Saturday 27 April 2013

Why Crassus could do Business in Bangladesh

Would YOU buy a second-hand factory from this man?
If Crassus, the shady ‘third man’ of the late Republic along with Pompey and Julius Caesar, were alive today, he would be trying to buy the Rana Plaza factory buildings in Savar, Bangladesh. He became the richest man in Rome not by crucifying Spartacus’ rebellious slave army, which was a one-off stunt, but by speculation in collapsing real estate. 

In ancient Rome, the shoddily erected trading and apartment blocks, insulae, often fell down. Crassus would turn up and make a rock-bottom offer for an insula as it teetered, its residents screaming. He only got his 500-strong private slave fire brigade to rescue the building if the offer was accepted. He would then refurbish the insula and sell it on for many times his outlay.
Rana Plaza building, not renovated

I became disenchanted with life as a trainee businesswoman when in the early 1980s I discovered the files relating to the deaths at work of several tugboat crewmen of Merseyside. My privileged childhood in a household where ‘work’ meant doing things with typewriters had protected me from any real sense that (even discounting the armed forces) most people--builders, miners, manicurists, dry cleaners, machine operatives, removal personnel--routinely face physical danger in the workplace. 

Wakefield Cathedral, being renovated
This does not apply to the middle classes. Bishops do not often fall out of pulpits. Few bankers pay so many checks into their offshore accounts that they get Repetitive Strain Injury. Barristers and Judges only occasionally asphyxiate when their wigs slip. University teachers’ throbbing egos threaten to make them mentally, rather than physically, sick. The most serious threat faced by the chattering classes in the media is bitchy tweets from envious rivals.

A clothing retailer selling clothes made in the Rana Plaza is Primark, behind which lurks the holding company of the Weston family. Their charitable foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, makes much-lauded and very visible grants to worthy causes including the UPKEEP OF THE FABRIC OF OLD CHURCHES in Britain.

Today, 28th April, is the annual International Workers’ Memorial Day. It will commemorate what the International Labour Organization says is the staggering SIX THOUSAND humans who die EVERY DAY across the world as a result of work-derived illness or injury. 

Don’t get me wrong. I do like old churches and would like them to stay
perpendicular. But surely the one day a year formally reserved for thinking about safety in the workplace would be an appropriate moment for the Garfield Weston Foundation to consider supporting a different kind of architectural renovation, just a little less visually obvious in Britain. Perhaps it could donate some money towards the UPKEEP OF THE FABRIC OF THE FACTORIES from which the Weston family’s vast wealth derives.

Saturday 20 April 2013

How Enoch Powell Got Vergil Wrong

Abusing the Aeneid  led to this

45 Years ago today, classical literature was put to its most shameful use in the history of British oratory, when Enoch Powell  MP quoted  lines from the Aeneid to incite racial hatred. At a Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, he emotively described the alleged plight of the white working-class in the face of immigration, and said that it was bound to end in violence: ‘like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.’

'So do you want a work permit or an Italian passport?'
If Powell had written this in an essay for me, I would have failed it and pointed out that it was no ‘Roman’ who said this, but the Greek Delphic Apollo, via his priestess at the equally Greek colony of Cumae, near Naples. She told Aeneas (no Roman, either), who was applying for an Italian work permit, ‘I see wars, horrid wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood’ (bella, horrida bella / et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’ (6.86-7).

Powell’s speech roused the more ignorant amongst the white British working class to anger against the proposed 1968 Race Relations Bill, which at last made it illegal to refuse housing or work to anyone on the ground of their ethnicity. He was heard by racists as legitimising their abuse of citizens with Indian or African ancestry, especially the Sikhs whom Powell’s speech singled out for criticism. There was an instant rise in race-hate crimes. He helped the Conservatives win the 1970 election.

'I think I will stare at my cornucopia rather than foam with blood today'
Powell was himself from an upwardly mobile family of petit-bourgeois aspirations only two generations out of the Welsh coal fields. He never got over the fact that he was frightfully good at Latin and Ancient Greek. After grammar school in Birmingham and a glittering student career, he had been appointed Professor of Greek in Sydney at the age of only 25. But he did not exactly help Classical scholars look like desirable members of the community.

