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. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Missive from the Great Western Underworld

I Look Like This
I am a small laptop computer in a pouch decorated with a reproduction of the Rosetta Stone 

On Wednesday January 21st my owner, a middle-aged woman academic, left me in the café on Oxford Railway Station platform 2 at 4.18 pm.  The nice man who makes tea in the café handed me in to Lost Property. A guard wrote up the Oxford Station Lost Property Report Form no. 21411 (this old-fashioned paper document physically exists) and sent me on my way, he believed, to the Great Western Railway Universal Pound at Bristol Temple Meads. But I never made it. I am lost without trace.

Satanic Symbol
My distraught owner, who has stored on me pictures of her pets and children, along with lots of strange images of ancient Greek & Roman actors and six half-finished books, has since spent many hours on the phone to the Acolytes of Hades employed by Great Western Railway. One, who barks like a triple-headed Cerberus, woofs mystifying things like “just popping you on hold.” But the Gods of the GWR Underworld have decided that My Case is Closed. Moreover, they may already have auctioned me off since I “do not exist in the system.” I am an Ontological Anomaly. I Am and I Am Not.

Visiting the Epirote Oracle of the Dead
An article about Lost Property in the Ancient World happens to be on my hard disk. Jewish Law is unequivocal: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep going astray, do not ignore them; you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find; you must not remain indifferent.” [Deuteronomy 22.1-3]

Hadrian: demands half my value
In ancient Greece, my owner would have gone to the Oracle of the Dead  near Albania. She would have raised the ghost of one of her dead relatives to harass any felons and find me. It could not have been scarier than the GWR ansaphone. 

Under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, since Oxford station was built on land belonging to him, my value, when I was found, would be split between him and the Professor Woman. I am sure she would think even that was a good deal.

"Return my lost Insignia or Die!"
But I would like to draw my captors’ attention to the most ancient edict on Lost Property, contained in the Code of Hammurabi. According to Babylonian law of the 18th century BC, the individual “who willingly withholds an item lost by its owner is a thief and SHALL BE PUT TO DEATH.” This is not a laughing matter. Please return me immediately. You have not heard the last of me.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Syriza's Minotaur-Slayer

The saturnine new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has a face like a gangster and the worked-out body of a fitness fanatic. His rhetoric is scathing, cogent, and graphic. He quotes Dylan Thomas and Aeschylus. He calls the austerity measures imposed on Greece ‘fiscal waterboarding.’ 

Varoufakis wrote the dazzling 2011 polemic The Global Minotaur. It equates the beast in the lair of world capitalism, the American banking system, with the insatiable man/bull of Minoan Crete to whom human tributes—the sons and daughters of Athenians—were given to devour every year. The Minotaur myth may originally have arisen as an expression of the imperial subjection of Mycenaean Greek communities to the Bronze Age Cretan monarchy. But the new, global Minotaur of economic imperialism was born in the 1970s, when vast sums of capital began to be sent to Wall Street from all over the world, creating unsustainable contradictions which precipitated the 2008 crash.
1974 cartoon on fall of Greek dictatorship

This Minotaur is dying, says our latterday Theseus, himself born in Athens: the imminent combat between him and the global Minotaur's lackeys at the European Central Bank is set to be an exciting spectacle.

Varoufakis is not the first polemicist to equate an opponent with the Minotaur. Martin Luther was compared to the monster by his leading Roman Catholic foe. And the Victorian reformer William T. Stead, who invented modern journalism in his 1885 exposés of London vice rings pimping girl-child prostitutes,  saw the rich men who demanded constant supplies of new victims as Minotaurs;  Stead’s series was called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, and was written in prose as colourful as Varoufakis’s: 

William Stead,  Victorian Minotaur-slayer
This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Maidens they were when this morning dawned, but to-night their ruin will be accomplished, and to-morrow they will find themselves within the portals of the maze of London brotheldom… The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable, and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.

Varoufakis, with hair, versus American Economic Imperialism
Stead’s lurid press campaign was instrumental in the age of consent being raised by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 from just 13 to 16. The Minotaur of mass child sex abuse in London was slain. We shall have to wait and see whether the Greek election and the appointment of such an articulate economist as Varoufakis may similarly presage the demise of the 21st century's ravening Minotaur at the centre of the world banking shambles.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Breasts from the Amazons to Page Three

Amazon Queen of Czechoslovakia
This week  starred  mammary glands and their role in matriarchy and patriarchy.  I thought I knew everything about matriarchal legends, but my trip to Eastern Europe introduced me to the two Amazonian warrior queens, Libussa and Valasca, who founded Prague and ran it as socialist feminists in the 8th century AD.

