Saturday, 28 March 2015

Toby, the Classically Educated Pig

Can Swine Really Digest Pearls, Ma''am?
Researching the Horrid History of intellectual snobbery, I have this week collected many instances of rich morons who have claimed that offering the Greeks and Romans to working-class people is equivalent to ‘casting pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6).  This research has introduced me to Toby, the SAPIENT PIG, OR PHILOSOPHER OF THE SWINISH RACE, who toured pubs in late Georgian England exhibiting his prodigious intellect. The frontispiece to his autobiography The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig implies that the learned swine’s preferred reading was Plutarch.

Note the name PLUTARCH on the spine (lower left)
Toby’s excellent literary taste suggests that he or his entrepreneurial owner had read my favourite essay by Plutarch (best known for his Lives of famous Greeks and Romans), the Gryllus. This stars a brainy ancient hog whose name means ‘Grunter’. Gryllus conducts a delightful mock-Platonic dialogue with Odysseus and Circe. He has been transformed into a philosophical pig and does not want to be changed back into a human.

The British showed their intellectual superiority over the French in 1751 with another classically educated animal. When Le Chien Savant (or Learned French dog, a small poodle-ish she-dog who could spell words in French and English), arrived in London, she was trumped by the New Chien Savant, or learned English Dog, a Border Collie. The triumphant English Dog toured Staffordshire, Shrewsbury, Northamptonshire, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester as well as the taverns of London. She had clearly been to canine Eton, since she knew the Greek alphabet, could spell PYTHAGORAS, answer questions about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and was an expert in ancient history.  She could mind-read. She was advertised as possibly being a latterday reincarnation of Pythagoras the ancient Greek philosopher himself.
The Learned English Collie puts the Sigma in PYTHAGORAS

I'm sad that I was born too late to witness either the Learned English Dog or Toby the Sapient Pig in performance. But I have learned from researching them. Knowledge of ancient Greek and classical authors, including the (by no means lightweight) Ovid and Plutarch, was absolute proof of the prodigious intelligence of an animal. This Is in turn  telling evidence of the degree of difficulty—and therefore cultural prestige in financial and class terms—associated by the provincial inn-going public with such an educational curriculum.

Toby at Oxford before Betrayal to the Abattoir
The poet Thomas Hood saw that no amount of learning could ultimately save a pig—or a lower-class human—from being sacrificed in the interests of the voracious ruling class. His Lament of Toby, the Learned Pig, woefully concludes with the poor porcine, despite being crammed with Classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, being fed and readied for slaughter:
        My Hebrew will all retrograde
        Now I’m put up to fatten,
        My Greek, it will all go to grease,
        The dogs will have my Latin!

Food for thought, especially for a born-again vegetarian.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Challenging the Classical Conservatives

Perhaps it was the eclipse, but this week I have got cross with two separate men who are bedded down deep in the British Classics Establishment.

Aphrodite's Bottom, the Opening Experience of the Exhibition
Asked to read the brochure for the imminent British Museum exhibition
Defining Beauty for Radio 3’s Free Thinking, I politely said what I thought to its esteemed Curator, Dr Ian Jenkins. It is a safe, reverential presentation of masterpieces of ancient Greek art.  The conceptual framework underlying it does not challenge the view, first promulgated by 18th-century Aryanists, that ideal male beauty was unproblematically defined for all time as white, sporty and powerful, and female beauty as white and erotic, in the  fifth and fourth centuries BC.

I don’t like the athletic, powerful Amazons being put in the ‘monsters’ section, or the Persians and Africans being  dumped in the ‘realism and character’ section rather than those on beauty or thought. There is no attempt to ask whether the Page Three girl’s ancestress was actually titillating ancient statues of Aphrodite.

But heck, the exhibition is stunning. The artworks are unforgettable, the lighting and the loftiness of the plinths admirable. I saw it today when Nat Haynes asked me to do an interview with her and Mike Squire, world champion at ancient Greek art commentary, for a TV documentary. But it could scarcely be more intellectually conservative.

‘Intellectually conservative’ is not the right way to describe the classical Luddite Harry Mount, who published a destructive article in the Telegraph complaining that ‘the high-minded, mind-expanding beauties of Greek’ have been pushed out of state schools by  the ‘easy’ options of ‘classical civilisation, or classics-lite, as you might call it’. Thus glibly are the many thousands of people who take Classical Civilisation at GCSE and ‘A’ Level across the land publicly demeaned and viciously insulted by a privileged and privately educated snob.

