Sunday, 24 July 2016

Aristotle's email to Erdoğan

Dear Recep

cc  MustafaKemal@atürk 

Assos with view over to Lesbos
I recently came back from the Great Lyceum in the Sky for a nostalgic visit to my old stomping grounds. I spent two years of my life in the west of Turkey, at Assos (now known as Behramkale), with its beautiful Doric temple of Athena. I was invited there, after Plato died, by its ruler, Hermias, and enjoyed teaching him philosophy.

Where has my statue gone? Assos garbage can
Three Years Ago
I am distressed to discover that the lifesize statue of me which enhanced the village square has recently been removed, as a British Professor of Classics has alerted me. The plinth is now used a public rubbish bin. It was bad enough in the old days that the Behramkalites got my name wrong and called me ‘Aristo’ (an ugly abbreviation which I resented). But deliberately to have erased any sign that rational Greek philosophy and science flourished at Assos under my tutelage is to take your ideological war on openness of intellectual enquiry a bit far.

There is now no mention of me anywhere on the site. There is no Aristotle fridge magnet on any tourist gizmo stall. I found only this garden gnome-like mini-me outside an empty café, with no name inscribed. What is going on? Are you so scared of intellectual debate and pre-Islamic history that you just delete them?

I wrote quite a bit of my Politics at Assos, because Hermias wanted to reform his one-man rule (which we used straightforwardly to call a tyranny instead of pretending it was a democracy).  Although I have now repudiated my former prejudicial view of women, and see that slavery was indefensible, I stand by most of what I wrote and think you need reminding of my observations.

1.    Tyrants abuse religion to consolidate their power in the state.
2.    Nobody can expect to make money out of the community and to receive its respect as well.
3.  States malfunction when there are no friendly partnerships in operation between the individuals who constitute the state, only suspicion and envy.
4. Tyrants discourage any activities amongst citizens which foster self-esteem and self-confidence. These activities include academic work, the formation of study-circles and other arenas for debate.
5. The goal in a real democracy is liberty; your democracy sounds like my definition of tyranny, where the goal is the autocrat’s personal self-protection.
6. As I will explain in my work on Rhetoric, torture doesn’t work. Those subjected to torture are as likely to give false evidence as true, while others are equally ready to make false charges against others, in the hope of being sooner released from torture.

Atatürk Birth Museum
I trust that after digesting this you will free everybody you have recently arrested, reinstall my statue in Assos, and celebrate the contribution made by my human-centred and effectively secular Virtue Ethics to world civilisation. I invite you to visit my other old homes in Macedonia and Stagira to discuss this further. 

You can come by ferry to Thessaloniki, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born. While you’re there you can visit the Atatürk Museum to be reminded of another, very different vision of a modern Turkey.  

Yours sincerely
Aristotle son of Nicomachus of Stagira.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Goodbye to My Mother the Indexer

A forlorn week in which my mother died. She was ninety and had been ill for some months. But it has knocked me sideways.

My Grandmother & mother in 1926
Brenda Mary Henderson Hall was born into a cheerless haute-bourgeois Scottish family. An isolated only child, she struggled with her unfeeling father and depressive mother Edith, who eventually committed suicide in the 1960s. But my mother’s gutsy response to this early domestic misery was to avoid replicating it at all costs. 

This is not to say that one part of her did not remain, for me at least, closed off and mystifying. There were things about her background she flatly refused to discuss. What was admirable was the way she hurled herself into wifehood and motherhood, having four children and nine grandchildren on whom she lavished smiles and delicious meals, always with the fullest-fat ingredients.  

She was an old-fashioned Scottish Liberal to the core. She was furious when she appeared in a novel called The Cellar at the Top of the Stairs written by an alleged friend of mine. He had modelled its classically educated detective Ethel on his psychedelic impressions of me.  He portrayed Ethel’s mother as a keen flower arranger (which she was) but also as a supporter of the Conservative Party (which was unthinkable).

May 2016 in Hospital
Her death has come as I struggle to make the index for an OUP feminist history book I'm co-editing with Rosie Wyles, Female Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly. My mother would have revelled in the subject-matter.

I have no idea how to make an index beyond word-searching proper names, and find myself sobbing all over the pdf. She was a world-class professional indexer and is no longer sitting by her computer at the end of the phone. From my first book in 1989 to Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris just two years ago, my mother created brilliant, detailed, thematic, conceptual, intellectually sophisticated and unbelievably useful indexes to almost every book I have published, especially most of the string of collaborative volumes which have come out of the Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama at Oxford.

Prizewinning Index!
She was the Best Indexer of Humanities books ever. She won a National Prize Commendation for the sophisticated research tool which is her index to the enormous Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 which I co-authored with Fiona Macintosh in 2005. Mum transformed a monster volume crammed with wildly unfamiliar data into a usable document enhanced by an index of intellectual and aesthetic beauty.