 Then my review of Adrienne Mayor’s thrilling  book on the Amazons appeared in New Statesman. It is a global history of mounted warrior women, skilled in archery. Many classical myths about Amazons turn out to have archaeological substantiation. In the Tarim Basin (north-west China), a mass grave of the second/first century BC contains the skeletons of 133 male and female nomads killed in combat. One trouser leg was discovered, amazingly, to be decorated with a centaur blowing a war trumpet like those blown by Amazons and Scythians in ancient Greek art.

Just about the only Amazon myth containing no truth is that they routinely cut off one breast; this was a false etymology of Amazones, a prehistoric Iranian ethnic term unconnected to the Greek word for ‘breast’, mastos or mazos.

Speaking of present and absent breasts, I can’t be certain whether the man who in 1970 invented the Page Three Girl would have encountered Greek etymology when he attended Rastrick Grammar School in Yorkshire, but exposure to Latin and thus to Camilla, the Amazon of the Aeneid, is likely. 

 Lamb (right) with Bob Maxwell
Did Camilla excite Larry Lamb?
Albert aka ‘Larry’ Lamb, later knighted by Margaret Thatcher for insulting miners, was the son of a coalfield blacksmith. Because his father died, Larry was forced to leave school at 16, and later admitted that he had ‘a substantial chip on my shoulder, on the grounds that I am not educated, and I should have been.’ If he had gone through sixth form and university, might he have learned enough about class, gender and race to change the history of British popular journalism (he also opposed the release of Mandela)?

David Phalakros Dinsmore
We will never know. Lamb is no longer with us. To be fair, in his memoir Sunset he confided that the Page Three Girl was probably a mistake. His view is not shared by the current Sun editor David Dinsmore, a demented-looking hairless Glaswegian  whom the Greeks would have called phalakros (‘penis-head’). Reports of the demise of the Page Three Girl earlier this week were on Thursday proved to be premature by Nicole from Bournemouth. Dinsmore is a graduate, of Paisley and Columbia, in Business and Management Skills. I hope it was in the USA, not Scotland, that he learned to be such a booby.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Tearing down the Iron (Stage) Curtain

As a child I was fascinated by the Eastern bloc. I took out a subscription to Soviet Weekly with my pocket money, to read exalted claims about factory outputs and stories with boy-meets-tractor plots. 

As a student in the 1980s, I contacted classicists behind the ‘iron curtain’, and discovered that they were neither monsters nor always victims of persecution. In fact, they were much better adjusted and presentable than most of their British counterparts. 

So this week’s conference in Warsaw has fulfilled a longstanding dream: Classics and Communism in Theatre has brought together experts on performances in Eastern bloc countries to illuminate what the ancient Greeks meant on eastern stages before 1989. I am one of a gang of just four occidentals here to stress that there were also committed communists using ancient drama west of the curtain, from the founders of the Provincetown Players to Cuba, C.L.R. James to Joan Littlewood. She was inspired by her production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to produce the socially engaged musical theatre most familiar from her Oh! What a Lovely War.

"Let's perform a Greek tragedy, Tovaritch!"
The quality of the delivery and of the content of the papers is staggering. The delegates all speak better English than we do, and assume a grasp of cultural theory so sophisticated that it puts me to shame. The revelations have been spine-tingling: the censoring of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes in East Berlin just after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Red Army, bizarrely, performing Euripides’ uncheerful Hippolytus in a Bolshevik celebratory pageant on May Day 1920.

There have been some mirthful moments. One eminent Polish archaeologist reacted to footage from  Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, starring a very overweight actress as Clytemnestra, yelling ‘Eat less!’ across the auditorium. We heard about the side-splitting pranks played on Slovenian bureaucrats by a rebel playwright/classicist in the late 1940s. We were petrified by a Russian Professor who complained about the (excellent) facilities, ran FORTY minutes over time and interrupted every interlocutor--all this at a conference where Russian imperialism was the underlying context.

We’re planning a repeat meeting in a couple of years, maybe on our different national/ideological experiences of classical themes in history painting: perhaps I’ll bring all my new friends over to London next time.