I have experience of teaching Greek, Latin and Classical Civilisation at every level from primary school to elite universities. Indeed, I thought I had taught Mr Mount to ratiocinate in Homer classes I ran long ago at Magdalen College Oxford.  

How different have been the dynamic dialogues I have held with hundreds of students who arrive at universities every year after Class Civ. ‘A’ Level, with their wide knowledge of ancient literature and society, art, architecture and philosophy? They are so excited that learning Greek just takes a few months. How brilliant have been the questing students I have accepted for PhDs after doing Classical Studies degrees at the Open University?

Some of The Magnificent Hackney Uni Extension Classicists!
How intellectually challenging have I found teaching the University Extension Scheme in Hackney this term alongside King’s College colleagues?*  We have faced provocative and genuinely ‘mind-expanding’ questions about ancient theatre, religion and law, posed by amazingly bright members of the public, including teenagers from local comprehensives taking Classical Civilisation. Most of them, at seventeen years old, could make mincemeat of Mr Mount’s arguments. I think they and all State Sector Classicists deserve an apology.

*Dr Matthew Shipton, who has just completed an outstanding PhD with me at KCL on youth in Greek tragedy, after an OU Masters, and Dr Henry Stead, who did a joint OU/Oxford doctorate and is now Postdoctoral Rellow on the Classics and Class project at KCL.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Pig Tale for Mother's Day

The ancient Athenian equivalent of Mother’s Day? The Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries. These took place in March. They celebrated the springtime return to the goddess Demeter of her daughter Persephone from her rapist/ husband Hades in the Underworld.

Eleusinian celebrants sacrificed a piglet. This is not something I will be doing this year. After seeing a pitiful lorryload of mammals being taken to an abattoir, I have this week had one of my several (hitherto embarrassingly shortlived) conversions to vegetarianism.  The last time was in Australia in 2011 when I was offered a steaming plate of kangaroo stew after visiting a marsupial park and shaking paws, eye-to-eye, with one of its residents.

Kissing, Feeding, or Telling it Off?
My intermittent revulsion against sinking my canines into the flesh of other animals will probably also prevent me from accepting this week’s invitation from the North Cotswold local press. If I do attend the annual Moreton Pig Show, I am promised a chance to Guess the Weight of “the magnificent British Lop Boar named Pastie” and witness the Marquess of Salisbury, President of the British Pig Association, bestow trophies on the victorious swine. I hope he won’t imitate whatever ritual this ancient Egyptian is performing in Saqqara tomb art (suggestions welcome in the Comments section).

Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil KCVO PC DL 
As an urban leftie, stranded for love in a reactionary rural backwater, this is where I draw the line. The Marquess, universally said to be delightful, is just not my kinda guy. He alighted from Eton effortlessly in Oxford to achieve a Third Class degree. He has a vast personal fortune. His appointments have included Merchant Banker, Tory MP, Peer of the Realm and now breeder of Ginger-Haired Tamworths. 

In 2011 he told the Financial Times that politics was much “easier” than pig-keeping. “I regard politics a bit like fox-hunting; there’s nothing more serious while you’re doing it, but there is [sic] always buttered eggs for tea afterwards.”

Demeter & Pet Pig, 4th c. BC
It is very good to be thus reassured about the intellectual prowess of our hereditary ruling class. 

I can't quite follow the analogy between fox-hunting and politics myself, but then I have never regarded myself as gifted enough to govern the populace.

Although I probably won’t go to the porcine prize-giving, I will take up the buttered egg suggestion. Currently I doubt if I’ll ever be able to face another bacon sandwich.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Excavating NIMRUD: Lest We Forget

Layard supervises Removal of Artefacts
Nimrud is one of the four great cities of the Assyrians built between 2000 and 700 BC within a small region of the Tigris valley in what is now North Iraq. The world heritage site, currently being bulldozed from the face of the earth, only re-emerged from its depths between 1845 and 1851. It was dug up by Iraqi workmen under the direction of Briton Austen Henry Layard.

Fig from Layard's bestseller
Layard originally thought Nimrud was the biblical Nineveh. His bestselling book was erroneously titled Nineveh and its Remains. Yet Layard’s Nineveh was the first archaeological blockbuster in English, and in abridged form one of the first six books published in 1852 in the imprint Murray’s Reading for the Rail sold at  W.H. Smith  station bookstalls.

