Monday 27 May 2019

Next-Generation Classicists in Prague & Warsaw Police Station

Peter and Prof Malika Hammou
In a week when two reports suggest that stress among academics is rising exponentially, I was impressed by young colleagues at conferences in eastern Europe. Faced with zero job security, overwork and low pay, the youngsters convening and giving papers at a Prague conference on performances of ancient drama revealed determination, political commitment and intellectual bravura. I was especially struck by two Aristophanes experts, Maddalena Giovanelli from Milan and my own PhD student, Peter Swallow, with whom I’m editing a book on what made/makes Aristophanes funny. Classics’ future will be bright in their hands.

In Prague I was fascinated by the Museum of Communism, which tells of the the 1968 and 1989 revolutions, but also a remarkably objective version of the 1948 election (when the Czechs voted in a Communist government) very different from the narrative of coercion and rigged ballots which western history books will tell you. I was also entranced by the National Marionette Theatre, where the Bohemian tradition of large puppets throws new light on Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. 

Don G.'s sinister puppet demandind his droit du seigneur 
Don Giovanni’s biting class politics—the arrogance of aristocrats and the emotional honesty of peasants—seem paradoxically more alive when enacted by jointed automata. But I was distressed by the failure in Magic Flute to cut or change the shameful racism of Monostatos’ song about being an ugly black man in love with a beautiful white woman. Although, mercifully, the puppet was presented as a red-and-orange devil (I have seen excruciating blackface tenors in this role in Austria), the words were unchanged. Unacceptable.

Sleuth and Classicist Dr Paulouskaya
The chief excitement in Poland, where I went to lecture on children’s versions of Plutarch in the secular education movement 1890-1938, was the recovery of my phone after losing it on the first night somewhere between the hotel bar and my bedroom. That famed Byelorussian sleuth Hanna Paulouskaya, whose day job is lecturing at Warsaw University, showed the amazing technological competence of the next generation of academics; she went on Google “Find My Device”.  

Difficult to describe in Polish?
And there, on my laptop screen, was my phone, flashing in its dying-battery throes (only 3% left!) a message that it was in a suburban police station. Since my own grasp of Polish consists of one sentence, "Please may I have a beer?", without Hanna’s help, the visit to the Komisariat Policji in Villanova would have been catastrophic.  I was terrified they would ask what the picture was on the screensaver, since it’s a socialist painting of ancient Greek builders rather than a pet or a beloved relative.

Hanna explained that I was a Professor. The benevolent police officer looked at me with genuine pity. What I will never know is what happened to my phone during the lost 24 hours when it moved several kilometres (it was Friday night--did it go clubbing?), nor what honest Warsavian bothered to hand it in. So, just in case such a person ever reads this blog, I have learned a second sentence in Polish: I am eternally grateful to you! Jestem ci wiecznie wdzięczny!

Saturday 4 May 2019

End of an Era? On researching Working-Class Classics 1981-2019

With Henry and the Red Gnome who has helped our work
This week, with steadfast and eloquent co-author Henry Stead, I finished a 200,000-word book that I think alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably. I’ve been gathering materials since 1981, when I was struggling to make sense of the chasm between the way I was being trained to study Classics at Oxford and my socialist views and self-education. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 and my contact with strikers from Maerdy Colliery (while I was writing a doctorate on Greek Tragedy!) made the (eventual) appearance of the book inevitable. For I discovered the extraordinary tradition of Miners’ Libraries in South Wales.
Economy Edition of Putarch

But there have been obstacles. Getting the research funded (despite it being inexpensive, entailing only Travelodges in provincial conurbations near workers’ archives) proved difficult. I suspect my interest in Labour History got me excluded from a couple of shortlists and powerful committees. But producing what as proud mother I believe is a staggeringly beautiful intellectual baby after a 38-year gestation is far more satisfying than any career advancement could possibly be.

A  People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain will be available completely free of charge on the Routledge Taylor Francis Open Access platform, as is only appropriate for a book about responses to educational exclusion, as well as in hardback with the banner of the Lanchester miners in Co. Durham proudly hosted on its cover. The Lanchester Review, edited by the resourceful David Lindsay, yesterday posted this longer blog where I summarise the research.

The discipline did function historically as the curriculum of the British elite. This problem is still with us, and I am campaigning for a solution with a related project co-led by Arlene Holmes-Henderson.  But the book reveals evidence for the diverse working-class experience of the classical world between the Bill of Rights 1689 and the outbreak of WWII: autobiographies, poetry, fiction, visual and material culture in museums, galleries and the civic environment, theatrical ephemera, records of Trade Union activities, self-education publications, mass-market inexpensive ‘classic’ series, archives relating to Poor, Free, Workers’, Adult and Dissenting educational establishments, and to political parties which supported the working class.

John Thelwall lecturing on Roman History to 1790s Democrats
The classical world aided some workers’ careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organize Trade Unions, join debating societies, read the Gospels in the original or question the existence of God altogether. They used Classics to prove their intellectual calibre, to analyse their plight and signal their consciousness of the class system; they also used it to subvert and undermine the authority of the classes that ruled them and to entertain themselves during leisure hours.

Ann Yearsley, the Milkmaid-Radical Poet of Bristol
They deserve honoured places in the gallery of People’s Classics simply because they struggled so hard to get access to the ancient world. But they also offer us a new ancestral backstory for a discipline sorely in need of a democratic makeover.