Saturday, 4 April 2015

A Pint of ‘Classics Heavy’ in Scotland

"Is that a plastic cup of Lager, Sir, or are You just pleased to see us?"

A research trip to ask how the Greeks and Romans have featured in Glasgow’s class struggles climaxed with a booking and fine from the Glasgow police. My esteemed colleague Henry Stead was apprehended in possession of an open container of alcohol, locally illegal since 1973. He had simply left the Citizens’ Theatre at the interval, to look for a cash machine, without putting down the small plastic cup containing his half of lager. I will always feel guilty because he was looking for cash with which to buy me a small plastic cup of wine.

Foulis' Demetrius-forst Greek book printed in Glasgow
But before the run-in with the Lanarkshire Law, we uncovered the inspirational role that classical culture has for centuries played in Glasgow, even when—or especially when—it has not been solely in the form of an elite curriculum. 

William Wilkie, the ‘Scottish Homer’ fluent in ancient Greek, composed a nine-book epic about Thebes while personally ploughing his few fields in order to plant potatoes. James Moor, Glasgow Professor of Greek in the mid-18th century, never got over his upbringing and preferred to live in humble quarters with a lower-class ‘wife’.  Robert Foulis, who set up a world-famous publishing house and transformed the quality of Greek printed texts, was the son of a maltman. Robert’s first career was as a barber. He only discovered his passion for classics in adulthood. There have been many such lower-class Glasgow scholars. 

Today, April 5, is the anniversary of the ‘Battle of Bonnymuir’, when in 1820 the West Scottish weavers’ insurrection against pay cuts was brutally put down by the military.  The weavers were well-known for their habit of self-education: take Robert Tannahill, the ‘Weaver Poet’ of Paisley,who
begged the Muse for a National Bard, and received one in the form of Robert Burns. The carpenters were equally well read and self-educated. They included the Paisley-born craftsman John Henning, world-famous for his various reconstructions of the Parthenon frieze.

We expect soon to establish the classical reading of some of the radical weavers’ ringleaders, who were hanged or deported soon after their 1820 revolt.  You will be able to read all about it on the beautiful Classics and Class website (designed by the esteemed colleague now known to the Glasgow police) which is exactly two years old this week.  Onwards and Upwards!

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