at last to be broadcast by BBC Radio on April 23rd.  There is a Greek proverb ‘The Greeks Are Everywhere’. They—and the ancient Romans, Egyptians, Carthaginians and Crimean Taurians—are certainly going to be unavoidable this year in British theatreland.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Rejoinder to a Self-Appointed Policeman of Privilege

Strapline: LATIN FOR IDIOTS
This week saw the publication in the Spectator of a splenetic piece of propaganda by one James Delingpole, who makes his living from peddling archly controversial far-right views on climate change and immigration. This time he dilates, with mind-blowing ignorance, on the topic of classical education. The single most serious problem affecting British education, apparently, and one which the Spectator believes it is worth giving airspace to someone of Delingpole’s lousy journalism skills to discuss, is that there are TOO MANY STATE-EDUCATED UNDERGRADUATES READING CLASSICS AT OXFORD.*

I quote: ‘Take, for example, the right-on enthusiasm for recruiting Greats candidates from schools that don’t do Latin or Greek. The theory goes that by the fourth year, these eager state-school kids will have attained the same proficiency as private-school ones who have been hothoused on classics since they were eight or nine. But I gather that only the Oxbridge classics tutors who have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid actually believe this has worked in practice. The rest are worried about declining long-term standards and are also a bit frustrated: if you’re an Oxbridge classics don, you want to teach Oxbridge–level classics — not catch-up for beginners.’
Is this the best Classical Edification  can offer the 21st Century?


As an ex-Oxford Classics don (1995-2001), I can confirm that the last sentence was, at least then, sadly, true. Amongst my former colleagues were too many who took applicants from the private sector in numbers wholly disproportionate to their status as only 7% of the school-leaver population. 

Things have certainly changed for the better since 2001. But this matters little if state-educated people think that Classics remains a snobbish subject, and are too scared to apply to Oxford anyway. This is hardly surprising when Oxford produces arrogant alumni with ropey cognitive skills like Delingpole, who boasts, ‘it really did shape my intellect in a way for which I’ll be eternally grateful.’ Enough said.

But Delingpole’s premise that a life-transforming Higher Education in Classics is only possible after training, from primary school, in Latin and Greek languages, is daft. Not only can people learn Latin and Greek to a dazzling standard fast, but the most precious aspects of the Greeks' and Romans' culture can be learned without any ancient language at all.

They had some bad ideas, including the inevitability of slavery and the inferiority of women. But they also conceived superb ideas, including democracy, freedom of speech, accountability of officials, the social contract, trial by jury, tolerance of a wide range of sexual relationships, rational science, philosophical logic, world-citizenship, cultural relativism, training in public speaking, and the profound responsibility of the makers of art and entertainment to society.

Jefferson
The failure to include classical subjects taught in translation—Classical Civilisation or Ancient history—in every secondary educational institution therefore deprives our future citizens of access to educational treasures which not only enthral, but fulfil what Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) was the true goal of education in a democracy—to enable us to defend our liberty. The past, he argued, is the subject which makes citizens so equipped. 

To stay free requires also comparison of constitutions, utopian reflection, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned via English translations of the succinct, entertaining, original works produced by the lively minds of the authors of the classical past.


Delingpole has needlessly insulted every individual who has ever studied the ancient Mediterranean world wholly or even partially in translation—the thousands who take CC/AH qualifications in state schools, the majority of classics undergraduates in other British universities, not to mention adult learners, autodidacts, and everyone who has ever read a Penguin Classic. He has done so with puerile, ill-informed, oligarchic hauteur. If this has made you as cross as it did me, then please read this article in the Guardian and join my new campaign, ACE, to get classical subjects into every state school in the land. Now I’m off to the People’s History Museum in Manchester to research workers’ campaigns for access to Higher Education.

*I did have a photograph of Delingpole in bathing shorts here but have taken it down after someone quite rightly pointed out that I was stooping to 'body shaming'. I agree and apologise for any offence caused.