And he got the Aeneid so wrong. Of course Aeneas was going to have a few spats with the prejudiced and xenophobic indigenous Italians, but he brought Trojan style and enterprise, accepted that his people needed to learn the indigenous language if they were to stay, and helped found the alliance of peoples which constituted the Roman Republic. If the sophisticated Trojans hadn’t come to Italy, it would have remained the narrow-minded provincial backwater they discovered there. Instead, they (along with the locals and immigrants from Greece who had already got there) helped create the economic miracle that was ancient Rome.

Powell’s lauded high IQ did not help him understand economics any better than he understood Vergil. He was not bright enough to understand the benefits that immigration has always brought to Britain. In a series of important research projects conducted at UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, it has been proved that an immigrant is 60 per cent less likely to claim benefits than a British national, and 58 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Immigrants are mostly young, strong, healthy, enterprising, and at work. They have children in British hospitals and the children go to school. But immigrants work and demonstrably pay in more to the economy than they take out. 

Powell himself made the British Tiber foam with some blood. His influence can be still be felt every time a black person is mugged. The image of Classics is still suffering from the ill-treatment of one of the world’s greatest poets by this deluded scholar-demagogue. He had never recovered his sanity after Indian Independence in 1947 forced him to realise that he couldn’t achieve his lunatic dream of becoming Viceroy of India. I still don’t know why anyone could ever have taken him seriously. But I am planning a trip to Birmingham today and a table near the hotel where Powell spoke, in an excellent restaurant specialising in Punjabi cuisine. I foresee a Tiber foaming with much lager.

Saturday 13 April 2013

A Marxoid on Thatcher and the Miners' Strike

Tony Benn and the Brilliant Mick McGahey

Until Thursday, when I was accused on BBC Radio of being a ‘Marxoid’, whatever that is, by a well-known conservative thinker,  I had no intention of commenting on the death of the Conservative P.M. of Britain 1979-90. I have actually always admired some of her personal characteristics. Her ballsy determination to join the ruling class was apparent when, as a teenager at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, she refused to go to Nottingham University, as she was advised, correctly perceiving that from outside Oxbridge she would be unlikely to rise in the Conservative Party.  

Because she needed Latin to matriculate at Oxford, she used some of her dad’s profits from his grocery  to hire a private tutor. Having discovered that one of the least competitive routes into Oxford for a female was Chemistry, she applied to Somerville College in that subject but still only made the reserve list.  It was because someone else withdrew that she joined the Public School boys by the Isis and fought her way into Parliament. All this took amazing shrewdness, research, guts, stamina, and self-belief.

If Thatcher had not been elected, someone else would have done the dirty work for the rich in the UK and declared war on the Trade Unions. The ways in which she has been vilified recently have been outrageously personal and gendered. By centring the entire discussion on ‘her’ legacy over the last few days, the media have successfully OBSCURED how their own collusion with the government during the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 really changed British political culture. The idea that humans have a right to a work, in safety, for a wage sufficient to support themselves and their dependents, an idea which since World War II had seemed as self-evident as the right to healthcare or schooling, disappeared once and for all from the national debate.

Many branches of the National Union of Mineworkers, including almost all those in Scotland led by the wonderful Mick McGahey, campaigned not to keep the mines open but for the principle that the miners were entitled, if the pits were closed, to another job. This has been entirely forgotten.

During the strike I was living in Oxford and just beginning my doctorate.  Because I was campaigning for the miners, who were universally denigrated in the mainstream media as dangerous thugs, I often manned the food collection point on Cornmarket which supplied the strikers at Maerdy Colliery in South Wales. Such was my moral cowardice that I kept ducking under the table when either of the two more Jurassic right-wing figures still running Classical Literature at Oxford walked past, which happened on at least a daily basis. But despite my cowardice, I am proud to say that Maerdy was the very last pit to give up and go back to work.

