Friday 24 February 2012


Stuck for an hour at Twickenham railway station I studied the advertisements. The two largest both use classical imagery to promote companies which can turn you into a millionaire without manufacturing anything, doing anything useful, or contributing anything whatsoever to the human project/life on planet Earth. 

If you choose Schroder Investments Limited, you are invited to see yourself as hiring a Roman mercenary soldier who will excel in ‘defending your income’. But if you feel financially predatory rather than defensive, then you choose ‘ARTEMIS the PROFIT HUNTER’, aka Artemis Fund Managers Limited and Artemis Investment Management LLP.

In a dazzlingly offensive and cynical advertising campaign, which has won prizes for the agency which designed it (offputtingly called Libertine of Soho), ARTEMIS encourages the investor to see himself (and ‘he’ is emphatically male) as a neo-colonial white man stalking the globe. He is armed with guns and rifles and disgorges petrol fumes from old-fashioned aeroplanes, in blind pursuit of defenceless wildlife—‘profits’ portrayed as living but terrified birds and animals. 

The campaign pointedly puts two fingers up at ‘bleeding heart’ capitalists. It laughs at those who worry about the third world debt crisis or have sentimental greenish tendencies, such as criticising the use of non-sustainable fossil fuels or wanting to protect endangered species. 

This is not the sort of company which cares about being seen to be politically correct: enterprises in which it has invested include the Nigerian-dictatorship-supporters at Royal Dutch Shell, Wal-Mart (child labour in the Honduras and largest gun retailer in the USA), and GlaxoSmithKline (which sued the South African Government for trying to supply AIDS victims with affordable medicine). Not to mention Coca-Cola, against which US United Steelworkers filed a lawsuit as they have reason to think its franchised bottle plant in Colombia hires  paramilitaries to suppress union activities.
Yet ARTEMIS THE PROFIT HUNTER has managed to insinuate its unsavoury ideology into primary schools. Seven-year-olds are encouraged to enter a competition in which they draw or paint a cute, enterprising Profit Hunter about to slaughter a Profit--a small vulnerable zoological specimen which is obviously Asking For it. You can see the results at How very wholesome. There is clearly no more use for drawing Robin Hood about to steal from the rich to give to the poor, who was the sort of hero I was asked to admire and draw at the age of seven during my own childhood (admittedly in Nottingham).

I do have a warning for William Littlewood, legendary fund manager at ARTEMIS who previously made a 20m fortune when scarcely out of nappies at JUPITER Investments. At Bristol University he did not study Classics, but Economics, which explains why he so ignorantly risked incurring the disfavour of a mighty goddess when he named his company. 

The goddess Artemis protects the young, the weak, the defenceless, the female, wild animals, and the unsullied purity of the unploughed planet from predatory aggressors.  In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon she gets very angry because two imperial eagles kill a pregnant hare, and her wrath leads directly to the death of the human monarch, Agamemnon, symbolised by the eagles. He is murdered in a bath.

Other fates suffered by the villains who arrogantly rape the land and creatures protected by Artemis include being blinded, gored to death by wild boars, bitten by a scorpion, torn to pieces by your own dogs, and getting the plague. Littlewood may even be turned into a bear or (heaven forfend)  a girl, the fate that befell the Cretan Sipriotes when he tried to rape the Mistress of Wild Animals. CAVEAT VENATOR.

Sunday 19 February 2012

On Visions and Petitions

Opaque Oracles
Last Monday, Principal Paul Layzell published an article in The Guardian in which he lamented ‘the absence of a coherent government vision’ for Higher Education. If my reading of his bland prose is correct, he thinks that competition between universities is detrimental to the national good:  ‘we do best as a sector, with shared goals, rather than as individual institutions looking out for ourselves’. Layzell promises that he and his fellow Vice-Chancellors, given ‘a sense of direction, and leadership from government’, could ‘do so much more.’

The opacity of this pronouncement is worthy of the Delphic oracle.  The phrase ‘we could do so much more’ sends chilling tingles down my spine. It makes me feel like the sacrificial animal that was made to tremble before the Pythian priestess would mount the tripod and reveal Apollo’s opinion. So much more what? Even more assiduously turning our universities into ‘for-profit education providers’? Doing even more deals with shady corporations and hiring even more professional Managers to swell the overheads extracted from the labour of the people doing the teaching? Is Layzell asking for more emphatic governmental endorsement of commerce’s carpet-bagging of our intellectual heritage?

Perhaps my cynicism is unjustified. Another way to read Principal Layzell’s indistinct utterance, ringing out from his tripod in the oracular shrine concealed beneath Royal Holloway’s Senior Management Wing, is as evidence that he has undergone an extraordinary conversion. Perhaps he now has really seen that abandoning Higher Education to the free market amounts to cultural vandalism. 

Paul sees the light
If, like his namesake the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, Layzell has indeed seen an edifying vision and been suddenly converted, he might consider the alternative to trying to redirect towards the government, and away from managers including himself, the blame for the recent damage done to the collective morale at Royal Holloway. 

The alternative is this. Why doesn’t he use his prominent position to begin an e-petition which, if it receives 100,000 signatures, will make the proposal eligible to be debated in the House of Commons. He could propose, for example, that ‘Higher Education and University Research need to be planned and funded by the State’.  

I can even save him time finding the website: I am convinced that this proposal would attract more signatures than most of the e-petitions on Education listed there, which include making sports bras compulsory in schools. Although, come to think of it, I would much enjoy hearing that debate. I think we need to hear whether Nick Clegg could maintain a consistent position.

