Sunday 25 August 2019

Inane Classicism and Class Prejudice, Boris Johnson-style

Fifteen years ago, the current Prime Minister of Britain published a novel called Seventy-Two Virgins. It is a puerile attempt at a political thriller in which Islamic terrorists are foiled, in their plot to attack the president of the USA, by a priapic classically educated Tory MP who rides a bike.

Being a part-time intellectual masochist, I've read it in the British Library. Others have offered more insightful critiques of its arrant racism and sexism. My intention was to identify the classical allusions in order to continue my campaign to expose the PM’s grasp of classical antiquity as mediocre. But the passage which struck me hardest was less about classics than about class.

Most of the classical material consists of staggeringly unilluminating and moth-eaten comparisons between ancient and modern politics—between the US/USSR Cold War relationship and that between Athens and Sparta in Thucydides (36); US aircraft are likened to quinquiremes the Romans might send to crush a rebellion; crowds lining the streets as the US president is driven past resemble ancient residents of Londinium responding to Claudius’ legions (88).

Johnson allows himself a lewd snigger when the President’s speech-writers decide not to rework Harold Macmillan’s comparison of the British with the Greeks and the Americans with the Romans, not because it is jejune but ‘because it sounded kind of kinky, like something a prostitute might stick on a card in a phone booth; “Greek service available”, “Roman offered”, “I’ll be Greek to your Roman”’ (183).

We are given a frightening glimpse into Johnson’s own attitude to the truth: the French ambassador, although trained in telling complete lies by the ancient Roman rhetorical exercise of the suasoria, accidentally begins talking with absolute sincerity, ‘as happens to all of us from time to time’ (299). We discover that only baddies like the Labour Party and Saddam Hussein ban hunting with dogs,  ‘though they have been part of Mesopotamian Life since Assurbanipal or Tigleth-Pileser set off on his chariot in search of a lion’ (115). We are offered a wholly incorrect etymology of the word nostalgia (it is in fact not an ancient Greek coinage at all but was invented in 1688 to translate the German Heimweh (179)).
Justification for Legalising All Forms of Hunting

But such sloppy and exhibitionist faux-erudition would have left me only mildly irritated were it not for most revealing paragraph in the book, which shows what our PM actually thinks of the idea of allowing non-elites access to education:

Johnson may here only be offensive to the mentally ill by implication, but this cannot be said of Welsh-Speakers, nor anybody who has ever attended Adult Education classes, nor the many thousands who have graduated from a University so styled by the ground-breaking Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Quite how extending educational opportunity counts as Stalinism is beyond me.

I hope I’ve saved future scholars researching the uses and abuses of classics in British post-millennial politics from having to trawl through this obnoxious text themselves. But we should all be aware of it: in a democracy, we need to allow morons who happen to have been classically educated the freedom-of-speech rope with which to hang themselves.

Saturday 17 August 2019

ALBANIA: Why You Need to Visit NOW

Over the last week I fulfilled an ambition I conceived as a Cold War teenager, locating places crucial to classical literature that that lay  behind the Iron Curtain. And the curtain separating isolationist Albania was the most impenetrable. By the time I arrived at university, the dictator Enver Hoxha had fallen out not only with Yugoslavia, but with the USSR and China too.

Our Driver on Via Egnatia
Until the 1990s I believed I’d never swim in the Adriatic by the towns of Northern Epirus, inhabited by Illyrians whose war cry terrified the best-trained Greek hoplite.  I thought I'd never visit the city of Epidamnus, from which the northernmost Greek sailors rowed at the Battle of Salamis. But now I've seen them and swum there, accompanied by my historian daughter Sarah. We were phenomenally fortunate in our guide Jenka Curri, driver Vinny (here on the Via Egnatia, which linked the Adriatic to Byzantium) and tour companion, and recommend their company Balkan Insight with the utmost enthusiasm.

Theatre of Buthrotum
Buthrotum/Butrint is breathtaking, fed by rich rivers flowing through verdant valleys to a turquoise lake that meets the sea.  Cicero’s loaded friend Atticus lived on a great estate here, than which Cicero wrote in 56 BCE, ‘nothing could be quieter or fresher or prettier’. Here Augustus settled the veterans of Actium so  Virgil knew he had to laud Buthrotum in his Aeneid. Rome’s future relations with not only Epirus but all Greece are defined forever by the friendly meeting between Aeneas and two other Trojan refugees, Helenus and Andromache. 

