Tuesday 19 December 2023

Nine Questions for the British Library's Chief Executive


Seven weeks after the British Library was afflicted by a ransomware cyber-attack, its chief executive, Sir Roly Keating, has belatedly issued a substantial statement. While it is indisputable that the attack has been perpetrated by a dastardly criminal group, in my opinion Keating’s statement strikes discordant notes and leaves us with more questions than answers.

First, although Keating claims this kind of attack ‘was something we had prepared for and rehearsed, and had taken steps to guard against’, the protective systems of which he was in charge failed. It would be good to hear him concede this. It would also be good to know exactly what plan the library had in place for such an event?

Second, the best way to protect against Ransomware is to have a clean backup of data. If the library had backed it all up, why can't it be reinstalled straightaway and we can all get back to normal? Or did the hackers encrypt a backup too? That might suggest negligence on the part of the library.

Third, the British Library is publicly funded. Assuming no public money has been paid to hackers, that still leaves the costs of remediation: are these coming out of the public purse, and if so, what sums are involved?

Fourth, BL employees have had their personal details including bank accounts hacked. Users like myself have also had personal data hacked. Might a public apology be appropriate?

Fifth, why does it remain impossible to order on-site materials to the Reading Rooms so many weeks after the attack? I do not understand why a book or manuscript cannot be ordered using a piece of paper and a pencil, and then be collected from the stacks by one of the many members of staff currently sitting around in the Reading Rooms looking miserable. Such a blindingly obvious resilience measure should have been in place ever since the process by which books are ordered was first computerised.

It was simpler getting books off shelves in Alexandria

Sixth, why has the information about what is available been desperately misleading? Users were sent an email stating that materials ordered before 28th October would be delivered to Reading Rooms. I was victim to this misinformation myself when on 1st December I visited to read materials I had ordered in early October. The (non-tragic) result was a comically incomplete paper at my own conference on the Aeneid last week; it consisted of a string of research questions rather than an argument. The Reading Room staff were deeply apologetic, but not so Sir Roly, it transpires.

Seventh, is Sir Roly aware that this particular piece of misinformation has cost Readers a lot of money? My futile trip to London cost me less than £100, which (unlike my students) I can grudgingly afford. But Rachel Mann (Uni Texas Rio Grande Valley) and Rebecca Long (University of Louisville), two American Professors of Music beside whom I sat in the otherwise deserted Rare Books Room, had spent thousands of dollars on transatlantic flights to consult papers they assumed from the Library’s email communication would be available. Other overseas individuals have got in touch with me, after I spoke on BBC Radio 4’s ‘PM’ programme about the issue, with similar stories of frustration and financial loss. Yet another Reason to be Embarrassed to be British.

Eighth, students, especially those writing dissertations on rare materials and postgraduate researchers, are in serious trouble over deadlines. Not a word of acknowledgement of their problems is said by the Chief Executive, let alone an apology. I met a PhD candidate who is travelling to Paris to the Bibliothèque Nationale to get hold of rare materials to meet their submission date. More advanced academics who need to publish to secure tenure or promotion face serious consequences for their careers.

And, ninth, Keating’s statement is still desperately vague over when specific services will be restored: ‘From early in the new year you will begin to see a phased return of certain key services’ is not particularly helpful. Nor is ‘Other interim services will include increased on-site access to our manuscripts and special collections’. So no specific plans can be laid for the New Year. The backlog will also mean that the library will be mobbed by frustrated users; queues for seats in Reading Rooms, which already get crowded in the lead-up to Final Examinations, will be inevitable for weeks. What plans are in place to ameliorate this?

The overarching tone of the statement is one of high-minded rage (with which we can all sympathise) combined with a curious sense of helplessness. But anger doesn’t submit dissertations in time for deadlines, write books, pay for what turns out to be pointless travel, secure promotions or enable planning for research trips in the new year. Readers are in pain. A certain amount of humility and contrition, as well as far more detailed information about what happened and is going to happen, would have gone a long way to alleviate it.

Thursday 8 June 2023

Goodbye to My Father, Man of God


Like Shakespeare, Raphael and Ingrid Bergman, my father, the Reverend Professor Stuart George Hall, died yesterday on his birthday, 7 June. He had just completed 95 years alive. Given his age, his visible deterioration over the last few months and our troubled relationship, I am amazed at how winded I feel.

Born to a working-class East London couple, a police constable and a seamstress, he ascended via scholarships at UCL School and Oxford to a firm niche in the Middle Class. My feelings about him are complicated. We did not rub along temperamentally, or rather, were not able to discover if we might have done had we not disagreed about many important issues. He was the type of man who was loved by all outside the household--his academic colleagues, students and parishioners--but found it hard to be an emotionally supportive father.