In honour of her I always comment on the quality of indexes in books I review. I hate the mediocrity of the one I'm failing now to compile. She was correct that nobody should index their own books. Like the insightful indexer Claire Minton in Kurt Vonnegut’s Hiroshima novel Cat’s Cradle (1963), she could psychoanalyse any author who indexed their own book just by looking at the concepts they chose to feature.
Commendation for Wheatley Medal

She was many things to many people, but in adulthood I forged a new collegial bond with her in discussing the minutiae of dating conventions and sub-headings. I doubt if her indexing will feature much in other funeral tributes. So this is my way of saying thanks, mum, and good-bye.

Monday, 4 July 2016

On The Importance of Morale

Graham Todd, Fabulous Shopkeeper
Sad and uncertain times domestically mean that heroes of high MORALE have meant more than usual this week. I am an advocate of morale-raising as a principle. It can win wars against impossible odds and transform seemingly unendurable situations into moments of grace.

On Friday I did my own version of Retail Therapy. This consists of wandering with a tenner around the charity shops of either Cheltenham or St Andrews, depending on whether I am nearest my self-generated or original, natal family.

This week's window at Emmaus Cheltenham
I laughed for half an hour in the incomparable Emmaus shop in Henrietta Street, Cheltenham, served by the morale-boosting Graham Todd. There is always a comical tableau at this shop's entrance: this week a vast teddy bear sat on an ancient plastic mannequin holding a scimitar in her hand, threatening to execute him.

I bought two pairs of jeans, a kitchen utensil jar, a book, a colander and some lovely big plates for pasta. Emmaus is an admirable charity for the homeless;  its Royal Patron is the only member of who appears to give a toss about poverty--Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

What I love about this branch of Emmaus is that it is crammed high with stock and untouched by daft concepts of tasteful High Street colour-themed presentation. The staff always have time for a blether. Rock on Graham: I will be back.

King's Great Hall on 2 July
Then on Saturday I welcomed for a day of festivity at King’s College, London, forty+ teenagers studying classical civilisation at state schools/6th-form colleges in Kent, Worcester, Milton Keynes, and Lewisham. They get to be thrilled by the ancient Greeks and Romans because their dedicated teachers work their socks off. They are true Morale Heroes of our time—Paul Found, Simon Beasley, Stephen Dobson, and Eddie Barnett.

Nat Haynes, Superstar of Morale
Natalie Haynes (comedienne, novelist, journalist, broadcaster and Renaissance Woman, in fact pure Morale in a Bottle) kicked off proceedings. Others who participated in a day of joy, including poets Caroline Bird and Caleb Femi, know how grateful I am.
Kent Classical Civilisation Contingent

My retail life doesn’t get better than Friday and my working life better than Saturday. Morale is one of my obsessions: on interview panels I ALWAYS ask how aspiring lecturers would contribute to departmental good cheer. A good response would be e.g. that you can play the bagpipes. But if you look like you don’t even understand the question it might be better to go off and be bleak somewhere else. 

The ancient Greek for high morale is euthumia. It is definitely my Word of the Week.
Conspiring for Pleasure and Edification in Classics!

Friday, 24 June 2016

A Classicist Hero of European Ireland

Prof Bob Mitchell Henry
In my entire research life, the biggest ever thrill took place in Queen’s University Belfast a month ago. Preparing for an excellent Dublin conference this week marking the centenary of the Easter Uprising in 1916, I dived into the archived papers of my inspirational new hero, Professor Robert (“Bob”) Mitchell Henry (1873-1950). He has never received due recognition as a role model for academics, so here is my belated appreciation.

With Prof Isabelle Torrance (convenor) & Dr Hazel Dodge
A fine classical scholar, Bob was the pillar of Queen’s for nearly three decades and led its extra-mural activities. He co-founded the local branch of the Workers’ Educational Association and the Classical Association of Ireland. He lectured to the Ulster working class on ancient women and slaves. He was the first President of the Society for Irish Historical Studies. He learned and taught Gaelic. He wrote in socialist newspapers. He energetically supported Trade Unions, the poor, and the Belfast Newsboys Club.

Queen's University Belfast
But Bob was also a republican and a tireless supporter of Irish Catholics and of Irish unity. This is all the more surprising since he was a devout Protestant of Scottish descent. Alongside books on Latin literature, he wrote the canonical Evolution of Sinn Fein (1920), a meticulously researched and sympathetic account of the background to the 1916 rebellion and the principles which motivated the rebels.

'Shooting range'--entry in Henry's diary March 1916
Several passages in this exquisitely written tragic history made me suspect that he had himself joined the Irish Volunteers. They were riflemen prepared to fight the pro-British Ulster Volunteers and if necessary die in defence of Irish independence and unity. So I consulted his pocket diaries. Rifle practice is indeed a regular feature, but only of the months January to March 1916.

Many of the Irish Volunteers were rounded up, imprisoned and deported after the uprising. Thirteen of the rebel leaders were summarily executed after hasty court-martials. Bob was undoubtedly in personal danger at the time.
The Executed 1916 Leaders

After the executions he prudently decided to promote pan-Irish independence through writing rather than revolution. I wonder what he would have made of today’s referendum result, in which the people of the north of Ireland emphatically voted in favour of remaining in Europe alongside the other Irish people sharing their lovely island.

