Sunday 27 November 2022

Finding the Argo, Medea and Alcestis: Adventures in Thessaly


I’ve just ticked off a crucial item on my bucket list by touring Thessaly, and identifying key places in Greek mythology. I’m in a break between surgery for breast cancer and radiotherapy and am determined to enjoy myself. The horrid little tumour was detected very early and the prognosis is excellent. But I spoke too soon two blogs ago about things looking massively up after a couple of wilderness years.


After speaking at an august conference run by the Academy of Athens I set off with fellow Argonauts, brother and sister Leonidas and Sofia of the Papadopoulos family. But only after seeing Leonidas’ beautiful new play Pass-Port at the aptly named Argo theatre in Athens. Based on the PhD thesis he wrote under my supervision, it explores the place that tragic sea crossings have always played in Greek life.

 First stop was Mount Pelion, home of the timber that made the Argo, where I met its most famous resident, Cheiron the Centaur. Then I explored the Mycenaean Palace at ancient Iolkos near Volos, a substantial building complex in which Medea persuaded the daughters of Bad King Pelias to boil him to death. The most influential version of this story was told in

Euripides’ tragedy
Daughters of Pelias, of which only fragments and vase images illustrating it remain. 

 The details of this amazing site, and the finds from it like this toy horses and chariot, will feature in my forthcoming book Medea: A Life in Five Acts with Yale University Press. 

Today we found a replica Argo in Volos harbour, a statue of the Argo competing with Santa’s sleigh on the ring-road, and the Mycenaean harbour at Pefkakia from which the Argo first set sail. A magical experience on the lovely coast directly beneath Pelion’s wooded heights.

Today we ventured inland to the Mycenaean archaeological sites at nearby ancient Pherae, where one of Pelias’ daughters, Alcestis, married the local king, Admetus. Another tragedy by Euripides, his Alcestis, enacts how she gave up her life in the place of Admetus, died with her little children at her side, and then miraculously returned from the dead. 

Heracles wrestled with Thanatos and retrieved her. We even found a Mycenaean tomb outside which that wrestling match could have taken place.


Nothing pleases me more than adventures which trace the geophysical reality which provided the contexts for ancient literature. I returned to Blighted Blighty tomorrow fully energized to face whatever the NHS is about to throw at me. Not only have you not got rid of me yet, but you ain’t SEEN nothing yet. I promise.

Sunday 11 September 2022

Five New North-Eastern Classics Initiatives


Yesterday was the launch of five new initiatives fostering understanding and enjoyment of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in the North-East of England. It was drizzling on and off, and the lawn outside the Durham Uni lecture hall on Palace Green lived up to its name, shining emerald in the intermittent sunshine. I made a large celebratory chocolate cake.

The Head of the Classics & Ancient History Department, Prof. Jennifer Ingleheart, kicked off proceedings with an eloquent manifesto contrasting the richness of classical culture in our region with its educational and material poverty (our event was free, as was lunch, and plenty of local people came).

I offered some context by talking about the extraordinary cluster of brilliant creative individuals produced by Grangefield Grammar School, at other times known as Stockton Secondary School: Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator; Pat Barker, author of Silence of the Girls and Women of Troy, and Barry Unsworth, a miner’s son, whose Songs of the Kings is a searing account of how Iphigenia was literally ‘spun’ to death by a New Labour PR man named Odysseus.

Initiative 1: Durham University School of Education has just introduced the first PGCE training in Classics for decades. The Northerners who want to teach Classics have been forced for far too long to up sticks and go to Cambridge or King’s College London. My amazing fellow-schemer Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson has designed the teaching materials. Schools in the North-East wanting to teach Classics will finally have a locally-trained supply of teachers on tap.

Initiative 2: The campaign to make Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in State Education, Advocating Classics Education, which Arlene and I founded in 2017, transfers its HQ to Durham University from King’s College London. I remain available to talk at schools and sixth-form colleges, either in person or virtually; please just email via my website. And I’ve just completed translations of all the plays on the Greek Theatre A-Level module for use as the standard set texts. More on this soon.

Initiative 3: Dr Edmund Thomas and I, with the help of champion cricketer PhD student Rory McInnes-Gibbons,  are convening a year-long seminar series and a conference on the history of Classics in the North-East. Papers will discuss radical printing houses, translations of ancient zoological and botanical treatises, historical pageants, classicizing architecture, Hadrian’s Wall, workers’ education and much, much more. There will be a book, a website and building of a network to participate in making a film to explore the rich classical tradition in this part of the world.

