Saturday 27 July 2013

Rich New Parents & Theophrastus' Tactless Man

Dickie Arbiter, 'Expert on Royalty'

Having been there, I can get as teary-eyed over a young couple with their first baby as anyone else. There are several such new babies in my close circle. But also having been very slightly there, although always with the complacent bourgeois knowledge that it was only temporary, I can get as teary-eyed as anyone else over young people with absolutely no money whatsoever.

A bargain at £16,470 p.a.
The problem this week has been with the unbelievable insensitivity of well-paid morons pontificating on the television and radio about what they assume to be a ‘normal’ income. The very worst was the royal brown-noser, Dickie Arbiter (yes, that really is his name), telling us on BBC Radio News that ‘anyone’ could go to the pre-prep school called Wetherby’s in Notting Hill Gate which the current second-in-line to the throne attended (the fees are an eye-watering £16,470 a year for each boy).

An 'Ordinary British Family House'? 
The second worst was the insistence that Prince William just loves ‘the ordinary lifestyle’ of his in-laws. If it is true that he believes that being a millionaire living in a Bedfordshire country home with 12 bathrooms (let alone bedrooms), costing vastly over 2 million pounds, is ‘ordinary’, then we have a problem with the interplay between reality and the cognitive powers of Our Future Leader.

The other insults to the poor were just commonplace: ‘Astounding! The new mother’s parents TOOK AN ORDINARY TAXI!!’ (which in central London  few people can afford). I don’t want to go on.

In the season which has seen such drastic cuts in Benefits, such media smugness, the ‘let-them-eat-cake’ idiocies of our time, have made it a raw week psychologically for too many people in Britain. My personal response has been finally to fulfil promise-to-self to become a fully paid-up supporter of the Child Poverty Action Group. But my response as an academic was to re-read ‘The Tactless Man’ amongst the generic personality portraits, or Characters, of Theophrastus.

Theophrastus, incisive psychologist
The definition of an ancient Greek Tactless Man, says the dazzling Theophrastus, is that he reminds everyone, while in the presence of a slave being flogged, of a case in which a slave who had been similarly abused went off and committed suicide. It would have been nice to think that we had become a little less insensitive to people born into bad socio-economic circumstances since the fourth to third  centuries BC.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Head Wounds, Hippocratics and the NHS

Abdera General Hospital, 700 BC

I celebrated TWO PhD students getting through their vivas by twisting my ankle and applying my head to the pavement outside King’s College London on the Strand.  Twenty hours in University College Hospital with severe concussion and a bloody eyebrow left me mystified by modern medicine.  After 'only' five hours’ wait in Casualty a kind doctor made sure I had a bed on a ward and told people in shades of aquamarine to give me various medicines, victuals and tests, most of which NEVER transpired. At one point a nice man turned up with a wheelchair to take me to Ophthalmology, but said He Didn’t Know Where the Clinic Was and Could I Show Him. Since I had an eye bandage but no contact lenses, I was unable to oblige.
Concussion is strange. On Thursday I felt happy and thought God was calling me. On Friday I wondered whether the blow to my right frontal lobe might have had an unexpected therapeutic effect on my morale. And this morning I suddenly figured out the solution to a brain problem that has been besetting me for weeks.
I have drafted a 'public-facing' book called The Ancient Greeks 1600 BC to 400 AD, but the Philosophy chapter has been criticised by one of the editors for being too ‘abstract.’  Modern readers, apparently, can’t cope with questions like ‘is the world of ideas in our minds prior to the material world we can perceive?’ or ‘what is the difference between holding an opinion about something and knowing it for a fact?’ Until this morning I have been at a loss how to dumb down the Greeks for the contemporary reader, but the blow to my head seems to have clarified everything. I rewrote the chapter in two hours, and without ever using the words ontology and epistemology!
Location of Abdera in Thrace
The process reminded me that a woman with a head injury has recently changed the history of ancient medicine, itself a factor in the invention of science and philosophy. Advanced head surgery was performed on the thirty-year-old’s injured cranium at Abdera in northern Greece—the city that gave the world the brilliant thinkers Democritus and Protagoras--by the middle of the 7th century BC.  
The remains of this patient show that complicated surgical procedure on bones of the skull, including trepanation (the removal of a disc of bone to allow the extraction of damaging bone splinters) was already in use before the first philosophers and more than two centuries before the sophisticated treatise On Head Wounds, attributed to the physician Hippocrates, was written in around 400. The intellectual approach of the Hippocratic treatises, and their concern with inference, evidence, cause and effect, without recourse to supernatural causes, was one of the godparents of the Greek ‘miracle’.
Abdera Excavations
But as I think about that woman’s cranium I can’t help wondering about her treatment. Did she ever get her painkillers and water, her ancient equivalents of antibiotics and tetanus, or have her vital signs observed? Could her porter find the way to Ophthalmology?  We must assume so, since she lived for another twenty years. I am going to be fine, but my ‘disappearance’ in the hospital bureaucracy means that this is more by good luck than good management. It is a sad day when I would rather be treated in Abdera General Hospital in the late archaic age than in the British National Health Service of the twenty-first century.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Malala, Antigone and the Match Girls