If Sinn Fein get their way, a century on from the Easter uprising the people of Northern Ireland may finally decide that being dragged out of the EU is too high a price to pay for being subjects of the English crown. Ireland has had intimate cultural links with Europe since early medieval times. I wish I could have this conversation with Bob. It would provide some solace today.

Saturday, 18 June 2016


The Latin poet Horace said that the Britons were hostile towards strangers (Britannos hospitibus feros, Ode 3.4). Yesterday, reeling like everyone else from the appalling murder of Labour MP, and true friend of all immigrants, Jo Cox, I had to intervene on a bus between Oxford and London because the yobbish white driver was being so hostile to a foreign lady.

She only had one of the new £20 notes, for a £14 fare. Neither she nor anyone else could see whether his problem was with the unfamiliarity of the note or her lack of the right change. He accused her, loudly, of wasting his time and being too stupid to understand English. At this point a male passenger shouted at him, legitimately enough, ‘What sort of impression of our country do you think you are making on this lady?’ A brawl was imminent. I got up and paid for the lady with my multi-use ten-journey card. She thanked me politely. We set off.

Like ‘homophobia’ as a euphemism for lethal hatred of gay people, the word xenophobia is not enough to describe that bus driver. It means fear of strangers.  We need a word meaning hatred of strangers, which would be misoxeny, a word my twitter friend Graham Guest points out to me was in use in the 17th century. John Josselyn said that ‘the old Brittains’ were notable for their ‘misoxenie or hatred to strangers.’ Cartographer John Speed wrote, presciently, that misoxenie was unalterably inherent in the ‘common humour’ of our ‘Nation’.

Inter-Marriage as Foundation Myth of Marseilles
Watching my compatriots slugging it out in Marseilles with the equally misoxenic Russian football ‘fans’ last week was excruciatingly embarrassing.  I yelled at the TV that they were betraying the spirit of Marseilles, founded as Massalia by Greek vintners in about 600 BCE. A French princess named Gyptis fell in love with a Protis, a handsome Greek. The Gauls had welcomed him to a feast. She chose the migrant as her husband rather than any of her Gallic suitors. 

The incident with the bus driver made me feel even worse than the Marseilles football shambles. How I’m going to feel next Friday morning if misoxeny prevails, and we Britons hospitibus feri decide to turn our backs on the rest of Europe, does not bear thinking about. If I don’t blog next weekend it will be because I have fled the country altogether, perhaps to Marseilles, portrayed here as an idyllic hybrid ancient community by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

Saturday, 11 June 2016


This is me at 0930 on Friday morning in Patras, due to kick off a pioneering international conference on Classical Reception and the Human with a lecture at 1400. I have always hated mosquitoes since my friend Caroline Fraser, a fine physicist, died at 40 of undiagnosed malaria after visiting South Africa. The Zika virus is doing nothing to rehabilitate them in my eyes.

Dual Purpose Ancient Egyptian Netting
Mosquitoes have never liked me, or perhaps  liked me too much, but this was ridiculous. The irony was that one part of my paper was about how humans should treat animals with respect. Aristotle refers to the extinction of a species of scallop ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. I would happily have dredged up and annihilated every mosquito in Greece.

Mosquitoes and Murder Fantasies
Herodotus tells how clever Egyptians defy mosquitoes by wrapping themselves at night in the fine-gauged nets with which they catch fish by day. But ancient Greek references to mosquitoes often occur in sinister contexts. Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, taking years to figure out how to kill her husband because he had killed their daughter, describes with double meaning how ‘lightly whirring mosquitoes whizz around’ and constantly waken her from dreams in which she imagines him suffering.

"Better the (full) mosquito that you know"
One story in Aesop emphasises the ‘jungle law’ that is so important to the cynical world view of the ancient fable: a mosquito defeats a great lion by repeatedly biting his face, but is then himself entrapped by a spider. Another Aesopic fable discourages anybody to opt for a change of master or government. A fox whose tail looked like my face yesterday morning still declined the offer to have the mosquitoes driven away. He reasoned that full mosquitoes could hurt him less than the hungry new ones which would inevitably come and victimise him.

Feeling like Aesop’s suppurating lion and fox, I had to confess the problem to the conference organiser Efimia Karakantza. She is an extraordinary woman, with a team of inspirational students. No Greek economic crisis or slashing cut to university funding has stopped them, so why should a trifling mosquito bite?

Edith, Efimia and Marietta
These wonderful young Greeks include Marietta Kotsafti, who calmly drove us to a hospital. Despite the obvious shortage of resources, I was treated for free with speed, humour, and kindness. Efimia could have done without the  excitement, especially when she broke her own glasses. Like the Graiai, there was now only one sighted person in three.

But a huge injection in my rear and by 1400 I could see enough to paste eye shadow all over the swelling and give my paper. I’m coming back in September, but this time with an armoury of mosquito-targetted chemical weapons, syringes full of antihistamines and an Egyptian fishing net. KOUNOUPIA OF PATRAS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Edith and Efimia