Sunday, 16 July 2017

Draco of Athens v. the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Not Big Enough for modern teenagers
I escaped to Rome and met a daughter backpacking with two friends. Two out of three expressed surprise at the size of the Colosseum. They had expected it to be bigger. Too many digitally enhanced super-cities have beamed from their millennial screens.

Corbyn at 2016  Tolpuddle Festival
Rome jaunt means, sadly, that I'm missing the Sunday climax of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset, where Jeremy Corbyn is due to speak this afternoon. It celebrates the early days of British Trade Unionism when in 1834 farm workers in west Dorset faced punitive wage cuts and lawfully formed a trade union. 

The "Draco of Dorset"
Their deadly enemy was rich local landowner and magistrate James Frampton, who masterminded the ruling-class plot to smash the union. He framed them with a charge of taking an illegal oath of secrecy. This law was meant to apply to mutinies in the navy, not workers’ unions. But Frampton was a clever lawyer and on a mission.

The Edict Framing Union Members
Six Tolpuddle men were sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Tasmania.  One of them, George Loveless, later wrote a pamphlet in dazzling prose which remains one of the most important sources on the dire experience of deported felons in the colonies.  

Loveless' Pamphlet
The national outcry from other workers eventually meant that the Tolpuddle martyrs were pardoned. They returned to play a key role in the Chartist Movement. But I'm interested in the hatred between Loveless and Frampton. Loveless pamphlet says, ‘I shall not soon forget’ Frampton’s name.


George Loveless is depicted bottom
Frampton was popularly known as the ‘Draco of Dorset’, after the Athenian legislator of the 7th century BCE who had established laws punishing even minor offences with death. The working men knew Draco, whose laws were said to have been inscribed in human blood, through their reading of English translations of Plutarch’s Life of Solon. Solon repealed Draco’s laws and passed laws favourable to the poor.


DRACO of ATHENS
The dastardly Draco of Dorset will have understood his nickname. As a wealthy young gentleman, Frampton studied Classics at Winchester and St John’s College, Cambridge, before going on the Grand Tour. Come to think of it, he will certainly have visited the Colosseum. 

A shame that his classical education led him to side forever with the Dracos and Domitians of antiquity rather than with Prometheus and Spartacus.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Mother-Daughter Separation Blues

Bacchae: Mum/Daughter-Free Tragedy
Some inspiring developments this week, but I’m feeling too dyspeptic to do them justice and am postponing that blog for a few days.  I’ve also seen three great shows, two of them classical. But I’ve just said goodbye to both teenagers, from neither of whom I’ve ever been parted for more than a week, as they go off to see the world this summer.

Donna says Good-Bye toSophie in Mama Mia
Mother-daughter separation anxiety has been exacerbated by the first anniversary of my mother’s death and the imminent marriage of my widowed father to an old friend of his. This plan was announced less than three months after mum’s funeral. The consequence has been that she visits me almost nightly in my dreams to complain she has been forgotten.

Show 1 was Mama Mia. I sobbed miserably through Slipping through my Fingers”, the big ABBA ballad as daughter leaves home

Show 2, Pericles Prince of Tyre, was even worse. This strange Shakespearean play is ultimately based, via an ancient prose novel found in many medieval Latin versions,** on Euripides’ lost tragedy Alcmaeon in Corinth. It features Pericles’ teenaged daughter being joyously reunited with her mother, long believed dead.

The new Cameron Mackintosh 
All this meant that Euripides’ bloodthirsty Bacchae in the gardens of New College, Oxford, came (to me at least) as light relief. It was produced by that great gardener and classicist Robin Lane Fox, now embarking on a new career as impresario, and beautifully directed by my friend Yana Sistovari.  As I said in my talk introducing the Thursday performance, this example of proto-Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty features psychosis, corpse dismemberment and infanticide. But there’s no mother-daughter bond in sight.

That was then: Heseltine in my Youth
Incidentally, the bacchants confirmed my hunch that Tories can’t understand democratic Athenian tragedy. Michael Heseltine was in the front row, but looked completely baffled throughout. People my age will remember him all too well (he was Deputy PM more than once): neither of my far-flung daughters is old enough to recognise his name.