Growing up in a nuclear family where all decisions need to be referred to an invisible Almighty, whose views are relayed by his vicarious male agent on earth, is a weird experience. When I lost all belief in the Christian faith at the age of 13, my father was incandescent.

He was not a supporter of feminism (I recall his opposition to the Equal Pay Act 1970). He found it almost impossible to express any pride in my achievements (I cannot speak for my siblings). He was slow to anger, but his infrequent outbursts of rage were terrifying. He was no domestic democrat, and was absolutely furious when in my teens I began addressing everyone in the family as “Citizen”.

I did have it out with him after our mother died in 2016. Although he did not apologise, he acknowledged that he could have made much more of an effort to be supportive.  Our recent last meeting, attended by his new wife and my husband, entailed real, affectionate communication and was, I am glad to say, unprecedentedly warm and friendly.

And there are many things I owe to him, besides a firm jawline and an absurdist sense of humour.

He never embraced bourgeois values and when tired started to sound a little like the East-End boy he had been. Childhood interactions with his large circle of working-class relatives irrevocably shaped my politics. He hated racism and I was absolutely inspired at about the age of ten when he rebuked some distant relatives from the Texas Bible belt who had used derogatory language about African Americans.

He had a great sense of fun when he allowed himself to express it, and composed hilarious poems to divert his children when things were boring (as they often were in the 1960s). We used to drive all the way to Scotland at least three times a year. I adored his epic about Romans on Hadrian’s Wall, of which, sadly, I can only remember four lines, with deliberately tortuous rhymes:

         Send us the Scots and we will fight 'em.

         We are stationed at CorstopItum.

         Send us the Picts and we will fix 'em.

         We are stationed half a mile from Hexham.

He loved cats and we had long, jokey conversations,  which I remember almost daily, about what different tail shapes and positions might signify. He was the best shoe-shiner in history, and I can polish black leather boots to a radiant gloss.

I learned how to give a decent lecture by comparing his riveting sermons with those by the usual verbose and uncharismatic C of E preachers. Never more than ten minutes, a simple, lucid argument, improvised without any notes; sustained eye contact and clear diction, at least one joke and always a ringing quotation from the best prose in the King James Bible. It is down to him also that I know most of the Old Testament backwards.

He taught me my first steps in Greek by helping me decode the first sentence of John’s gospel and explained why ‘Beginning’ had no definite article. His own academic publications set a lofty bar on clarity, elegance and meticulous scholarship that I have tried hard to emulate.

I am so completely my father’s daughter that I feel intense sadness at the many things that kept us apart emotionally. That is my sincere final message to him, if he can hear me after death, as, in his piety, he was convinced he would be able to forever.

Monday 8 May 2023

Text of TLS Review of 2 Books on 2 Cleopatras



Egyptian princess, Roman prisoner, African Queen

Jane Draycott (336pp. Bloomsbury. £27.99).



Her history, her myth

Francine Prose (216pp. Yale University Press. £15.99).


The name “Cleopatra” conjures images of a seductive siren – sailing in an opulent barge, dissolving a pearl in vinegar to convince Mark Antony of her fabulous wealth, or pressing a phallic asp into her billowing cleavage after Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, defeats her at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The picture of Cleopatra as mother-of-four does not quickly spring to mind. But she bore four living children between her mid-twenties and her mid-thirties. The first was her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV, known as Caesarion, “Little Caesar”; he reigned over Egypt jointly with his mother from the age of three. Her other babies were fathered by Mark Antony – the twins Cleopatra “Selene” (Moon-Goddess) and Alexander “Helios” (Sun-God), born in 40 BCE, and Ptolemy Philadelphus, born four years later.

Cleopatra Selene soon lost her father, her mother and all three brothers produced by her famous mother (most of her five half-siblings, the children of Mark Antony, fared better). Caesarion, as Julius Caesar’s son, was killed by Octavian in 30 BCE, to remove a potential rival. The other three children, not yet in their teens, were taken to Rome, at which point both boys mysteriously disappear from the historical record. But their sister, the last known survivor of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, was taken in by Octavian’s older sister Octavia. Octavia had once been married to Mark Antony, and looked after her large “blended” family in the imperial residences on the Palatine Hill.

At about fifteen, Cleopatra Junior was married off to King Juba II of Numidia. He, too, had been raised in Rome after his father’s kingdom had been annexed, and he became a loyal henchman of the Roman emperor. The couple moved to Juba’s newly expanded realm, at that point retitled Mauretania. They named their capital Caesarea (now Cherchell, Algeria) to acknowledge Juba’s status as Augustus’ client. Juba was a keen supporter of intellectual, cultural and architectural endeavours; their kingdom prospered. They had two children, a girl and a boy; Cleopatra died in her mid-thirties.