Saturday 11 February 2012

The Anglican, the Atheist, and the Local Councillor

As the proposed redundancies in Classics at Royal Holloway tumble almost daily towards the zero mark, thus underlining the total pointlessness of the wounds inflicted on Royal Holloway’s collective psyche over the last seven months, it's time to take stock and offer thanks. Three staunch defenders of the previously beleaguered department particularly deserve our thanks this week. 

The Right Revd. John Saxbee
Allies can appear suddenly in unexpected guises, and on Wednesday night it was the turn of the distinguished Anglican  John Saxbee, former Bishop of Lincoln and one of the 26 Lords Spiritual in the UK Upper House. Saxbee was the Principal Paul Layzell’s guest at Royal Holloway Formal Hall. One of a large group of Classics undergraduates in attendance, finalist Matthew Hyder, gave me this account of the dinner:

‘During the course of a truly brilliant speech the Bishop struck a blow for the Save Classics group whilst recounting a story of his school days. He was telling us how he had been put in the bottom class of his school (2D) and drew an interesting parallel. “2D Latin class was the lowest of the low, sort of how Royal Holloway would have been if they had gotten rid of Classics.” This was met with almost incredulous silence, then a very well deserved round of applause whilst the Principal looked like a man unsure how to react.’ 

Lane Fox with Oliver Stone shooting Alexander

Just to show that Classical culture transcends all religious and spiritual divides, on Thursday the avowed Atheist, horseman, gardener and ancient historian Robin Lane Fox braved the M25 from Oxford to deliver a dazzling performance as the college’s annual Dabis Lecturer, a custom founded over a century ago in memory of Thérèse Dabis, one of the first Classics teachers at Royal Holloway. 

Comparing the role of Pericles, leader of Athens, with that of a modern vice-chancellor, Lane Fox proposed that what would have made Pericles a great leader anywhere and any time, including Egham in 2011, was not his charisma, nor that he habitually wore his helmet in public, nor even that he prized intelligence and stickability in women. It was his understanding of the importance of long-term planning, intensive consultation of all the citizens, a rigorous annual public scrutiny of his own performance, and vision of a beautiful, free community to which everyone wanted to give allegiance because it prized selflessness and the life of the mind. Quite.

Hugh Meares
The third hero of the week is Runnymede Conservative Councillor Hugh Meares, who sits on the College Council. He has supported Classics’ case since last September, when he turned up at the event Celebrating Classics at the Friends Meeting House at Euston, and listened to our arguments. On October 5th, he bravely put the case for Periclean values to the College Council, and has been hugely instrumental ever since in the department’s defence. As a graduate in the History and Philosophy of Science, Meares understands why ancient wisdom matters. I just want heartfelt thanks to all three gentlemen--the Anglican, the Atheist and the Runnymede Councillor--down on the public record.

Saturday 4 February 2012

On Student Confusion

Famed Troubleshooter Ed Lester
So we now know that the Chief Executive of the Student Loans Company,  Ed Lester, has for two years avoided tax and National Insurance on his 6-figure salary by being paid through a private consultancy firm. The revelation has rubbed salt in the wounds of all the ordinary mortals who pay their taxes, and repay their student loans, through the British Inland Revenue’s Pay As You Earn system.

This latest crisis in the SLC follows the debacle which got the previous CEO Ralph Seymour-Jackson sacked. In 2009, 100,000 students arrived at university penniless, despite having logged one million unanswered phone calls to the company. Lester was brought in then as SLC trouble-shooter, and clearly thought he deserved tax-emption status as a reward. 

But every SLC’s student ‘customer’ I have talked to reports that dealing with the company on the telephone is as frustrating as ever.  You get stuck in a loop of ‘being transferred to another department’ and ‘just popped on hold’. This can go on for several hours before you put the phone down and reach for a gin or a gun. In fact, phoning the SLC feels like getting stuck on a nightmare circular roller coaster. 

The 'Blue Tornado' Suspended Looping Coaster
By coincidence, the acronym SLC also stands for Suspended Looping Coaster. I happen to know this because I have friends in Holland where the largest European SLC manufacturer (Vekoma) operates. Things which go up and down violently are particularly prized in that country because of the lack of hills on ordinary motorways.  

According to Vekoma’s marketing blurb, the holday park owner who purchases an SLC  can provide an experience identical  to that which Student Loans Company CEO Ed Lester offers the hapless would-be student who dares to make a telephone enquiry: 

‘Listen your guests screaming with excitement as they plunge towards the ground before being looped head over heels towards the sky. The new SLC offers more thrills for the investment. With the riders positioned underneath the track, it creates a greater feeling of height and offers an unobstructed view downwards. The Suspended Looping Coaster adds more variety with just that little extra’.

I have also this week received an email from the SLC inviting me, as a university employee involved with admissions, to spend £400 plus VAT to attend a seminar in March at the Hinckley Island Hotel in Leicestershire. Ed Lester, if the government has not made him into a Fall Guy before that, will address us on the topic of ‘the future shape of the SLC’. This raises the exciting possibility that he has been studying the fascinating shape of the other SLC and wants to introduce more screams of excitement, loops and downwards vistas into the Student Loan Acquisition Experience. 

Delegates Discuss Student Confusion
And to help the poor phone caller endlessly passed from extension to answering machine, ‘Derek Ross; Director of Operations, SLC, will explore what scope the SLC/HEI partnership has to resolve the risk of student confusion.’ 

Does anyone want to give me a loan so I can attend this important conference? If I am given exemption from tax and NI in perpetuity I am happy to do this for you.