** Apollonius Prince of Tyre, the Latin versions probably stemming from an original ancient Greek romance which drew on the plot of Euripides' tragedy. Coincidentally, Alcmaeon in Corinth was produced in the same group as Iphigenia in Aulis and Bacchae in 405 BCE, so the same actor who played the Prince of Tyre figure would have played Dionysus in Bacchae. 



Sunday, 2 July 2017

UFOs Ancient and (Relatively) Modern

World UFO day, ‘dedicated to the Existence of Unidentified Flying Objects’, is celebrated on July 2, the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On July 2 1947, unidentifiable debris found by a rancher near Roswell, New Mexico, was diagnosed as the remains of an extra-terrestrial flying saucer. Thousands of people remain convinced that there was an alien landing which the Pentagon is covering up. 'Leaked' pictures of the aliens involved still circulate widely in the Internet.

My own childhood interest in UFOs was fostered by short film documentaries suggesting that various archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica served as landing and launch pads for extra-terrestrials. Once once I discovered Classics I started collecting references to unexplained objects from outer space recorded in ancient authors. Since the official website of World UFO Day (http://www.worldufoday.com/ ) politely requests that we spend the day  ‘talking with your friends about the possibility of UFOs or alien life’, here’s my contribution: my five favourite classical UFOs in ascending order.

Timoleon's Torch
1.   In  343 BCE, a giant torch was seen moving through the sky by the Greek general Timoleon, defender of the Greeks against the Carthaginians, and showed the route his fleet needed to take to Sicily. The historian Diodorus does not draw the obvious inference that these ETs responsible preferred the Greeks to the Carthagians.

2.   Cosmic ships were seen sailing across the Italian sky in 214 BCE when the Romans were feeling particularly frightened of—wait for it—the Carthaginians (Livy).

3.   Celestial chariots and armed phalanxes charged through the clouds during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE when the Romans defeated the Jews. Whose side were the ETs responsible for the UFOs on? (Josephus)

4.   An enormous 100-foot ‘beast’ which looked as though it was made of pottery,  emitted darts of fire and had a multioloured upper surface, in company with a Woman in White, was seen on the road between Rome and Capua in about 150 CE (Shepherd of Hermas). The ETs on this occasion were voting for Christianity.

Attempt at Reconstructing Flying Saucer Wine Jar
5.   But the winner for sheer spectacle, and apparent lack of partisan feeling amongst the ETs, is the flame-like wine-jars of silver hue which landed via a suddenly appearing split in the sky between the armies of Lucullus and Mithridates when the Pontic monarch was terrorising the Roman army in Phrygia in 74 BCE. Both armies saw it and its senders did not appear to take sides.


The Unidentified Flying Wine-Jar  wins because it is evidence that Extra-Terrestrials either drink wine or were dropping a hint that they would like to. Which is hardly surprising if you consider the alleged Roswell alien, who certainly looks in severe need of a drink.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

What did the Greeks do for Ezra Pound & Should we Care?



I spent half the week in Philadelphia giving a public lecture on that city’s most famous poet at the annual Ezra Pound International Conference. I never actually liked much of Pound’s poetry; his famous Cantos are crammed with allusions to other poets so dense that you need a literary encyclopedia to make sense of them.  And then there were his silly hairdos and the fascination with Fascism.



Questionnable Coiffure
But Pound did almost single-handedly free poetry from the rhetorical verbiage and conventional verse forms of the 19th century, stress the importance of crystalline imagery, and introduce the idea of verse libre and singable verse, verse cantabile. This makes an aural impact by careful handling of vowel sounds. He cannot be written out of the history of aesthetics however hard some, repelled by his politics, have tried.

Pound is Hellenic Maiden Second from Left
I argued that the primary reason he was able to invent a whole new kind of lyric song was his experience performing in the chorus of a Greek tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris in 1903, at the age of 17. This meant learning off by heart nearly 300 lines of limpid lyric poetry which sounds, when sung or spoken out loud, very like much of Pound's most beautiful, melodic lines, e.g.  ‘Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes’, or ‘In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.’