Initiative 4: We launched the new Hadrian’s Wall Branch of the Classical Association, of which I am president, Dr Cora-Beth Fraser is Secretary/Editor and Prof. Justine Wolfenden is Chair. We are determined to make this an inclusive organization: ethnic minority, disabled, unwaged and neuro-diverse members are particularly welcome. Our first big public event will be a family-friendly celebration of the Saturnalia on Saturday 10 December. Parents will have to serve children. Costumes will be worn. Delicious Roman dishes will be available.

Initiative 5: Our department’s bid to become the best Classics research centre in the land has got off to a flying start this term with my securing of two large research grants. One, funded by Leverhulme, studies Aristotle’s presence outside academic circles since the Restoration (see e.g. this anti-feminist cartoon); the other studies his fascinating and hopelessly under-researched writing styles. It is funded by UKRI. Four new post-doctoral researchers will be arriving in Durham to turn it into the most important northern outpost of the great philosopher’s Athenian Lyceum.

There is a great deal to do, but I’m bursting with enthusiasm for every single initiative-research, outreach, public engagement, widening access, boosting state education, local history, sheer good fun. I have the best collaborators in the world. And the Geordie for collaborator, my friends, is the deeply unclassical, Scandinavian-derived and resonant noun marra.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

On Vindication and Robert the Bruce's Spider

What a difference a month can make! A year ago I was in the greatest pickle of my working life.  Fortunately, the visionary Head of Classics & Ancient History and the management at Durham, which still understands  the purpose of a university, embraced my job application and have made me welcome.

The downward spiral began at the end of 2014, when I was officially invited by the Oxford Faculty of Classics to apply for their Regius Chair of Greek. I would not have applied otherwise. Uncivilly, they did not shortlist me. I got over it quickly. I loved my job at King’s College London.

But the events of 2020-2021 took my public humiliation to a whole new level. I was interviewed for the Cambridge Regius Chair of Greek, and told it had been offered to another candidate. He is brilliant; it was no shame to lose to him. I got over it quickly. But nobody told me I had been deemed unappointable. This meant that for more than two months after he turned it down, I was forced to field endless enquiries from all over the world asking if I ‘had heard anything’. My 'unappointability' was visible to all. I hit an all-time low.

In the end I swallowed my pride and asked a friend at Cambridge what was going on. I did eventually get an apology that I had not been kept informed. When I asked Cambridge HR on which of the published criteria I had been deemed unappointable, they said the committee had identified my ‘Research Plans’ as inadequate. This was somewhat mystifying since I had included in my dossier full details of all my current research grant applications.

None of this would have mattered if management at KCL had not decided that the tasks I had been contracted to perform nearly a decade ago no longer applied, and that I was now required to do substantial amounts of elementary teaching. I could no longer travel in term and needed, demeaningly, to tell all the international institutions I had agreed to lecture to that I could no longer come because of my many first-year seminars backing up other lecturers’ courses.  

I love teaching and I could have coped with this if it were not for the coercive tone taken by management. I accessed my inner socialist rebel and union member. But I was facing being driven out of one university by brutality after being deemed unappointable at another. I was being pensioned off when I still need income to educate our children.

The verb ‘vindicate’ originally meant ‘to proclaim (dicare) authority (vis)'. I felt I was disrespected by many peers and had lost all authority as a scholar of Greek. So it is with incredible joy to me that I’ve heard, within four weeks, three pieces of news that have restored my self-belief. I’ve been elected Fellow of the British Academy, and won two large research grants, one of which, on Aristotle’s prose style, pays 70% of my salary for five years as well as supporting three others. Things can change quickly! Readers, do not give up!

I’m delighted to have my authority restored and to be giving Durham any benefits that accrue. I am also pleased that the Aristotelian principle motoring my life—it doesn’t matter how others judge you if you are true to your own principles and project and never give up—has been vindicated.

My mother often told me the story of the King of Scotland called Robert the Bruce and the spider. Robert’s army kept being defeated by the English. When he was taking refuge in a cave, he watched a spider fail six times to attach her web to the cave wall.  She succeeded on her seventh attempt. This inspired Robert to try to expel the English again. He won. He proclaimed the Scots' authority.

Saturday 30 July 2022

On (Briefly) Returning to KCL and Supervisory Best Practice

Weird event of the week was attending a King's College London graduation day at the magnificent Royal Festival Hall. Having left this university unnecessarily, under a humiliating cloud entirely of Management making, I was nervous and dragged my husband along to protect me from The Evil Eye. But I soon felt comfortable on meeting some of my favourite former colleagues, whom I miss sorely: Hugh Bowden, Emily Pillinger-Avlamis, and Will Wootton.

