Saturday 24 November 2012

What the Hecuba-Actress wasn't allowed to say to the Bishops

Manual for Women Bishops

Monday felt like a good day for the ancient history of women past their youth who exert societal influence. I was thrilled to be Chris Evans’ ‘Mystery Guest’ on BBC Radio 2, invited to explain the identity of the ’16 Vestal Virgins’ in Procol Harum’s classic song ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. I wish I'd had time to add that ‘procol harum’ is an approximate and mis-spelt (procul would be correct) Latin translation of the 1960s slogan FAR OUT

To inflame further my enthusiasm for ancient priestly women, I received advance copies of my labour-of-love Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris (OUP New York), a book-length harangue about the most important priestess--ever--of the girl-goddess Artemis/Diana.

Forget it, girls.
But on Tuesday, alas, uppity females aspiring to leadership got their usual come- uppance. The Church of England voted to exclude women from even diocese-level authority. This took me right back to my Anglican childhood when I was told I couldn’t sing in the church choir because, as a girl, my voice was ‘impure’. Tell that to ancient female choruses for Artemis.

Poster for Trojan Women currently at the Gate
The same evening I got even more depressed about the current state of women in civic and spiritual leadership, at a largely excellent adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women in London (the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill). Acidic, fresh, and animated, the (fine poet) Caroline Bird’s (wholly unpoetic) script made great arguments in support of teenage girls, psychotic females, and young mothers perinatally. But it collapsed completely in feminist terms when it came to Hecuba. She was dumbed down, lost all her authority, turned into a total snob and made insensitive to her daughter and daughter-in-law.

In the original, Euripidean Trojan Women, however, Hecuba offers THE SOLE ROLE IN  WORLD THEATRE UNTIL BRECHT (notwithstanding Ibsen) where a non-villainous female is given the psychological stature and eloquence equivalent to  e.g. Shakespeare’s Lear.  Full  stop. End of. Treat her with respect!

Hollywood blacklists Hecuba
I still have not recovered from Wolfgang Petersen’s bewildering decision to delete altogether the unforgettable Iliadic Hecuba from his Brad-Pitt-Fest Troy (2005): Peter O'Toole, as a mysteriously single King Priam, was left pathetically 'throne alone'. 

So when it comes to Hecuba’s other great literary manifestation, in Euripides’ darkest tragedy, as the magnificent, bereaved leader of Troy in its last hours and last rituals, please could young feminists be careful? Do we really want to take all the tragic heroism out of the only middle-aged woman that ancient Mediterranean literature ever took with any degree of seriousness?  I understand and sympathise with all young Amazons' need to Kill the Mother, but it was the Fathers, surely, who were and still are really responsible for destroying Troy?

Saturday 17 November 2012

Neighing and Democracy

Pleased as I am that the U.S presidential elections were won by a cool person who seems to respect women instead of an uncool one who doesn’t, it is becoming  difficult to take elections seriously. This week the UK experienced the pitiful fiasco of our first elections for the Kafkaesque new office of ‘Police Commissioner’, a poll which attracted less than 15 per cent of the vote and cost a staggering £100 million to administer.

Herodotus, election commentator
I have always felt that ‘democracy’ as currently defined is a collective hallucination. It is the label we give to constitutions which sign up to an inhumane economic system, while allowing most adults periodically to insert in a box a piece of paper which names one power-crazed person who won’t rock any boats in preference to another. The voter usually chooses after being ‘persuaded’ by a daft and expensive advertisement financed by some vested interest.

So this week I compensated myself for the state of the world by burying myself in the best account of an election in world literature, to be found in book 3 of the ‘Father of History’, the classical writer Herodotus. I have been enthralled by his vivid description of the procedure by which Darius I, a soldier and the son of a Persian civil servant, in 522 BC got himself ‘elected’ to the throne of the King of Kings. I now suggest we could imitate it to our collective advantage.

Rational Grounds for Voting Choice
After the scuffles surrounding the end of his lunatic predecessor's reign, Darius and several other Persian alpha males decided that the crown should go to the one whose horse neighed first the very next morning.  Darius decided to ‘fix’ the election and talk to his household groom. This slave realised that a bit of testosterone would do the trick, and made sure that a mare which Darius’ stallion fancied was tied up at the meeting-place. Sure enough, Darius’ horse neighed first in delight at her fragrance, and Darius ascended the throne.

Darius won because he possessed the same cocktail of qualifications for political power which still apply: cynical opportunism, willingness to use corrupt means to manipulate the election, access through personal wealth to the services of a low-status person with more brains than he possessed himself, and a crude understanding of the most animal sexual instincts (although Petraeus was admittedly never elected).
Darius I, consummate election rigger

If candidates for power were required to ride horses to elections, it would guarantee a turnout of more than fifteen per cent of the voters (I write as one whose family has suffered delays all week caused by cars queuing to enter the Cheltenham Races rather than Cheltenham Police Commissioner polling booths). Waiting to see which equine brayed first would be no less rational than the reasons why most people decide to vote one way or another.  If we stop pretending that we live in a society where the people (demos) really wield the sovereign power (kratos), we can at last feel free properly to enjoy neighing competitions again.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Why Bankers won't be scared of God's Oil Man

December Dining at Eton College

A full-time post is currently being advertised at Eton College for a Dining Room Assistant. The wages amount to £15,272 a year. The annual fees for this school are currently £32,067. I wonder what it feels like scraping the used plates of teenage boys whose education alone costs more than twice your annual income? 

