Sunday 30 April 2017

Birthday Bash for Britain's Best Bard

Tony Harrison, who likes alliteration even if you don't, is 80 today.  He is far and away Britain’s most important living poet. 

I spent Thursday-Friday  at the British Academy, convening a celebration of his work, which caught the attention of the Guardian. His committed, radical voice, which swerves between joyous mischief-making and snarling despair at human cruelty, has reached far beyond the inward-looking Poetry Establishment. His life has affected yours whether you know it or not.

Harrison Fan Andy Burnham
Over these two days, Lee Hall said that he could not have made Billy Elliot without Harrison’s example.  Simon Armitage said that his own approach to poetry and the possibility of fusing literary sophistication with everyday experience were direct results of his youthful encounters with Harrison’s work. Andy Burnham said that he would never have gone into politics if he hadn’t read Harrison as an undergraduate.

The Story Harrison's Artistic  Example Underlies
Blake Morrison beautifully dissected Tony’s revolutionising of the English sonnet. Jo Balmer showed how he has transformed approaches to translation from classical languages globally. Peter Symes illustrated how he had pushed the boundaries of what is possible artistically on TV further than any other person.

Sian Thomas in Harrison's Fram
Theatre superstars Vanessa Redgrave, Jasper Britton, Sian Thomas and Barrie Rutter performed his verse with gusto and affection.  Sirs Melvyn Bragg and Richard Eyre acknowledged their long and sometimes tricky relationships with the uncompromisingly socialist Bard from Leeds. A superior class of  gatecrasher turned up in the charismatic form of Sir Tom Stoppard, who also joined our delicious feast, laid on for Tony by my admirable colleagues in the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.

I was already walking on air when we gathered at the British Academy on Thursday, after listening to Tony’s latest play, Iphigenia in Crimea, directed by conference guest Emma Harding, and a documentary about his work. They were both broadcast on BBC last Sunday and are still available

Having him with us throughout the entire event was a surprise pleasure. A selection of his prose works, which I’ve edited (and supplied a Foreword of which you can read a version of here) is published this week. He'll be discussing it with me at a ticketed do on 24th May at Faber's London HQ.

Kicking Off Events on Thursday
Tony's spending his birthday today, Sunday 30th, doing what he does better than anyone—a public reading of some dazzling new poems at Salts Mills in West Yorkshire. He's found a  new generation of fans amongst the young (a conspicuous proportion of the attendees were in their twenties); he's Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite poet. His theatre works have begun to enjoy a major revival, beginning with the brilliant staging of Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Jimmy Walters’ Proud Haddock theatre company in January.  

χρόνια πολλά!
I'm sure the cosmic satyrs of the celestial spheres will join us all in singing Happy Birthday Tony! Please Continue Inspiring Us  χαρούμενα γενέθλια!

Saturday 15 April 2017

Sacramental Eggs Ancient & Modern

Baby Helen Says Hello
I have been amused by the painfully Little-Englander-middle-class spat between Anglicans, Cadbury and the National Trust over the secularisation of egg hunts. What is needed to reclaim the egg for longue-durée Human Studies is clearly a brief homily on Ovates in Classical Greek Art. 

Leda perturbed by finding a gigantic egg on the temple altar
  This means, if we move swiftly on from the masculinist Cosmic Egg of the Orphic mystery cult, from which hatched the primordial male Ur-being Phanes, that we need to talk about Helen.

"I'll smash it with my mallet and pour the contents into your bucket"
Helen was hatched from an egg laid by either Nemesis or Leda, depending on which ancient author you are reading. Nemesis was an important goddess worshipped in the well-preserved seaside town of Rhamnous, 45 km north-east of Athens. Zeus was believed to have impregnated her there in the form of a swan or goose while she was asleep; none too happy with the product of this rape, she dumped the egg on Leda, who incubated it and became Helen’s adoptive mother.