With Father of My Children, Who Offered to Bring an Electric Drill for Some Reason

I was there to receive an award for being the best PhD supervisor in Arts and Humanities. There was a fruity irony in one Dean's office deciding to bestow this on me, thanks to the amazing testimonials provided by my lovely PhDs, when another Dean's office was spending hours devising ways effectively to demote me. 

With lovely former colleagues Emily Pillinger-Avlamis and Will Wootton

Unfortunately nobody warned me that the tube in which the diploma to be awarded was actually empty, and my husband caught a photo of me staring inside it in some confusion.

I was asked last summer to provide a statement about my supervisory theory and practice to go on the KCL website. Unsurprisingly, it has never been posted, presumably because I do not work for that institution any more. So just in case anybody out there is remotely interested, here is what I wrote:

With Professor Hugh Bowden, Superb Town Crier at the Event

My supervisory practice is founded in the philosophical approach inaugurated by Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking (1989), which emphasises that society needs to shape the care and education of each citizen as a mother does for each of her children. This is supplemented by Aristotle’s belief that every one of us has a potential (dynamis) to be the best possible version of ourselves, but that to fulfil it one needs sensitive and caring support from others.

I try to look after each supervisee from the moment they contact me with a view to studying for a research degree onwards, helping them frame the research question in their applications and exploring their motivation, skillsets and potential to cope with for the long, hard, lonely effort that writing a dissertation entails. I try discreetly to discover how well they are supported financially and emotionally in order to shape advice and support to their individual needs and make them feel confident and welcome.

The reference works in Classics are numerous and extremely complicated to use. Students, especially from unconventional backgrounds, are often intimidated by them. When supervision commences, I introduce supervisees physically to the library and online research tools they will need, advise on key mailing lists, societies and online communities to enrol in, and introduce them to all my other current PhD students in order to encourage mutual advice networks.

Clarity in terms of expectations and timetabling are crucial. Together we often create a paper diagram with optimal dates (receipt of written assignments, supervisions, first draft of thesis plan, doxography, upgrade, research trips, receipt of first full draft, selection of examiners). This is then adapted as necessary across the months and years.

The single biggest challenge intellectually is turning a research topic into an over-arching research question. This needs to be formulated as a ‘why’ or ‘how’ question, rather than a ‘what’ question (the last of which tends to elicit empirical and descriptive lists rather than analytical writing). I never cease emphasising the principle that every page of the thesis must be geared towards answering that question and that any excursuses need justifying.

In feedback, kindness and constructiveness are essential; intellectual confidence is a fragile thing. I try to find something to praise in every piece of writing and guide supervisees’ thought processes by Socratic questioning rather than flat criticism which tends to shut down discussion. I recommend the close study of the way in which scholars write when supervisees say they admire it, in order for them to discover for themselves what makes a convincing and elegant academic style. I hold ‘live’ rehearsals when they are to deliver papers at conferences or attend interviews and work with them to improve the clarity, brevity, and enjoyability of their oral performances.


But the most important aspect of the supervisor’s relationship with graduate students is that it is quasi-parental, even where the supervisee is considerably older than the supervisor. I make it clear that I am happy to help at any time with personal difficulties, observe the strictest confidence protocols, and always ask at the beginning of supervisions how students are doing/feeling in general. I look out for opportunities for them to deliver papers, publish, and network and train them in how to do it for themselves. The point is to give them an intellectual tractor of their own rather than a few years’ sustenance.

Finally, I do everything I can to ensure that supervisees pursue successful careers or life goals when they finish: I allocate an afternoon a week to reference writing. With the most academically ambitious, I hold joint conferences and train them in co-editing published volumes. I have been consultant on their theatrical productions and have helped them publish their dissertations as monographs or series of articles. I continue to meet them regularly either in person, often on theatre trips, or virtually for the rest of our lives. A PhD student is for life, not just for a PhD.   


Sunday 17 July 2022

Ancestral Suicide, the Ancient Greeks, and Me.

Edwardian Dunbar

I've needed for some time to find out more about my mother's family. She died in 2016, but had refused to talk much about her own mother, who killed herself almost exactly 50 years after her father, my great-grandfather, had taken his own life.

