Sunday 18 July 2021

Tories, Tyrants & Tall Poppies


In this week’s incoherent speech ‘explaining’ his ‘levelling up policy', delivered at a West Midlands battery factory where he had apparently inserted some of the goods into his frontal lobes, Boris Johnson attempted to drown his lack of a plan in a tsunami of metaphors: jam-spreading, robbery, rings of steel, building a wall of vaccine against waves of virus, throwing things to the wind, getting up a tail wind, playing around the football goal’s mouth, strenghthening sinews, and—best of all—'the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce—the ketchup of catch-up’.

But one of these vertiginous images involved one his flashiest classical references: ‘We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies; we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer’. We can’t possibly tax the rich any more, after all. Perish the thought.

This reference puts Johnson into dodgy company. Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus, sent a message to the even bloodthirstier Periander, tyrant of Corinth,  to teach him how to hold onto power. He took Periander’s herald to a field, and cut off all the tallest ears of wheat, which Periander rightly understood as an instruction to slaughter all the most powerful individuals in his country (Herodotus 5.92). Aristotle tells the same story, but put the tyrants’ names the other way round (Pol. 3.1284a).

Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,

Specifically Tall Poppy Discourse was used by the nonpareil Roman despots, the Tarquins. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus lopped all the tallest poppies in his garden to indicate to his equally nasty rapist son Sextus (NB Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have remembered this when he baptised a son ‘Sixtus’) that he should execute the leading men of Gabii (Livy 1.54).

Everyday Life in the Tarquin Family

I accept that Boris says that the Tories DON’T want to cut off the heads of the Tall Poppies of London and Middle England. The problem is, he hasn’t said how he’s otherwise going to increase the height of the Short Poppies of the North, let alone its dandelions and daisies. Metaphorical Bulimia is not an Economic Policy.

6-foot Poppies of Guernsey This Morning

But his choice of allusion seems to me to offer interesting material to a psychoanalyst thinking about Projection. BTW I’m weekending in the Channel Islands (to visit my ageing father-in-law for the first time since he buried his wife all alone under Lockdown 1). These are floating tax avoidance sanctuaries. I’ve noticed that the poppies are tall indeed.

Saturday 3 July 2021

Memories of Talking Medea with Helen McCrory


In early 2014 I went downstairs to reception and saw a tiny figure, in a hat worthy of the Peaky Blinders, sunglasses, loose trousers and enveloping anorak. She recognised me, I assumed from my website, waved and smiled. We went up to my office. That was the first of several sessions, for me enthralling, in which we discussed Euripides’ Medea in remarkable detail. Helen McCrory put an incredible amount of intellect and hard work into that staggering, prize-winning performance. 

She was interested in the research I’d done into criminal psychology and the profiles of women who kill their children. Certain patterns recur in these tragic cases. The women are often of high intelligence and well educated; this crime is by no means confined to the poor and deprived.

They usually have evinced violence at some point in their lives, are often migrants in new communities they perceive as hostile, and have been abandoned or humiliated by the father of their children. Above all they are completely isolated, with no sympathetic adults—extended family or close friends—to support them. Euripides’ Medea ticks every one of these boxes. Helen was fascinated, and it helped her understand the desperation that lies behind the witchcraft scene.

 The lines we dwelt on longest were Medea’s famous paradoxical statement that she knows that what she is going to do is wrong, but that her thumos (heart, anger, passion) has conquered her deliberated decisions. Could Medea have had a reduced sentence on the ground of provocation? Temporary insanity?


Then she introduced me to her Jason, the great Danny Sapani. We had a long session on how to portray their relationship. The crucial question here is always whether to present the sexual attraction as reciprocally very much alive or not. If you watch the production you can tell which way they jumped.


I do not remotely claim to have influenced the production substantially. My former colleague Dr Lucy Jackson was NT classical consultant, and the direction by Carrie Cracknell was stellar. Nor do I claim to have been close friends with Helen. She occasionally called me. She always named me with gratitude which I really didn’t deserve when when she was interviewed about her performance, for example in the Telegraph in August 2019 by Gavandra Hodge 

But we had an instant and joyous bond. She was the most wonderful person, with an ethically principled presence to match her beauty, brains and overwhelming charisma. We had both embarked on motherhood late, had been made deliriously happy by it, and shared a saturnine sense of humour.  

She called me eight days before she died to say good-bye. Her last words to me were, ‘thank you, soul sister’. It would be wholly inappropriate to divulge more, except I asked her to keep the great theatre in the sky ready and waiting for me to help plan her performance of Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra in Agamemnon. She accepted with alacrity. Tears in my eyes as I finish now.


I subsequently interviewed Helen at the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama; the recording is here.

Articles on Medea in which I discuss the issues in the play explored here are available to download free from my website at