The Dioscuri, Literal Egg-Heads
Nemesis' Egg at Disgraced Theme Park
Nemesis’ Sub-Terra egg, a capsule in which terrified passengers were dropped into a dystopic abyss, was until recently to be avoided at the theme-park Alton Towers. But the other version of Helen's story is now better known. In this, the biological mother of Helen, the Dioscuri, and sometimes Clytemnestra, was Leda. One smartass Greek poet, Lycophron, claimed that the Dioscuri’s dome-shaped hats memorialised their antenatal egg-shell, split in two. Note the baby with half an egg-shell on his head in the Bachiacca painting below.

Lady Gaga hatching at the Grammys
The tradition of Helen’s egg had a spectacular potential, as Lady Gaga knows well. This made it a popular theme on the ancient Greek stage. Vases show Leda’s stupefaction at the gift Nemesis has deposited for her; others comically depict various spectators puzzling over the egg’s contents, wondering whether to smash the eggshell with a mallet, or watching Helen actually emerge.
Terracotta  Egg (όν)  

Alternatively, Greeks could buy a painted egg, made from pottery, perhaps showing Paris and Helen in a chariot, in an allusion to Helen’s birth. Some terracotta eggs were made, like prototypical Kinder-eggs, with a sweet little baby girl crouching inside. 

Instead of which, in my teen-dominated household at least, the confectionery of choice this year is an entire E-Number sty-full of alliterative pigs and piglets. I think I’ll be sticking to roast lamb.

Bachiacca's Leda & Swan have FIVE egg-babies

Sunday 9 April 2017

Classical Comedy, Cannibalism & Commentary on BBC Radio

Lucian's ship ascends to the Moon
I spent most of the last 8 days at Broadcasting House. First, live recording 2 episodes of Natalie Haynes’ Stands up for the Classics. This dazzling classicist and comedienne interviewed me on the topics of Sappho and Lucian, the second funniest ancient Greek author after Aristophanes. 

Matthew Sweet and I argued about the varieties of vegetable attached to the bodies of the extra-planetary beings whom Lucian met when he visited the moon in his ironically titled sci-fi novella True History—hominids with cabbages attached to their behinds and others with lettuce wings.

Thyestes, who eats his own sons unwittingly
The food theme continued with a bizarre invitation from the World Service’s award-winning Food Chain programme to discuss mythological cannibalism, or anthropophagy (human-flesh-eating). In 'revenge anthropophagy', an aggrieved individual makes his enemy unwittingly eat his own child: in Seneca’s Thyestes there is a disturbing ‘recipe’ for this, followed by Atreus, when he joints, roasts and casseroles his cuckolding brother Thyestes’ infants. You can download the programme here.

Erysichthon, Autophage
There are also battlefield threats to sink one’s teeth into the flesh of a combatant—Achilles makes this threat to Hector (Iliad 22.347).  One hero, Erysichthon, is punished for sacrilege by hunger so relentless that he consumes himself (autophagy).

Most foul is the devouring of babies at birth, as Cronos feasts on his newborn sons, through terror of being toppled by the upcoming younger generation. But psychoanalysts say this reflects the breastfeeding post-partum infant’s confusion of bodily orifices, parental flesh and alimentary processes.

'I usually prefer Fromage Frais'
Polyphemus, no baby but an outsize hominid, usually sticks to dairy products but happily devours several of Odysseus’ crew. Perhaps he constitutes a folk memory of Palaeolithic humans whose struggle for survival was so desperate that any old flesh, dinosaur or human, tasted as good as any other.

At New Broadcasting House with Daughter
Fresh from these gruesome tales, yesterday I took up my 6-monthly role as commentator on the World Service’s Weekend programme, presented by Julian Worricker. The (in my view) crass and illegal US airstrike on Syria dominated, but we got to discuss the Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, Gibraltar, sustainable food policy (to continue the week's main theme) and masochistic Scottish cyclists as well. I have talked myself out and am trying not to speak for the remaining Easter holiday. What are the odds on my succeeding?