Tenniel's Assyrian-Influenced Hybrid Creatures
When the astonishing Assyrian remains arrived at the British Museum, Layard became a national hero. The press went wild. Queen Victoria donated money to the archaeological fund. Assyrianised guardian-monsters appear in John Tenniel’s 1865 depiction of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kipling uses the model of Nineveh in the poem which produced his most famous line, ‘Lest we forget!’

Westernised Ancestors of Assyrians
Nimrud and Nineveh mattered because Christian Victorians desperately needed confirmation of the historical veracity of the bible, including its statements that the Israelites had dealing with the people of Assyria and Mesopotamia. Nineveh had after all, according to Genesis 10.11, been founded by a descendant of Noah and Shem called Assur. The new science of Biblical Archaeology allowed the literal truth of the bible to be defended against allegorical interpreters, and subsequently Darwinian doubters, on new terms. The material history of the Judaeo-Christian religions was not only emerging from the deserts of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of these faiths, but arriving in central Bloomsbury. The working-class Victorian autodidact and clergyman John Relly Beard was typical when he used Layard’s discovery of the cities named in connection with Noah in the Old Testament to defend its historicity against contemporary geologists’ attempts to disprove the universal deluge.

Agatha & Max  in Iraq
USA Nabu at Library of Congress
I do not know whether the Islamic State bulldozer drivers consciously connect Nimrud and Nineveh with Judaeo-Christian self-definition. I do not know how explicitly they associate them with the western imperialism which allowed Layard and later generations of European and  American archaeologists (including Agatha Christie's husband Max Mallowan) to take by far the majority of the detachable objects away from their Mesopotamian home westward to infidel museums. But perhaps they see, or subconsciously intuit, representations of the ancestors of the other Abrahamic religions in the stony faces they are smashing of Nabu and Ninurta, Assyrian gods of written records and of victory respectively.


If so, then their hatred, although no less terrifying and its results no less of a catastrophic outrage, may be just a little easier to understand.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Crass Tax Fat Cats

Thomas Sutherland, HSBC Founder
On Tuesday it will be the 150th anniversary of HSBC, founded on March 3 1865 by a classically educated Scot from Aberdeen called Thomas Sutherland. Although his bank had its shady side where profits from the opium trade were concerned, I still suspect that Sutherland has been turning in his Calvinist grave this week at the nauseating extent of the tax-dodging support the current HSBC bosses have offered their rapacious clients.

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has also failed to prosecute  Paul Bloomfield, a property tycoon and client of HSBC liable for TWENTY YEARS' taxes. I am not usually a fan of tough sentences, but admit that I savoured looking up the way  tax dodgers were dealt with in antiquity. In Babylon you could expect to be blinded; in Egypt, publicly flogged. Sulla made the Ephesians cough up by threatening to behead them.

Greg Wise & Emma Thompson
The actor Greg Wise, according to the London Evening Standard,  says he will pay no further tax until HSBC's criminally selfish clients pay up or face proper punishment. If we all followed Wise’s lead, it might actually work. Tax paying must be consensual for its collectors to stay in power. 

Wat Tyler, Great Briton 
Margaret Thatcher finally had to acknowledge in 1990 that The People might conceivably Refuse To Obey. Many simply did not pay the Poll Tax. This required all adults to cough up the same ££ whether they lived ten-to-a-room on a dilapidated estate, or alone in an enormous mansion. Most non-compliers filled in the hated form under pseudonyms: like many, I signed as Wat Tyler, opponent of a previous Poll Tax inflicted on peasants in 1381.

Gruesome Twosome: Flint and Gulliver 
Tax dodgers, as a species of lowlife, are congenitally tactless. Billionairess Leona Helmsley once told her housekeeper, "Only the little people pay taxes". This week, the sleek and supercilious HSBC boss Stuart Gulliver, whose basic salary is £7.8 million, and who is pictured here with his even sleeker collaborator Douglas Flint, told the Treasury Select Committee that he needed a definition of "fat cat" before he could confirm or deny that he is one. 


I would like to tell you my own definition of what zoologists would called the degenerate subspecies of Homo Sapiens called “fat cat” or Cattus Crassus, but it is unprintable. Instead I hope you will join me in wishing the executive top brass of HSBC and their clients a really lousy anniversary.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

African American Odyssey

Bearden's Evocation of the Sirens episode in the Odyssey

I’m in New York City to talk tomorrow at Columbia Uni about the presence of the Odyssey in African American culture, more specifically in the paintings and collages of Romare Bearden. The trials of Odysseus, in Bearden’s many Homer-inspired artworks, provide a mythic counterpoint to the painful journey constituting African American history—conflict, captivity, loss, struggle, sea-passage, exile, threatened identity.