Apollonia Amazon
I read this part of Book III for ‘O’-Level Latin in 1976, and remember my frustration that my teacher could not even find  Buthrotum on a map. Last week, at last, I found a shady spot beside the temples of the forum, where I imagine Andromache making her sacrifices to Hector’s shade before loading Aeneas' son with gifts because he reminds her of her dead child Astyanax, and Helenus' prophetic description of the future dangers facing the Trojan wanderers. 

Comic Costume
Apollonia was an imposing hillside city, built by Corinthians in the seventh century BCE, where Romans came to study philosophy and rhetoric (a stunning bust of Demosthenes has been found). Octavian received the news of Julius Caesar’s assassination here in March 44 BCE. The museum is packed with treasures including gorgeous Amazons and a comic actor chatting up Dionysus.

Dyrrachium Christian Mosaics
Dyrrrachium/Durres, known to the Greeks as Epidamnus, site of one of the most important battles between Caesar and Pompey, boasts an amphitheatre in the ruins of which early Christians built a church ornamented with stunning mosaics. I had always wanted to visit the city where Plautus’ Menaechmus Brothers is set, the play which underlies Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. The clever slave Messenio says that it houses ‘debauchees, big boozers, sycophants, perjurers and world-class fawning prostitutes’; it is certainly still full of Italian pleasure-seekers at it was in Plautus’ day.

Pot within a Dionysus Pot
My favourite finds in the Durres Museum were the gravestone of a tailor called Lucius Domitius Sarcinator and an exquisite vase depicting a sacrifice to Dionysus, complete with a vase-painting of dancing satyrs within the frame vase-painting.

Albanians are friendly, funny (a specialism is dark humour about politics) and excellent cooks. They have fine indigenous wine and beer. Many of the seriously inexpensive restaurants are called ‘Antigone’, not after Sophocles’ tragic heroine but the wife of Pyrrhus, Plutarch's ‘last of the Greeks’, who so bravely opposed Roman imperialism. I am still buzzing with excitement with all that I have seen, and would urge you to consider an Albanian adventure at the  first opportunity.
Apollonia Council House

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Report on 'Ridiculously Ambitious' Summer School 2019

So we did it!  The ACE project ran a whole week’s course on Classical Civilisation GCSE and A/S Level, with a session devoted to every single component on the OCR specs! In the River Room at King’s College London, with its spectacular views, a heroic band of teachers met KCL academics to think about how teenagers would respond to texts from Homer to Horace and images from Mycenae to Hadrian’s Wall.

Dr Dan Orrells Welcoming Us All 
The scheme, which at least one colleague at another university told me was so ambitious that it was ‘ridiculous’ to think it could be accomplished, faced obstacles. The KCL Widening Participation team in their wisdom decided to give us exactly one third of the required funding (we were saved here by the Head of the Classics Department, Dan Orrells, who understands the importance of getting Classics into state schools better than anyone), by the Hellenic Society, and Pavlos Avlamis who let us have ££ from his personal research account to cover the  catering (at one point Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I thought we would be making the sandwiches ourselves).

Pavlos Avlamis on the Iliad
The heat was overwhelming and the alleged aircon crap; on Thursday 25th July, I ran sessions on Democracy and the Athenians and War and Warfare (the latter in partnership with the coruscating James Corke-Webster) when the thermometer hit 37 degrees (sort of appropriate for pitched hoplite battle!)

Our teachers ranged from someone still training, to non-classicist teachers hoping to introduce Class. Civ., to people already experienced in it intending to expand provision or support other schools locally. We are confident that the summer school will expand the availability of Class. Civ. in several schools/sixth-form colleges.

Emily Pillinger on Sappho & Virgil
Our KCL colleagues were exemplary. Everyone had read the OCR teaching materials carefully and delivered perfectly bespoke talks and activities. Ellen Adams showed for Homeric World the importance of thinking about the size and setting of early Greek towns; Nicola Devlin managed to pack the entire history of Greek vase-painting into 90 lucid minutes for Greek Art; Emily Pillinger enthralled on Sappho and Catullus for Women in the Ancient World and made the Aeneid’s message on migrants compelling for World of the Hero.

The Afternoon of 25th July Did Feel Rather Like This
John Pearce showed how the Colosseum can reveal almost everything we need to know about Roman City Life; Lindsay Allen got everybody thinking like an Achaemenid Persian in Invention of the Barbarian; for Imperial Image Dominic Rathbone persuasively made me dislike Roman emperors' PR machines even more than before; Pavlos Avlamis won the prize for Most Popular Activity when he got everyone to draw Achilles’ shield from Iliad XVIII for World of the Hero; Mike Trapp made Plato comprehensible for Love and Relationships; Hugh Bowden sorted out myth and religion for both GCSE and A Level; Arlene had everyone turning into classically trained orators for Politics of the Late Republic and conducted magisterial overviews of curricula and resources; I mopped up Greek Theatre and the Odyssey.

