Sunday 18 March 2012

On Fig-Leaves and Victory

Amalgamated Society of Tailors, Belfast banner
The news that there will be no lost posts  in Classics at Royal Holloway arrived on my phone in Belfast on Friday, as I was looking at this brilliant banner. The wit of the tailors’ union in that city made me laugh out loud. If you are going to make a public statement of pride in your needlecraft, you could have chosen any famous garment in history—Joseph’s coloured coat or Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak.  

But what better than a discomfited sub-Cranachian Adam and Eve, set in a fine fabric of Irish green, trying as in Genesis 3.7 to sew fig-leaves together for an improvised loincloth? The underlying message of this image is not only funny but really quite subversive, especially for a civic community identified with fundamentalist bible-thumping. 

Welsh version in honour Merv the Swerv
Wit (not usually associated with the Left) can be a wonderful weapon in politics. This has been shown throughout the campaign not only by our speakers at the event on September 16 (Natalie Haynes and Tom Holland in particular) but by the extraordinary work of the University and College Union branch at Royal Holloway, as well as of SURHUL, the students’ Union.  

I am thinking particularly of the impromptu country walk and photo-shoot organised by the UCU the day of the November 2011 Council Meeting, and the Thoughts of Chairman Paul posted in Management Corridor during the occupation (e.g. when asked whether he thought he was worth his enormous salary, he showed how out of touch he was with the workload of his academic staff by responding, 'I work hard. I am sometimes here until 7.00 pm').

Early in the campaign a secret supporter, a former Principal of a college of London University, emailed me wise advice: once the management is on the retreat, you must make absolutely sure that you 'allow them a fig-leaf' to cover their embarrassment when it has become publicly obvious that their strategy was misjudged.  Otherwise they may turn REALLY nasty.

The metaphor of the fig-leaf as representing the transparently meretricious defence argument adopted by those who know they have no real case was used in English as early as the turbulent year of 1648, when the Presbyterian and anti-Parliamentarian minister William Jenkyn, a ‘sententious, elegant preacher’, excoriated an opponent for making ‘a meere Figg-leafe defence.’

RHUL Management have certainly needed a fig-leaf.  Their assault on Classics is  internationally known to have cost a lot of money, traumatised staff, wrecked internal relationships, and damaged this year’s  ‘Student Experience’ and possibly applications. It has also made it difficult for staff to conduct the research needed in time for the Research Excellence Framework assessment. It has lost the college a Classics Professor who has published a lot of books in the relevant REF years, along  with seven PhD students in ancient drama (almost the entire Research cluster in that field).

Acharnians in the 1880s
For several weeks now, the Management’s much-needed fig-leaf had been the remaining threat of a single possible redundancy in 2014.  But this week a new, shinier fig-leaf transpired in the form of the offer made to Dr Jari Pakkanen in Classics, our distinguished Greek archaeologist, who is to be Director of the Finnish Institute at Athens for two to four years and therefore have his salary paid temporarily by another body.  Layzell and Partners plc have applied this fig-leaf with almost indecent haste, even guaranteeing Jari his post when he returns.They have decided to attack as 'unprofitable' the college bookshop and nursery (yes, unbelievable, I know) instead.

But I would like to defend the humble fig-leaf. In Turkey they make their dolmades with fig-leaves rather than vine-leaves. Stuffed fig-leaf is one of the oldest ancient Greek recipes we possess, a dish called thrion (eggs, flour, honey and cheese baked in a wrapping of fig-leaf), mentioned in Aristophanes’ Acharnians in 425 BCE, a comedy celebrating the triumph of humane values over crazy aggressors and profiteers.  I am about to go and cook thrion for breakfast to celebrate our victory. Yum.

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