'ecstasies of emotion'
Pound as Hellenic Maiden made an impression which his friend William Carlos Williams regarded as hilarious, ‘in a togalike ensemble topped by a great blond wig at which he tore as he waved his arms about and heaved his massive breasts in ecstasies of emotion’. Hilda Doolittle, however (better known as the poet H.D.), developed a crush on cross-dressed Pound and thenceforward spent most of her life imitating or translating Euripides.

Poster advertising the  Play
I believe that the older Pound was in denial about the importance of Euripides to his own development because Euripides was associated, through his popular translator Gilbert Murray (co-founder of the League of Nations which became the UN), with the liberal and humanitarian causes which Pound came to despise. I also learned on Tuesday that Pound corresponded with fellow-Modernist-of-dodgy-politics T.S. Eliot in an excruciatingly racist parody of what they regarded as the diction of African American people (although they called them by another, less respectful name).


The Messenger spoke Greek skilfully & was talked about for years
Which all goes to show that the Classics lurk beneath stones where nobody has suspected them (like the form and sound of Modernist free verse) and do indeed belong to everyone. This includes august poetic types I personally would rather not hang out with, even at such a monumental performance of my very favourite Greek play.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Adventures in Aeschylus' Argos

Coast where the Danaids arrived from Egypt
I spent two days finding the places where Aeschylus set some tragedies, in the Argolis, around Argos in Greece.  The plays, topically enough, are about the blessings and hazards which immigrants can bring to a community. Over a hundred Egyptians of both sexes, fighting between themselves for power back home, suddenly turn up at a sanctuary by the beach where on Friday morning I celebrated the young British electorate’s courage.

Suppliants just off the boat at Edinburgh Lyceum
There were originally four plays, making a ‘tetralogy’ called Daughters of Danaus. We only have one, Suppliants, and a few fragments. The enterprising Actors Touring Company recently wowed the Edinburgh Lyceum and Manchester Royal Exchange with a new version of Suppliants by David Greig. You can already book tickets for its much-anticipated opening in November at London’s Young Vic.

Daughters of Danaus wreck their Wedding Night
But the ATC has an exciting plan to reconstruct the other plays in the group too. So our tour included several pertinent sites. One episode was the beheading of 49 male Egyptians by their 49 female cousins, on the orders of their father Danaus, who wanted to become Undisputed Top Male. The mass murder took place  at Lerna, just down the coast south-west of Argos and famous for the hundred-headed Hydra.

Ancient Argos reconstructed with market-place centre left
The tetralogy’s climax was the trial in Argos of one Egyptian woman, Hypermnestra, who fell in love with her cousin and refused to kill him. We decided the small theatre in the market-place is an appropriate setting. She got off because (1) the goddess of sex, Aphrodite, turned up and said It's Love that Makes the World Go Round and (2) the Argives decided to Grow Up and Take Responsibility for their Democracy, For The Many (all of them including the cooperative amongst the Egyptians) Not The Few (the tyrant Danaus).

Selfie with John, Sasha and a Satyric Ramin at Amymone's Fountain
The final play was a satyr drama, featuring goat men in the mountains above Argos/Lerna. They wanted to rape another daughter of Danaus, Amymone. Poseidon ‘rescued’ her, and threatened to rape her himself. But when he came and wooed her respectfully she married him. He struck his rock with a trident to make a wonderful spring and named it for her. We found the source of water, today diverted straight into a cistern and irrigation system at the top of the mountain. My colleagues Ramin Gray (Director) and John Browne (Composer) had to be dissuaded by me and Sasha Milavic Davies (Movement Director) from impersonating goat-men too convincingly.


Argive Sanctuary of Hera
It was also inspiring to visit the beautiful sanctuary of Hera where the daughters of Danaus would have prayed for better husband material and fed the sacred peacocks. What a great start to June all round. Let’s hope that Things really can Only Get Better this time.
Amymone not yet too keen on Poseidon

Monday, 5 June 2017

Why Aristotle Would Have Voted for the Green Party

As if the world didn’t have enough problems already, Donald Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, for all its limitations, represented a multilateral human acknowledgement that greenhouse gas emissions were wrecking our planet. Time for a look at the history of awareness of the damage humans can do to the rest of the natural world, an awareness already developed in the Father of Zoology, Aristotle.