As it happens, £15,000 is the threshold under which a family of four officially enters ‘severe poverty’ (i.e. must choose between ‘eating and heating’), now endured by 1.8 British children,  according to Save The Children UK.  

God's Etonian Oil Man, Justin Welby
Speaking of Eton, I would like to be able to keep an open mind about Justin Welby, the Etonian and former oil executive who is to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  Perhaps now he has completed his meteoric rise to the top of his second career ladder, he will (a) stop being daft about gay marriage and (b) acknowledge the imperative of supporting  the poor so emphatically stated in the New Testament, which, as a fervent Evangelist, he should be taking seriously.  Although I am myself a longstanding secularist, if not quite atheist, I can still have my breath taken away by the overwhelming insistence of the working-class hero of the gospels on the immorality of accumulating large wealth when other humans live in poverty. 

F. Bronnikov, 'Death of Lazarus' (1886)
One of my earliest memories, from Sunday School, is Luke’s story of Lazarus and the Rich Man ('Dives').  Destitute and hungry, his sores licked by dogs, Lazarus died at the door of Dives, ‘who was clothed in purple and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day’.  (I am sure people have historically also died of hunger near enough Eton College dining room). But  guess who won the moral victory and ended up in the Bosom of Abraham? It certainly wasn’t the rich one.

Christian capitalists have always had problems with Lazarus, along with Jesus of Nazareth’s exquisite comparison, also reported in the gospel of Luke, of the rich man’s chances of accessing heaven with those of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. I recently spoke to a Christian investment banker who suffers from a guilty conscience and pointed me to the Christian portfolio in STOXX Faith-based Indices which ‘offer investors access to companies that act in line with various religious values’.  When I looked them up I laughed for an hour. They  include such palpable corporate villains as HSBC, BP, NestlĂ©, Royal Dutch Shell and GlaxoSmithKline.

What worries me about Welby is that, despite a few routine displays of anti-greed rhetoric, he has already proved that he is not expected to rock the plutocratic  boat in any fundamental way by getting himself appointed to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. How convenient that an embodiment of piety in a funny hat is available to lend some cosmetic appearance of Integrity and Virtue to a national enquiry ostensibly investigating just how low bankers have recently sunk.  Before I give him the benefit of the doubt (and I would like to if only because his wife is a Classics teacher), I challenge him to identify lodgings anywhere near Eton, in the rich residential area of Windsor, cheap enough to allow him to work there on a Dining Room Assistant’s pay.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Plebeians versus November

The fourth of November means that we can try to forget that the rich and privately educated have taken over in the UK, and may be about to crown the plutocrat Mitt Romney in the USA. This is the day when the Romans officially opened the ‘Plebeian Games’. The Ludi Plebeii  ran every 4-17 November, and featured day after day of exciting races at the circus and drinking sessions. The games were then followed by three more days of entertaining markets.  

The primal gods the plebeians favoured at their festivals were Ceres, provider of bread, and Father Liber, the Dionysiac god of wine and liberty. An exemplary ‘Plebeian Games’ carousal constitutes the fifth act of Plautus’ Latin comedy Stichus, which was actually performed for a lower-class audience at the Plebeian Games in 200 BC.  Three slaves, who have got hold of a barrel of wine from Samos, hold competitions in drinking, dancing and kissing. 

'Let's Go to the Ludi Plebeii!'
The Plebeian Games were some of the oldest in the Roman calendar. One ancient scholar said that they were first established to celebrate the day when the plebeians won their liberty during the days of the early Republic. What’s not to like?

The focus on liberty at the Plebeian Games would surely make restoring them every November a better way of getting through this most depressing of months than enduring the Anglo-Saxon festivals currently on offer. In the USA, ‘Thanksgiving’ is dreaded by many Native Americans, who see it as a day to mourn rather than feel gratitude. In the UK, we annually become pyromaniacs on November 5, ‘Bonfire night’. What we are actually celebrating is less the failure of a plot to blow up the House of Lords than the execution by torture of several Roman Catholics.

Lest I seem to have become obsessed with things plebeian since Andrew Mitchell, the Tory politician, was accused of calling  police officers ‘plebs’, this will be my last statement about him until he next loses his temper. But this may be as soon as next Thursday, when he has been summoned to  give evidence to the parliamentary International Development Committee. The committee is curious about a financial grant Mitchell made in an odd hurry on the very last day he held the office of Secretary for International Development. The grant was made to the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, whose human rights record is sounding increasingly creaky. 

'Must I answer to someone who went to Comprehensive School?'
Two members of the committee Mitchell  faces are indisputably ‘plebeian’ (the Scottish MP Michael McCann and Richard Burden, Liverpudlian MP for Birmingham Northfield). If, on Thursday, Mitchell has been for ‘a large curry’ at the expensive Westminster Cinnamon Club, as he had before his altercation with the police, then we may be treated to a display of verbal fireworks, in the form of class-based insults. Meanwhile, roll out the barrel, and declare the 2012 Ludi Plebeii open!