That is virtually all that the surviving written sources have to say about her, but Jane Draycott has wrestled dauntlessly with the little evidence there is about this intriguing figure, producing the only modern full-length biography to stand alongside the dozen or more novels in which Cleopatra Selene appears, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934) onwards.

Draycott is skilled at bringing ancient social environments to life. Her reconstructions of the physical conditions in which the royal offspring lived, and Cleopatra’s emotional responses to her dramatic early life, are plausible and vivid. When only six, Cleopatra sat with her parents and siblings on an elaborate public platform in front of the assembled Alexandrian masses, to be declared queen of Cyrenaica and Libya. After her parents’ suicides, she was forced to march with her twin in Augustus’ Roman triumph in chains of gold, escorting an effigy of their mother holding that asp. She was bombarded with vicious caricatures, produced by the Augustan propaganda machine, of Cleopatra VII as a barbarous whore.

Draycott is writing for the general reader, and needs to make her narrative exciting. She is sometimes seduced by the sensationalism of her sources – Plutarch, Suetonius, Cassius Dio – into presenting their claims without sufficient scepticism. Elsewhere, she is forced, by the nature of her project, to rely on painting imaginative word-pictures or on compiling detailed accounts of the convoluted genealogies and shifting political alliances of her era. Much of the book is written in the subjunctive: Cleopatra Selene “might have” felt sad, or “would probably” have been present at an event. But, with the help of fascinating illustrations, Draycott does an excellent job in recreating the culture and febrile atmosphere of the early years of Augustus’ reign, observing it from the perspective of a politically important pawn in his imperial game. Cleopatra, she reminds us, was also a vulnerable child and teenaged girl. Her gender may have saved her life (in contrast to what very likely happened to her brothers), but it compromised her every freedom. And her complicated ethnic identity – as a member of the Macedonian royal family of the Ptolemies, born in Egypt, partly raised in Rome and reigning as queen in North-West Africa – can, as Draycott shows, illuminate modern debates on immigration, acculturation and citizenship.

Francine Prose’s reappraisal of Cleopatra Selene’s mother, Cleopatra VII, is much shorter and less satisfactory. There have been innumerable studies of this more famous Cleopatra, both as a historical figure and as a cultural icon refashioned by every succeeding age. Prose is not a classical historian, and it shows. The first six chapters consist of an impressionistic historical narrative, divided respectively, and very conventionally, into the Ptolemaic background into which Cleopatra was born around 70 BCE, the politics of Rome in the 50s, Cleopatra’s dealings with Julius Caesar, her relationship with Mark Antony, Actium and the suicide. There is confusion about the intended audience; accounts of complicated diplomacy sit alongside vaguely feminist generalizations; some sources are given precise references, while others are not. The scandal-peddling ancient sources are sometimes treated as hopelessly misogynist and unreliable fictions, sometimes as unassailable truth.

Prose’s real enthusiasm seems to be the more recent reception of Cleopatra. She frequently refers to films about her heroine even in the “historical” chapters, and the second part of the book is entitled “The Afterlife of Cleopatra”. It would better be called “Selected Afterlives of Cleopatra”. It offers a few comments on Renaissance and Early Modern representations of the dissolving pearl anecdote, a sketchy discussion of Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in Antony and Cleopatra and Dryden’s All for Love, and a cursory overview of three films about Cleopatra, the main focus inevitably being on the 1963 extravaganza starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – although there have actually been dozens of other films, beginning in the earliest days of silent cinema. 

A controversy has been raging about the casting of the Israeli movie star Gal Gadot, rather than an actress with some Arabic or African ancestry, as Cleopatra in a biopic to be directed by Kari Skogland. The latest such debate is over the casting of Adele James as Cleopatra in a Netflix docudrama, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, whose maternal ancestors are Jamaican and Bajan (from Barbados) and African-American in her paternal line. James is British and mixed-race, but understandably private about her precise heritage. 

Yet, after a trailer for the four-part programme, an Egyptian lawyer has filed a request that the public prosecutor take steps to prevent access to it in Egypt, claiming without any evidence (because there is none) that Cleopatra was light-skinned.

This is where Draycott shows a sensitivity unknown to Prose towards by far the most important aspect of the reception of Cleopatra over more than a century: her ethnicity. Despite some harshly worded disputes, in which eminent classicists have unwisely expressed uncompromising views, we have absolutely no idea of Cleopatra’s precise genetic make-up: she was descended from Macedonians (whose claim to be Greeks was disputed), but in the course of the Ptolemies’ 260 years’ residence in Egypt, it is difficult to believe that no local genes entered the bloodline. The important point is that to people of African and Arabic heritage worldwide it matters that Cleopatra was “Egyptian”, culturally and/or biologically.