When he is describing shell-fish, we discover that in the lagoon on Lesbos the red scallop has actually been rendered extinct. It has been destroyed partly by droughts but also ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. This is probably the earliest reference to overfishing in world  literature. Aristotle also cites the destruction which can be cause by human interference, motivated by financial greed, with naturally occurring animal populations. A Carpathian tried to make money out of hare breeding, and introduced the first pair onto his island. Carpathos was soon over-run with hares, which devastated its crops, vegetable beds and plant ecology.


Aristotle is aware of the destructive potential of farming, as a form of interference in natural processes. He even suggests that kitchen vegetables flourish better if left to the elements than if they are irrigated artificially. He certainly condemns some human practices in the farming of animals as contrary to nature and pernicious. 

Some animal breeders tried to make the young males of certain species breed with their own mothers. This mother-son inbreeding was attempted either because the owners could not afford to hire a stud or because the animals they possessed were regarded as particularly fine specimens with specific attributes they wanted to perpetuate. This practice is not unknown amongst breeders of pedigree dogs today, although it is rightly regarded as genetically risky and abusive; line breeding, where animals mate with distant cousins, is infinitely preferable.  Aristotle is certain that animals do not naturally want to mate  with their mothers, and has collected examples of animal resistance to enforced ‘Oedipalism’: ‘The male camel declines intercourse with its mother; if his keeper tries compulsion, he evinces disinclination.' On one occasion, when intercourse was being declined by the young male, the keeper covered the mother and put the young male to her. But after the intercourse the young male camel bit his keeper to death. In another example, he reports that a young stallion forced to impregnate his own mother committed suicide by hurling himself of a cliff.

Methods of raising and feeding horses worry Aristotle. Horses should be allowed to roam freely at pasture, since then they remain free of disease apart from an affliction of the hoof which is in any case self-rectifying. But stables are breeding-grounds for malnutrition and all forms of infection: ‘stall-reared horses are subject to very numerous forms of disease: one which attacks the hind-legs’ (Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy?)  


Aristotle can have known nothing about species resonance. Yet he tells us of an instance in 395 BCE. All the ravens disappeared from southern Greece when a battle much further north resulted in a particularly high death toll. Ravens are opportunistic carrion birds. Aristotle calmly infers from this, that even across vast distances, ‘it would appear that these birds have some means of intercommunicating with one another’. It’s a pity Trump doesn’t have a similar means of inter-human communication.

Friday, 26 May 2017

She-Gods of Justice Ancient & Modern

Protest against the Dhaka Themis
So the angry conservative Sunnis of Bangladesh have won their months-long battle to get the statue of Themis, reported as being ‘the Greek goddess of Justice’, removed from her plinth outside the nation’s Supreme Court in Dhaka. 


Do the Bangladeshis really believe that anyone might start worshipping sculptor Mrinal Haque’s eye-catching creation?* Or is the problem that she is a sign of creeping ‘western’ secularisation in public art as well as law? Or is it that she is a female in a position of authority?

Antelope-fabric-clad Themis in British Museum
Regardless of the reason, her removal is at least aesthetically sad for everyone who is, like me, partial to statues. Ever since my garden gnomes named after philosophers (René, Immanuel, Karl etc.) mysteriously vanished from my (then) East Oxford garden, I have collected (indoors) busts of Greek sages instead.

And the Bangladeshi Themis was a fabulous creation, not least as a product of millennia of intercultural symbol-swapping. Themis was in charge of overseeing right thinking and conduct in the divine sphere, delegating human law to her daughter Dikē, but the Greeks never portrayed her looking static or solemn with a sword, scales or blindfold: on the contrary, she was famed for her good eyesight, liked flashy textiles embroidered with antelopes, escaped riding a bull bareback from the primordial flood, and giggled as she laid the tables at Peleus & Thetis’ wedding.**