There will be a legacy in the form of films of the presentations for the KCL website made by Big Face Art, with Tom Russell in charge, and in due course these and all the powerpoints and handouts will be made available on the ACE website too.

Dominc Rathbone on Imperial Images
But the real efforts were made by the extraordinarily committed teachers who attended, either the whole course or parts of it: Charlotte Cannon, Will Dearnaley, Edda-Jane Doherty, Jenny Draper, Laurence Goodwin, Chandler Hamer, Rob Hancock-Jones, Pantelis Iakovou, Susan Jenkins, Jo Johnson, Lidia Kuhivchak, Jo Lashley, Lottie Mortimer, Judith Parker, Halliford School, Saara Salem and Helen Turner. It was a privilege to spend the week with them, and I know we are going to hear far, far more from them in the future! The memories of the dinner at Pizza Express Holborn on the Wednesday evening will stay with us forever!

Camera Supremo Tom, a dead ringer for Danny Kaye
This 'ridiculously ambitious' summer school showed what can be done if teachers in Tertiary and Secondary education get their heads together as a team committed to all our teenagers accessing the Greeks and Romans and their amazing civilisations. It will not be the last of its kind run by Classics at KCL.

Monday 5 August 2019

Celebrating a Classicist Hero of Working-Class Childen: W.T. Stead

On this day 170 years ago was born one of the heroes of the forthcoming book A People’s History of Classics I’ve written with Henry Stead. William Stead (sadly no relation) was a journalist, publisher and social reformer, committed to enhancing the cultural range of ‘the New Reader, who is the product of the [1880] Education Act’. Born poor in Wakefield, Stead learned Latin from his Nonconformist father. He was appointed chief editor of the radical Northern Echo in Darlington at the age of 22. ‘I felt the sacredness of the power placed in my hands,’ he later recalled, ‘to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed.’
Darlington Pub Named after Stead

In 1883, Stead became editor of the gentleman’s gossip journal The Pall Mall Gazette, and transformed it into a vehicle for exposés. The most famous was the 1885 articles investigating the traffic in young girls in the underworld of London, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: The Report of our Secret Commission. Stead invented modern journalism by organising a complicated undercover investigation and writing in a sensationalist style, using a comparison with a famous mythical monster who committed atrocities.

The first article in the series consists of a detailed account of the Minotaur story, with long quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII, emphasizing the death of innocent girls cast to a beast who was himself 'the foul product of an unnatural lust' because 'the maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable'.

No Reforming Journalists were in Titanic movie
Stead’s campaign against the Minotaur successfully precipitated the raising of the age of consent, by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, from just 13 to 16. He suffered for his efforts, however: he had staged the purchase of a girl as part of his detective work. He served a three months’ prison sentence for abducting her. His career never fully recovered. He turned to Spiritualism, and died as a passenger on the Titanic on April 11th 1912.

Less well-known today are his cheap versions of famous literary works for children, ‘Books for the Bairns’. Ten were from classical sources: Aesop’s Fables, The Labours of Hercules, Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head, Tales of the Ancient Greeks, The Quest of the Golden Fleece, Stories of the Persian Kings, Stories of the Greek Tyrants, and The Quest of Orpheus.

An iron-foundry worker named Joseph Stamper (born in 1886), recalls being enchanted by Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ as a child in Lancashire. They ‘had a pink cover and contained selections from the ancient classics: stories from Homer, the writings of Pliny… I took a strong fancy to Aesop, he was a Greek slave from Samos, in the sixth century BC, and workpeople were only just beginning to be called “wage slaves”. I read all these.’

Stories from ancient Rome (May 1901), was as usual lavishly illustrated, with prints on almost every page. It summarized tales from Virgil’s Aeneid, Livy and Plutarch.  The opening of ‘The Story of Coriolanus’ invites the child reader to make comparisons between contemporary and Roman Republican politics:

The Patricians and Plebeians did not always get on well together. The Patricians, like some of the kings, wanted too much of their own way, and at last the Plebeians said they must have two officers, appointed by themselves, to look after their interests... The Tribunes were a little like our House of Commons, and the Patricians were something like the House of Lords.

If only children across the socio-economic spectrum  today had access, for a few pence, to ancient history + critical thinking about their own constitution + dozens of gorgeous illustrations.  They still have William Stead to thank for first getting the age of consent, before they could be fed to the Minotaur, to what it remains today.