An early expression of the identification of people of the African diaspora with Odysseus was the 1939  Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) by Aimé Césaire of Martinique.  In 1952 Ralph Waldo Ellison published his seminal Odyssean novel Invisible Man (1952), a dazzling indictment of the continuing oppression of Americans of African descent. I read this novel in twenty-four hours one freezing Christmas while looking after a child in a Dundee hospital. I have never recovered. It affected me, personally, far more than  Derek Walcott’s Caribbean epic Omeros, albeit the greatest ‘Homeric’ poem of the twentieth century. 


Nigel Thatch as Malcom X in Selma
But the date tomorrow is February 21st.  Most Manhattanites who might otherwise have come to discuss Bearden will probably be at events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. He, too, was fascinated by the ancient world. In the Norfolk Penal Colony, Massachusetts, he rapidly educated himself in Greek and Roman history from Story of Civilisation by Will and Ariel Durant, from Homer and Aesop’s Fables. He subsequently inspired a generation of African Americans to learn about the ancient empires. 

Oyelowo as Enslaved Prometheus
The meeting between him and Martin Luther King is beautifully handled in the new movie Selma, commemorating another fiftieth anniversary--that of the 1965 Alabama Civil Rights marches. That David Oyelowo has not been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Dr King, when the omnipresent Bradley Cooper is in the running for manically eyeballing his Remington M40 in American Sniper, is utterly beyond me. Oyelowo wowed me years ago in the Aeschylean tragedy Prometheus Bound, to the extent that I put him on the cover of a book, Ancient Slavery and Abolition, of which I am very proud and concerning which Henry Louis Gates actually sent an email of moderate appreciation.


Bearden's Visualisation of the Cicones episode in the Odyssey
What I would really like now is a film version of the Odyssey starring Oyelowo as Odysseus and Beyoncé (with some arias) as Penelope. If permitted a small role as an aged housekeeper or a Laestrygonian she-giant I would be more than happy to act as academic consultant.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Too ManyTrojan Horses


The Trojan horse story is not obvious entertainment for Valentine’s Day. It was linked to multiple rapes and doomed love affairs: Helen/ Menelaus, Helen/ Paris, Achilles/ Patroclus, Andromache/Hector, Hecuba/Priam, not to mention Agamemnon/Clytemnestra. Nevertheless it is Feb 14th at 2100 that a documentary about the Trojan Horse “mystery” which I helped make last summer is being broadcast in the UK on MORE 4.

Wheeled siege machine, bottom right
Trojan Comedy at Southwark Fair
Guessing what “reality” underlay this “myth” was already popular in antiquity. An ancient scholar called Servius surveyed all the guesses made by the fourth century AD. Some said it was a battering ram in the form of a horse, and there are wheeled siege machines in Assyrian art. Others  claimed that a horse was painted over the gate through with the Greeks invaded Troy, perhaps not unlike the famous painted horse, the scenic backdrop of a fairground comedy on the Trojan theme, portrayed within Hogarth’s Southwark Fair. Others suggested that the Greeks’ secret password was “horse”. Or that Troy was defeated by the Greek cavalry. Or that the Greeks attacked Troy from a slope called Horse Mountain.

Athena, first Gymkhana girl
Modern scholars have slightly expanded this repertoire of guesses, most  plausibly  in suggesting it had something to do with the religious cult of Athena, portrayed making statues of horses on several vases; another candidate is Poseidon, worshipped as “Horsey (Hippios) Poseidon” in the area round Troy. He was also the god of the earthquake, so the Trojan Horse story might be legend’s way of memorializing a siege made possible when the city was damaged by seismic tremors.

Personally, I am now sick of the Trojan Horse, at least in contemporary journalism. There is scarcely a political situation in the world which doesn’t remind some cartoonist somewhere of this story. Last week alone I spotted a Russian "aid convoy" entering Donetsk portrayed as a Trojan horse by a Ukrainian newspaper and American capitalists hidden inside the Trojan horse of Islamophobia in a left-wing French organ.

They need to extend their repertoire: the siege of Joppa in the fifteenth century BC featured soldiers sneaking into town in food sacks suspended on poles. An ancient Persian epic, the Book of Kings, tells of eighty soldiers who captured the Brazen Fortress from inside having gained entry in treasure chests drawn by dromedaries.

"Horsey" Poseidon Hippios
The Wooden Rabbit of Monty Python
Best of all, we could take our cue from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and at least ring the changes with a wooden Trojan Rabbit.