Sunday 27 November 2011


In an article published in today’s Observer the Royal Holloway spokesperson Helen Coleman repeats the tired old disparagements of the performance of the Classics Department at Royal Holloway that her office has been churning out for months. 

Never mind that most of the allegations have been shown to be based on false data. The really staggering point is that the people appointed to ‘manage’ the College think that it behoves them to slag off the College in the national press.

But who or what is ‘the College’? It surely consists of academics and students:   its 1985 charter states the objects of the College shall be ‘to promote for the public good education and scholarship’ and ‘to provide instruction leading to degrees of the university, to superintend postgraduate studies and to promote research’.  This certainly assumes that ‘the College’ must consist of the people engaged in education and research, which means teachers and students.

University leaders used to be distinguished academics who fought for, rather than against, their co-lecturers and students. They also used to have sufficient courage of their convictions and respect for the work done by their fellow scholars to speak to the public for themselves without employing ‘Directors of Communication’.

In ancient Greece, both tyrants and democratic city-states used heralds as their spokespersons.  A successful career as a herald required sacrificing to Hermes (the herald of Zeus), an extremely loud voice and ownership of a trumpet.  You could actually compete in the Panhellenic games in heraldry, where the sole criterion seems to be the number of decibels you could produce!

Tyrants used their heralds to deliver oppressive messages.  The herald Talthybius is ordered by the Greek elite to tell Andromache to hand over her baby son to be thrown from the walls of Troy.  A nauseatingly sycophantic Hermes is sent by Zeus to try to get Prometheus, being tortured on his rock, to submit to the supreme god’s dictatorship.

But no ancient Greek democracy would ever dream of hiring a herald to criticise its own work and achievements at the top of his voice to the rest of the world.

At the end of the fifth century BCE, Athens was enduring the reign of terror of the so-called Thirty Tyrants. The prominent democrats of Athens asked their spokesman, the herald Cleocritus, to address these opportunistic aristocrats. He said, ‘Fellow citizens, why are you keeping us out of Athens? Why do you seek our deaths? For we have never done you any harm. We have taken part alongside you in the most hallowed rituals and sacrifices, and in the finest festivals. We have been your co-dancers in choruses and co-students, as well as your co-soldiers. We have been in dangerous situations with you on both land and sea in defence of our mutual security and freedom.’ It would be good to see the Royal Holloway spokesperson sounding more like Cleocritus and a bit less like Hermes in Prometheus Bound.

Sunday 20 November 2011

On Tipping-Points

So I handed in a letter of resignation from Royal Holloway the day before yesterday, having finally signed a contract on Wednesday at King’s College London. 

King’s had approached me less than 24 hours after RHUL management dropped its crazy bombshell on the department of Classics & Philosophy way back on June 28th.  At some point between June and last week I reached the tipping-point which made it psychologically impossible to continue working at RHUL.

Was it the day when the management’s spokeswoman started denigrating our departmental research to a readership of thousands on Facebook? 

Was it October 5th, when my colleagues and I heard with astonishment the identity of the people who felt it was incumbent upon them to defend management’s proposals to our Councillors? 

Or was it the day when I was told there was no money at RHUL to provide me with a computer when mine packed up (actually, I have since much enjoyed using the postgraduate computer room!)

Tipping-points are fascinating. The metaphor comes from the scales, an important symbol for decision-making in Greek literature. When Zeus decides who should die in a battle, he weighs the souls of the warriors in counter-posed scale pans until one outweighs the other. 

In Aristophanes’ Frogs, the drama of Aeschylus is weighed against the drama of Euripides to decide which poet could save the Athenians from crisis. But it is when Dionysus reaches his own internal tipping-point—a gut reaction—that Aeschylus is actually chosen.

In another Aristophanic comedy, Clouds, the hero Strepsiades accepts all the rules of the university run by the conman of the education industry, a caricatured Socrates, who can teach you how to Get Rich Quick. Strepsiades accepts that Right is Wrong and that the goal of intellectual work is to get hold of your opponent's money, rather than to pursue truth and enlightenment. But Strepsiades does reach his own tipping-point and rediscovers his moral centre when his son argues that it is ethical to beat up your own ageing parents.

Some of my fantastic students and campaign workers staged a brilliant adaptation of Clouds as the sun went down over the south quadrangle on Friday.  

 It was written by David Bullen and directed by Helen Eastman. It attracted a huge impromptu audience. The young are fed up with being pushed around by baby boomers  who have bagged all the best jobs and houses and are now wrecking their universities.  

The comfortable generation should take care that their children don’t suddenly refuse to accept debt, poverty and unemployment as their inevitable lot. They just might reach a tipping-point.

Sunday 13 November 2011


I want to know what The Markets really are. I want to know because the news has been telling us how important The Markets are all week. Apparently, we need above all to entrust our livelihoods and governments to The Markets.

This raises an important question. Should humans really decide the shape and qualities of the world of the future with their brains or by responding mechanically to what The Markets tell them is required tomorrow?
In this momentous week we have seen the democratically elected leader of Greece replaced by an unelected individual of whom the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and The Markets approved. We know what the IMF and the ECB look like. But we do not have the slightest idea who or what The Markets actually are.