When I first read a Greek tragedy, at 16 years old, I was immediately fixated by the idea of families afflicted by curses handed down over generations. Sometimes I think the  trajectory of my entire working  life was determined by the shadows hanging over my matrilineal descent.

First we went to Dunbar, a beautiful seaside town on the south coast of the Firth of Forth, once a popular vacation resort in the days before package holidays to the Mediterranean. We were looking for Seafield Pond, where my great-grandfather, Robert Nicol Masterton, was found drowned in August 1912. It is a beautiful spot, right by the sea, once a quarry. 

With the help of my husband Richard Poynder and brilliant local archivists Hanita Ritchie and Pauline Smeed, we discovered that Robert was a well-respected officer of the Burgh, Inspector of the Poor. He was in his fifties and had bought a fine Dunbar house for his wife and four children, now in early adulthood. He had risen socially through his marriage to the daughter of the local Provost (Mayor), my great-great-grandfather John Kellie Keir.

John Kellie Keir

Robert’s death caused a huge disturbance in the community as well as his family. Although depression is undoubtedly in this line of DNA, and he fought very hard for more funds to alleviate poverty, nobody knows what drove him to suicide. The shock in the local news reports is palpable.

Edith Masterton in 1913

We crossed Scotland to the coast of Ayrshire, where my grandmother Edith Henderson (born Masterton), who had been devastated by her father’s death when she was  a suffragette undergraduate at Edinburgh, threw herself from a hotel window in Largs on October 1st 1962. The hotel has since been demolished, but its precise setting, right by the sea, is oddly similar. 

Marine and Curlighall Hotel, Largs, c. 1983

My mother receiving the news of this catastrophe by phone in Nottingham is my earliest memory. Her adamant silence about it subsequently, besides expressing regret she had called me after her mother, was a symptom I believe of her deep pain. Her mother Edith had suffered from lifelong depression, an unhappy marriage, no occupation for her excellent brain and the death of a baby. Her suicide had long been imminent.

This round-trip enabled me finally to visit the crematorium in Kirkcaldy where my own mother’s funeral ceremony took place in 2016. For reasons too painful yet to make public I had not attended it. The waves of peace washing over me after leaving flowers at all three places have brought me an unexpected amount of relief.

I write this not to elicit pity, which would be misplaced, nor (I hope) to be self-indulgently morbid. There are still taboos around suicide and depression, and the utter silence about this history in my family has always disturbed me. More importantly, I believe that the trauma caused by suicide leaves profound intergenerational scars which can never be healed without investigating and addressing the truth. 

With Hanita Ritchie at the John Gray Centre, Haddington

I hope to write a book about how the extraordinary suicide narratives in Greek tragedy, and the arguments against suicide in Aristotle, have helped me to a better understanding of these things. But for now, I’m just feeling thankful to those archivists and my amazing husband with his car and camera and humour and enjoying an unprecedented sense of psychic calm.

With Pauline Smeed of the Dunbar Local History Society

Thursday 30 June 2022

For once I’m speechless. It’s Thursday lunchtime and in the last 330 hours I have talked publicly about 7 different ancient Greek topics and one Roman one. Conference season is always exhausting, but this year, with relaxation of Covid restrictions, has been exceptional.

First up was a paper at a Durham conference on the image of the intellectual in antiquity. I pointed out that at the time of Aristophanes’ Clouds Socrates was only in his forties, famous for particularly thuggish performances as a hoplite,  and therefore probably played by his actor as muscular, violent and domineering rather than a geriatric sage.

Next was an extraordinary version of Terence’s Latin comedy Eunuchus by the libertine Restoration playwright Charles Sedley, revived on ITV in the 1970s with Helen Mirren in the starring role. The seedy plot about a man dressed as a eunuch raping a teenaged female is wholly unedifying but the wisecracking is polished. This was an Oxford conference in association with the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama I co-founded long ago.

From Oxford I hastened to the British Museum to add my voice, as member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, to a mass chorus of Greeks, Cypriots and others who want the BM To Do The Obviously Right Thing. This will happen within my lifetime, I am convinced.

Then I made an emotional return to my mentees at King’s College London, my relationship with whom no Management berserkers can destroy. I spoke to introduce their wonderful Plague at Thebes, an Antigone/Oedipus fusion performed as the KCL Greek play. Marcus Bell and David Bullen: you gentlemen rock.