Joined-up Thinker

Even the ancient Greeks knew that teenage girls can sometimes be right. Although officially believing that all females (and males under 30) were incapable of rational thought, they loved the tragedian Sophocles for his Antigone. They cheered when his pubescent princess told her tyrannical uncle where he could stick his arbitrary violations of basic human rights. 

I was inevitably reminded of Antigone yesterday as I watched Malala Yousafzai, on her 16th birthday, deliver that poised speech to the UN in her perfect English. But I had been thinking of Antigone all week during the 125th anniversary of the striking London match girls at the Bryant & May factory in London in 1888. Many of them teenagers, and imported labour from Ireland, they achieved the first really successful industrial action in British labour history. 

Founding Mothers of Workers' Rights
The 1500 courageous strikers were protesting against risible pay, fourteen-hour days, a punitive fine system, and working with phosphorus, which led to bone cancer. The strike, sparked by the dismissal of one worker in early July, produced public outrage at their plight. This put their boss Wilberforce Bryant, who had extracted an enormous fortune from their labour, on the defensive. He had inherited the business in 1874, and massively increased its profit margins by cynical policies.  His father  had been a gentler businessman and a committed Quaker, but Wilberforce, a hard-nosed capitalist, kept his wealth to himself.

Stoke Park, bought with profits from the Match Girls' labour
Stoke Park near Slough had been on the market for years when Bryant purchased it shortly before the strike from its previous owner (a coal-mine owner). It was so expensive that few potential buyers existed anywhere.  With a landscape by Capability Brown, and neoclassical architecture by James Wyatt, Bryant’s lavish property was unctuously described in the Illustrated London News as  ‘“classic”, with Grecian colonnades… It stands out in the bright sun, dazzlingly white as the marble palaces of ancient Athens.’

Plutocrat Bryant of Bryant & May Matches
The match girls won. But the big money today remains in the hands of the few. Stoke Park is now an exclusive ‘Luxury Hotel, Spa, Golf and Country Club’, only to be joined by private membership: The Bryant & May brand still exists, owned by Swedish Match. The Bryant & May factory is today Bow Quarter, a pricey gated community of luxury apartments and penthouses inhabited by celebrities. 

Based on Sophocles' daughter?
But for me the question that remains unanswered is this: what exactly was Sophocles' parental ‘learning experience’, presumably taking place in his central Athenian home, at the hands of one of his daughters? 

Had she illicitly sneaked into the theatre, watched some patriarchal drama (perhaps his own Ajax, where the testosterone-ignited hero keeps yelling at his concubine to shut up) and told her dad that she objected to its sexism? I like to think so, anyway.