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.

Friday 3 June 2022

What's the Point of Universities (e.g. Roehampton)?


On Wednesday I spoke as a ‘specialist witness’ (20 minutes in) on the BBC Radio 4 The Moral Maze, which was asking What is the Point of  University? The programme claims to think about the moral dimensions of pressing issues, but got stuck in the minutiae of current policy.

I’d been gardening between thunderstorms in Durham, and arrived in muddy jeans to have my secateurs confiscated by the Bush House security. But that gardening is important. I’m fortunate enough to enjoy my job, unlike the staggering 37% of working British adults who said in a recent YouGov poll that their job is pointless and not making a meaningful contribution to the world. 

But I still work to live rather than live to work, and the rich humanist education I enjoyed, entirely financed by the British taxpayer, helped equip me for my idea of "real life"--currently citizenship, researching deforestation, garden rescue and selection of TV programmes.

The Evidence

Many people contacted me  to thank me for pointing out the Elephant in the Studio: the commercialisation of our universities is implicated in all their current problems, including grade inflation, decreasing working-class applications, ‘cancel culture’ and the young adult mental health crisis. It has also fuelled the New Philistinism, and encouraged a moronic management class who understand nothing about the true role of education in any half-way decent society. 

One such management is now threatening with mass redundancies the entire brilliant, innovative Classics Department at Roehampton, which in its short and immensely socially responsible life has brought the ancient Greeks and Romans to hundreds of people including the neurodiverse who could never have accessed it otherwise (please sign the petition: link here).

Aristotle notes that Sparta never flourishes in times of peace because its constitution, while training the Spartans well for combat, “has not educated them to be able to live in idleness”. Boredom is the enemy not only of peace but of happiness. Harry Allen Overstreet, the inspirational chair of the philosophy department at CUNY from 1911 to 1936, understood that education for recreation is a serious political business: “Recreation is not a secondary concern for a democracy. It is a primary concern, for the kind of recreation a people make for themselves determines the kind of people they become and the kind of society they build.”

Our word “leisure”  comes from the Latin verb licere (to be allowed): leisure is the time when you are free from the requirement to work and are “allowed” to choose how you spend it. The Greek word used by Aristotle, scholÄ“, originally meant time which you could call your own. It gave rise to our word “school,” because the philosophers saw that leisure (among other things) was a precondition of intellectual activity for its own sake. If you are sent down the mine at age 5 for 51 weeks a year and consequently die at the age of 35 you are not going to have much time for expanding your brain.

Yet, we are obsessed with work. We think we are defined by our jobs. When we ask someone what they “do,” we mean what they do to make a living, not whether they spend their leisure hours singing in a choir or visiting medieval castles. The objective of work is usually to sustain our lives biologically, an objective we share with other animals. But the objective of leisure can and should be to sustain other aspects of our lives which make us uniquely human: our souls, our minds, our personal and civic relationships. Leisure is therefore wasted if we do not use it purposively. Education can help us do this.

Max Weber showed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that the work fetish first arose as a result of the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. It was believed that labour might one day be rendered unnecessary by machines, but only after many centuries of extra- intensive labour. Work geared toward maximizing output of material goods and mindless economic growth consequently acquired a ludicrously high status. The idea of “non- productive” work in spheres like education not strictly necessary for our biological survival, became perceived as less intrinsically valuable than industrial work. Pressure to maximize output meant that working hours stopped being seasonal and became dictated by mechanical timekeeping. They were also massively extended, leading at the peak of the Industrial Revolution to the unending drudgery of the residents of Coketown, as portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), and to the horrors of twelve-hour working days.

In the same year, Henry Thoreau published Walden, which describes life in a simple log cabin in rural Massachusetts, with plenty of time for reading and reflection. It explores the psychological deprivation inflicted on capitalist society. In the crazed pursuit of superabundant commodities, humankind has forgotten the reason and purpose of life altogether, and has even begun to invent new unnecessary needs in order to justify the disproportionate amount of time spent at work. Thoreau has a profoundly Aristotelian fantasy: every village in New England will one day  subsidize its own Lyceum, full of books, newspapers, learned journals and works of art, and invite wise people to visit and enlighten the local population during their extensive leisure hours.

Thoreau emphasised education as the solution to the “problem” of using leisure constructively. He argued that good use of leisure in an ideal society would be the main goal and objective of education. So it needs to be made available at every level and fun to everyone in society. Call me a crazy utopian if you want. I've been called much worse.