Deftly locating a train during the week of a strike I wholly support, despite Mike Lynch of the RMT rhetorically picking on Classics as an example of an education that does not prepare one for running a nation's infrastructure, I got back to Durham in time to talk about Tony Harrison’s brilliant poetic responses to fragmentary papyrus texts, especially in his personal Ars Poetica, ‘Reading the Rolls’, in this volume.

Continuing the Harrison theme, I then went to Leeds to introduce a screening of Harrison’s movie Prometheus organized by stalwart Labour MP for Leeds East, Richard Burgon. It is a joy to find someone with a Leeds accent who knows as much of Harrison off by heart as I do. We visited the poet’s childhood home and the cemetery where his most famous poem, ‘v.’, is set.

I feel exhausted as I write. The next words were in Durham Cathedral after I was deeply honoured to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the Chancellor, Sir Thomas Allen, a local lad who became an opera singer and inspired Lee Hall’s Billy Elliott. I used the occasion to pay tribute to the wonderful Professor Peter Rhodes, who served as Professor of Ancient History in the Department for decades before his recent sad death. He was a beacon of human decency at a time when it is hard to locate anywhere in public life.

Then, last night, I talked about the athletic, brutal, dancing, Artemis-loving women of ancient Sparta at the recording of the incomparable Nat Haynes’ latest episode of her radio show where she Stands Up for the Classics. My friend over 45 years Paul Cartledge coruscated as much as she did; she also summarized the Odyssey in 28 minutes flat and with sidesplitting humour. I’ll let you know when it is being broadcast.

I’m off to the Isle of Dogs to talk about satyr plays after a rare performance by Thiasos Theatre of Euripides’ Cyclops on Saturday afternoon. There are still a few tickets left. A good use of a summer Saturday afternoon. But right now I’ve exhausted myself merely putting this on record and will be catching up on Eastenders with a large pot of tea.

Saturday 11 June 2022

(Not) A Postcard from 7-Gated Thebes

Thebes in Greek tragedy comes over as a deeply provincial if prosperous inland city, far from the sea, run by a couple of reactionary elite families who endlessly interbreed and are averse to change. Thebes today, when I visited on Wednesday, seems at least psychologically not to have changed very much. 

What we Expected?
One is greeted at the railway station by what my companion Dr Magdalena Zira told me were remarkably aggressive graffiti telling the viewer to go home or else. We were then assaulted by a very young girl begging importunately with a tiny baby in her arms. Creepy, to say the least.

Despite the magnificent new Archaeological Museum, packed with amazing artefacts such as these funeral chests painted with heartbreaking scenes of bereaved women, tourism has never taken off. There is no possibility of purchasing a postcard even at the Museum, let alone a kiosk: “no call for it, Madam”. 

The streets are named after the (very few) famous Thebans in history, including the peerless poet of sycophantic odes for plutocratic and tyrannical overlords, Pindar. Others take the names familiar from Greek tragedy—Polynices Street, Eteocles Street. 

But the venues immortalized in Greek tragedy are meagre and overgrown piles of rubble. The palace which Dionysus rocked with an earthquake in Euripides’ Bacchae seems never to have recovered, although the stories dramatized in Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone and Euripides’ Phoenician Women all require sets portraying the magnificent palace of Cadmus, rebuilt after the Bacchae earthquake. 

The Palace of Pentheus, Oedipus, Creon...

It is hard to imagine the blinded Oedipus or the fulminating Antigone or the lamenting Creon appearing outside this rubbish tip, although the taxi rank there is named after Cadmus.

Kadmos Taxis and Poseidon Logistics

The wall with 7 gates which provides the setting of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes has entirely gone, except for the base of one turret of the Dircean gate, which Capaneus was scaling with a shield hubristically inscribed "I will burn this city" when he was blasted by Zeus with a thunderbolt. 

 The most evocative site is the remains of the peak from which Tiresias the prophet scrutinized the flight of birds outside the temple of Apollo Ismenios. There are about four bits of Doric pillar to be seen. Nobody else was at this hugely important site except one of the two men named Sakis we met (we met a total of 3). 

Tiresias Woz Here

Nor do they care about their pre-Christian heritage. The Electricians' Union Theban Branch office displays a picture of Aristotle inscribed (in tiny writing under top right flame) confusingly with the name of an earlier natural scientist, Thales. Once you've seen one ancient Greek egghead, you've presumably seen them all.

I am a supporter of all things Greek and wonder why they don’t help their economy by exploiting the incredible touristic potential of places like Thebes. Any one of these sites or artefacts would be enough to prompt a Theme Park in the UK. But the Thebans say they like things just the way they are. And have always been.