In 1927, for example, the Egyptian author Ahmad Shawqi’s play The Death of Cleopatra challenged the classical sources in arguing that Cleopatra had been falsely maligned, a victim of European imperial propaganda.

 A vast sculpture of “The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis was the sole major work of art by an African American at the  Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876: Nathaniel Hawthorne had already drawn satirical attention to the eroticization by white men of Cleopatra as a smouldering Nubian in The Marble Faun (1860). More recently the Philadelphian artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, who is African American, has returned over twenty times to depictions of Cleopatra in sculpture, wall art and poetry. Ever since abolition, “Cleopatra” has in the USA been a “speaking name”, bestowed by Civil Rights campaigners on their daughters and on the action heroine of the blaxploitation movies Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel. Prose’s attempt to chart the significance of Cleopatra’s afterlife, without properly exploring this aspect, is a missed opportunity indeed.


Saturday 18 March 2023

The Mystery of Greek Theatre's Use in Ancient Medicine


The Ancient Theatre of Epidauros

One of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be leading a retreat, with an initiative called Travelgems, in the north-eastern Greek Peloponnese in July,[i] is that I can revisit the ancient health centre at Epidauros, the most important ancient cult centre of the healing god Asclepius. All his sanctuaries were built in the most healthful locations, where trees, fresh water springs, medicinal herbs and restful views promoted the wellbeing of all who visited them, whether their malady was bodily or psychic.

Reconstruction of Asclepius' Temple at Epidauros

Available treatments included dream interpretation, a precursor of modern psychotherapy.  Rituals, bathing and daily prayer and meditation promoted optimism and positivity. But a great mystery surrounds one aspect of most sites where the arts of the therapeutic doctor-god were practised: Epidauros and others have beautiful ancient theatres, and performance arts seem to have been cultivated at many of his other sanctuaries.

We just do not know exactly what form these performative cures actually took. But the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the son of a distinguished medical physician, who claimed descent from a doctor given his medicine chest by the doctor-centaur Cheiron, speaks of the role of music, as experienced in certain religious rites, in the treatment of emotional distress. There were special ‘sacred melodies’, both ecstatic and calming, which could help groups of people suffering from the same psychological problem find relief. 

This is probably related to Aristotle’s theory that tragic theatre helps people deal with painful emotions through ‘catharsis’ by watching tragedy—which was a musical medium similar to opera—in a form of emotional homeopathy.

There are other links between tragic theatre and medicine. Sophocles was said to have introduced the cult of the healing hero Asclepius into his own household.

The retreat I am leading, with stunning guest lecturer Natalie Haynes,  will culminate in a performance of tragedy at the great Epidauros theatre itself. The experience will allow participants to undergo the healing power of the medical god himself as well as discuss the therapeutic psychological aspects of tragedy.

[i] https://travelgems.com/edith-hall-retreat/. A few places still available.

Sunday 22 January 2023

Good Times A-coming: Join me in Greece?


Last time I blogged I was entering an unpleasant period of medical treatment, but I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly through and have been given the all-clear. So I’m getting back down to business and am in search of Helios' sunshine!

I’ve got something wonderful to look forward to, as well, and some of you may even be interested in joining in. An enterprising company called Travelgems run by some inspiring Greek ladies has invited me to lead a retreat on the psychological relevance of Greek tragedy to today’s problems at an excellent hotel in the old seaside town of Naflplio between 11th and 16th July 2023.

The culmination will be a group outing to a live performance of an ancient drama at the stunning ancient theatre of Epidaurus. It will be unforgettable.

I’ll lead all the sessions where we will explore these timeless plays; there'll also be a guest lecture by the incomparable Nat Haynes and expeditions to the marvellous concentration of museums and sites in Greece.

I’ve just finished a book coming out next year with Yale University Press called Facing down the Furies on how Greek tragedy and ethics can help us address even the most intractable emotional problems, and this retreat will give me a chance to offer participants a private preview of the book’s contents.

We will ask how Aeschylus’ Oresteia  can teach us resilience, Sophocles’ Antigone the importance of patience in decision-making,  Philoctetes how to maintain hope even in our darkest hours, and Euripides’ Heracles on how to move on even after disaster and depression. We will ask why the Greek tragedians returned time and again to the stories of strong women facing up to the emotional problems of a society which oppressed them.

We’ll  laugh, cry, swim, eat, explore, and get inspired by some of the most beautiful art, poetry and archaeology in the world. I really can’t wait! To prepare myself, I’m going to start blogging on different myths connected with the area, starting next week with the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros. The Greeks understood a great deal about minds and emotions. I’d love you to come with me on this retreat for a journey through their ideas.