My strongest memory is the ‘spot the police infiltrator’ game which the miners and their student supporters played on the picket lines. The men who shouted most violently, the agents provocateurs, had hideous haircuts which the police costume and make-up department deemed suitable to working-class men from Wales and Yorkshire, waved lager cans, and yelled death threats in fake regional accents.

I could go on.  For me and many other privileged people of my age, the strike was an absolute revelation of the speed at which such principles as objective news reporting and civil liberties go out of the window when ruling class interests are really on the line. My own phone strangely stopped working whenever the flying pickets were due in my digs for lunch in Oxford en route to Nottinghamshire.

Margaret Thatcher’s corpse will pass my office at King’s College, London, on its way to her funeral next Wednesday.  Fortunately I will be away, lecturing in Leiden. It seems somehow appropriate that the topic is ‘Tragedy and War.’

Friday 5 April 2013

On Class, Classics, and Not Giving Up

It’s taken me years, but it’s happened. Last Wednesday, April 3 (the birthday of Tony Benn, socialist and President of the Greece Solidarity Campaign), my long-delayed  research project was finally launched. Classics and Class in Britain 1789-1939 has an extraordinary website, designed by the project’s Postdoctoral Researcher, Henry Stead. Take a look if you have time.

Happy Birthday/kala genethlia Adoni!
Over the next three years, Henry and I will visit dozens of archives to ask what people who were excluded from formal classical education, or put off by its elitist connotations, really thought about the ancient Greeks and Romans. By presenting their stories now, via our growing digital archive, we want to inspire more people to empower themselves with the joy and intellectual workout Mediterranean antiquity offers. The increasing cost of university education in Britain today has made it even more urgent to stop Classics yet again becoming an elitist subject.

Knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans’ cultures and languages was certainly used to draw lines of social exclusion in Victorian Britain, and it’s difficult to access these cultural ancestors in state schools today. Yet many heroic social reformers and revolutionaries have been inspired by classical figures and ideas—Abolitionists by Prometheus and Spartacus, Chartists by Cleisthenes, Malcolm X by Aesop, Karl Marx by Aeschylus, Democritus and Aristotle, Greenham Common women by Lysistrata. Classics just can’t be disentangled from class—even the words come from the same Latin noun.

Servius Tullius, inventor of 'class'?
A classis was a group of people ‘called out’ together (the verb is clamare) by shouting and trumpets--the men in a meeting or the ships in a fleet.  Servius Tullius, the sixth king of early Rome, ‘called out’ his people to the first census to find out what assets they possessed. The men in the top of his six classes -- the men with the most money and property -- were called the classici.  The Top Men were thus called ‘Classics’. By metaphorical extension the Top Authors could be called ‘Classic Authors’, scriptores classici, to distinguish them from 'inferior' or metaphorically ‘proletarian’ authors, scriptores proletarii. So the ‘superior’ corpus of Greek and Latin authors, read by ‘superior’ gentlemen, got called the ‘Classics’ in the early 18th century.

I failed to get funding four years ago for a more European-facing version of this project from the European Research Council, whose referees (distinguished classical scholars) could not understand its ‘relevance’ to anything in which they were interested. I failed first time round with the AHRC, the British funding council, because one of the referees alleged that my style of communication had ‘a streak of vulgarity’ (which might be thought to be useful in a project about social class); s/he gave the proposal a 4 when the two other reviewers both gave it the top mark of 6. I went through the complaints procedure, which took four upsetting months, even ending up with a brush-off from the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who said that the AHRC had 'followed their published procedures'.

But the AHRC, bless them, DID fund Classics & Class when I obstinately and with considerable vulgarity resubmitted the proposal last year. We want our archive of digital ‘Encounters’ between Classics & class consciousness—from any location or historical period, of any variety, reactionary or progressive--to be a collective achievement, and encourage everyone to help build up the collection. Just get in touch with Henry at King's College London Classics Department. Henry is a poet, whose PhD was on cockney versions of Catullus, so if you are lucky he will answer you in rhyming slang.