 We do know, however, that The Markets liked it when Lucas Papademos was sworn in as Prime Minister in Greece.  The Markets liked it when it became clear that Silvio Berlusconi  would have to resign and that he would probably be replaced by Mario Monti.

The Markets are now in power, and allowed to tell The Greeks and The Italians who should govern them. Now I don’t have a  problem with Papademos. He is clearly a sensible man as well as a banker. It is even more obvious that almost anybody would deserve greater respect as a leader than ‘Burlesquoni’. But I do not think that we have yet understood that there has been a terrifying takeover of the democratic system by a race of aliens about whom we know practically nothing.

Do Markets look, for example, a bit like Meerkats? Or are they actually Meerkats? Perhaps their name reflects a simple phonetic shift whereby ‘a’ and ‘e’ become inverted. Perhaps they are Meerkats who live in houses inside real markets with marble fish slabs and fruit baskets. Or perhaps they are new breed of Meerkats who live in stock exchanges and eat crazy graphs with squiggles on showing ten-year bond yields.

Either way, we need to know. The Meerkat/Markets clearly want to run the world, and have just picked on the two countries which gave us Classics because they have a nasty sense of humour.

Or is it that they have been listening to the Senior Management Team at Royal Holloway? 

The Markets, like Paul Layzell and his team, think that the future of universities should be dictated by supply and demand on a short-term basis. 

In Classics at Royal Holloway, we are now told that although there will be fewer redundancies and none until 2014, they might still happen if ‘The Market’ for undergraduate degrees in Classics shifts downward. We scholars can’t ever try to design long-term research or teaching policies, because The Markets might suddenly remove vital colleagues or fail to replace them altogether.
Hiring and firing academics depending solely on the current ‘Markets’ is a not a completely new idea. But it is one that has always been resisted in cultured communities. This is because it means that crucial decisions about the sort of intellectual environment people want to live in are taken not by humans but by the new race of power-crazed Markets who are trying to take over the world.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Nero in the East End

When the clocks have changed, darkness falls early, and Management still proposes to hold the threat of redundancy over the heads of four of my colleagues more or less indefinitely, it is time to go AWOL and treat myself to a little recreation. 

Last Thursday I went with an expert in French theatre to the matinee of Racine’s Britannicus at Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London. 

I have a rule, derived from experience, that nine out of ten visits to the theatre end in disappointment, and I am no great fan of the French Baroque Bard. But this was one of the best performances I have seen in the 21st century. The play, in a supple and eloquent new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, made complete, compelling sense.

The plot of Britannicus is incredibly simple. It stages the day in 55 AD when Nero finally killed his half-brother Britannicus off so he could secure his own hold on power. 

There is a complication to do with their competition for the lovely (and more importantly, virtuous) Junia; Racine’s demonstration of the way that power turns people on libidinally is wholly uncompromising. It reminded me forcibly of the one event I have ever attended in Parliament, a reception long ago where Cabinet ministers were encircled by rival assistants of both sexes, all dressed to kill, and trying to dominate the great men’s attention. You could literally smell the testosterone. 

But that is not my main point. The play is an ensemble piece which anatomises the way that the second tier of management behaves when a leader is not immoral but amoral. His aides and confidantes fight, sometimes to the death, for control over his psyche. They compete with each other in depravity, causing extensive collateral damage.

The sociopathic, heartless young Nero was played brilliantly by Matthew Needham—an excellent young actor we are bound to hear more of—and I found myself understanding that the problem with tyranny is not actually the tyrant. It is the relationship between the tyrant and his aides. Unless the tyrant takes the pragmatic, paranoid route and regularly purges his entire staff (Stalin), there will always be individuals trying to exercise power through gaining the monopoly of control over his psyche and emotions.

In this case it is Nero’s mother Agrippina, his tutor Burrhus, and Narcissus, the sinister, suave two-faced tutor of Nero’s half-brother Britannicus. Narcissus is the ultimate opportunist, a cynical man on the make (he is a freedman) who rises to near the top of the pile not because of any inherent abilities but because of the power vacuum just beneath—or beside—a great dictator. 

This production skilfully sustained the triangular power struggle that can only be fought through psychological pressure on an out-of-control and emotionally dysfunctional youth incapable of empathy. Sian Thomas, as Nero’s staggeringly self-obsessed mother, was frighteningly believable. I will long remember her purring voice telling Nero to come and sit beside her so she could get to work on ingratiating herself back into his favour. There was plenty of very dark humour.

Britannicus is a play which shows how ancient history could make exciting theatre in 1669, a year when the French King Louis XIV limited freedom of religion and had a Protestant named Roux de Marsilly, accused of plotting an attempt at regicide, publicly tortured in Paris. 

But its exploration of the way that tyrannical power inevitably breeds a secondary class of people with ambitions to wield power themselves will always be relevant. The production is still open for another two weeks. Go see it if you can. You will never see another Nero and Agrippina like it.