Scale-wielding Equity, not Justice, on a Coin of Hadrian
Scales were carried on Roman coins not by Justitia but by Aequitas (Equity) or Moneta (Money).  And the Romans seem to have borrowed them from the Egyptian god Anubis, who used scales to measure a deceased person’s heart against the weight representing Truth. Truth (Ma’at) was herself sometimes imagined with a fetching ostrich feather on her head. The exact process by which personified Justice acquired all her now familiar accoutrements is unclear, but she was certainly imagined with scales by the 13th century.
Anubis and his Scales; Befeathered Ma'at


The Dhaka ‘Themis’ continued this riotous process of intercultural cross-pollination by wearing a distinctly local sari. It would be so nice if she could get re-erected, perhaps with an Egyptian ostrich feather and added Greek antelopes on the outfit. Law is indeed a weighty matter, but perhaps the Bangladeshi authorities, instead of letting the iconoclasts win, need to lighten up?
Mosaic in St. Mark's Venice


[*Although the Qur'an nowhere bans statues, many Muslims have always worried that art representing living forms encourages idolatry--actual worship of the entities represented. One of their most sacred traditions, recorded  in a Sunni prophecy collection, says that when Muhammad conquered Mecca, he immediately removed 360 idols from around the Ka'bah. ‘The Prophet started striking them with a stick he had in his hand and was saying [this is a line from the Qur’an], "Truth has come and Falsehood has Vanished”.']
[**Quintus of Smyrna's Fall of Troy  4.128ff., 13.298ff. and Suda under 'Boucheta'.]

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Eurovision's Collective Ethnic Psychosis

Some of Lucie Jones' Personalities
‘This madness we’re running through…/It’s madness, it’s madness’ sang the three fragmented avatars of Britain’s Lucie Jones last night. As well she might. Europe is in Ethnic Denial. I became increasingly perturbed as the Eurovision final wore on at the impression the show would have given to any visiting Martian that all Europeans had light complexions. 

Quite apart from the historic debt owed by popular music to people of non-European descent, especially those with ancestry stretching back to Africa and the Caribbean, more than 15% of all Europeans really are brown or black.

The headcount last night (for which the strapline, astonishingly, was Celebrating Diversity) was shocking. With the single exception of Hungary, every lead singer was white. Otherwise only Sweden managed to put dark-skinned people, even as backing singer-dancers, on stage at all.

Bipolar in Croatia
Europe, quite frankly, is in a denial of psychotic proportions about the identity and appearance of Europeans. And an unconscious acknowledgement of that psychosis leaked out in the lyrics, which suggested delusional experiences in a concentration never before heard on Eurovision. I speak as someone who has had treatment for mental illness and once spent time in mental hospital.

Belgian Stockholm Syndrome
Croatia’s Jacques Houdek made Eurovision history as two of his split selves, one a countertenor and the other a bass, sang a bipolar duet about Being Friends and The Force of Destiny. Belgium’s Blanche had been abducted by a mysterious stranger when ‘all alone in the danger zone’ and was suffering, dilated-pupils and all, from Stockholm Syndrome.

Sectioned in Norway
Greece’s Demy complained she can’t get rid of the ‘echo in my head’. Azerbaijan’s Dihaj is ‘deep into high extremes’ of ‘fantasy’. In Israel, Imri Ziv is feeling ‘a bit fragile’.  Meanwhile, in Moldova, SunStroke Project are worried about their mother’s mental health (Mamma, mamma, don’t be so mad/Mamma, mamma, ma…)

Jowst of Norway have simply given up and seem already to have been been sectioned:

   They read me like a book that is open
   While punching on a bag and I’m choking
   I’m looking for a sign while they’re stepping on my mind


   Try to keep myself calm while my head was getting bombed…
   I’m gonna kill that voice in my head

Thankfully, our visiting Martian, if she/he/it understood Hungarian, would have had the collective psychosis explained by Hungary’s brilliant, brown, Romany Rapper Joci Pápai. Along with a beautiful brown woman dancer, he explicitly addressed everyone else’s ethnic denial :
Total Exception: Brown and Proud in Hungary

Why did you lie to me
That the colour of my skin doesn’t matter?
You knew that my eyes are brown
It never changes
I don’t need you anymore
Get out of here, leave me alone
I don’t want to see you
You’ll be cursed forever, forever.

Rather how I feel about the white people of European descent who run the global media right now.