Sunday, 14 August 2016

Olympian (not Olympic) Cycling

von Drais's Non-BIKE 
Daft diversion this week has been wondering what bikes the Olympian gods would have ridden if the ancient Greeks had invented the velocipede. I have been moving house to Cambridgeshire with no functioning TV or internet, yet somehow have still been deafened by the national media’s obsession with ‘British supremacy’ at cycling in response to the feats of Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott etc. 

Kirkpatrick MacMillan
I don’t often pull my northern ancestry card, but it needs pointing out that all three claimants to the title of ‘inventor of the bicycle’ were actually Scotsmen: Kirkpatrick MacMillan, Gavin Dalzell and Thomas McCall. (I do not count Baron Karl von Drais’s silly Laufmaschine, which was not a machine at all, but a pedal-less glorified scooter). MacMillan was a blacksmith from Dumfriesshire who worked, appropriately enough, at the Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow.  His 1839 two-wheeled vehicle really did transmit power from human feet via crankshafts to rotating hubs.

Hephaestus' magic wheelchair
Given that the ancient Greeks, especially Vulcan/Hephaestus, were brilliant at mechanical engineering, I have always been puzzled that they did not invent the bike. Hephaestus, who was club-footed, made himself this elaborate chariot, but still ended up on most vases riding a humble donkey.

So while we unpacked the endless boxes and worried that the cat might head off back to the Cotswolds, I mentally suited pictures of historical bikes to some of the Olympians. Any suggestions for those still missing—Athena, Apollo, Hermes etc.—gratefully received.

Demeter and Persephone

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Women v. Rape in Ancient Amphissa

A trip several miles upcountry to Amphissa, mountainous administrative centre of the low-tourist patch of Greece where I am hiding, allowed me to visit at last the scene of an unusual ancient narrative.

In the fourth century BCE, tyrants had taken over Amphissa and installed an army. A band of Thyiads (a special group of Bacchanalian women from Athens and Delphi) had been worshipping Dionysus on the nearby summits. But they got lost (they did this a lot; on another occasion they were snowed in and had to be rescued by mountain rangers). This time they passed out in Amphissa’s marketplace.
Square of Amphissa, Sleepy Town in Phokis, today

The more sedate local wives were concerned that the occupying soldiers would 'take advantage' of their insensible visitors. The women of Amphissa bravely stood all night encircling the Thyiads to guard their sleep. In the morning they fed them and (after demurely securing permission from their husbands) escorted them in safety to the borders.
Lawrence Alma Tadema, 'Women of Amphissa', Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

George Eliot brought this story into popular circulation. The hero of her Daniel Deronda (1876) is reminded of the version in Plutarch’s On the Virtues of Women when he rescues the vulnerable foreigner Mirah Lapidoth. An updated maenad (professional opera singer), she had been threatened with prostitution by the men who should have protected her. Daniel takes her to stay with respectable female friends in Chelsea, the less than obvious Victorian equivalent of Amphissa.

Black-Figure Bacchant on Plate in Amphissa Museum
And it was Eliot’s novel which in turn inspired Alma Tadema’s portentous 1887 painting of the same episode.  I like his sleepy Thyiads, but am relieved to be able to report that the native matrons of Amphissa look a good deal more cheerful these days as well as remaining (although I didn’t test it) stalwart in the defence of female honour. I know this because I spent the morning in Amphissa police station (my kind hostess needed to renew her Greek passport to secure her own safe conduct over borders) being impressed by the easy professionalism of a female officer, a modern Woman of Amphissa.
Ladies of Amphissa Looking Very Serious Indeed

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Glorious Sprinters Ancient and Modern

I am right now in the sea 30 minutes from here
On the eve of the Olympics I find myself at last on holiday for a week, swimming below Delphi. In antiquity the sanctuary here had its own athletics competitions, the Pythian games. My favourite ancient Victory Ode is Pindar's Pythian 10 in honour of a boy called Hippocleas who won the Delphic junior sprint in 498 BCE.

Perseus, Patron of Sprinters
Pindar foresees that, with the garland of victory, Hippocleas will win huge admiration ‘from boys his age and from his elders, and will make the girls notice him.’ Pindar slyly alludes to the next Olympics, hoping that Hippocleas will triumph there, too: he compares the young athlete to Perseus, who could fly through the air on his winged sandals.

August 3 is the eightieth anniversary of the most important sprint of all time, Jesse Owens' 100-metre dash in 10.3 seconds at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Over the succeeding days he added gold medals in the long jump, the 200 metres, and the 4x100 relay.

Owens' bravura performances cast the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy into disarray. He was filmed by Leni von Riefensthal for her documentary, Olympia, but there were rumours that Hitler refused to acknowledge Owens’ victories: Owens himself at different times both confirmed and denied this. Aryanists produced the absurd defensive argument that people of African descent were 'inevitably' physically stronger since they were less far removed from a ‘jungle’ existence than the ‘higher’ races.

When criticising Nazi racism, we must remember what faced Owens back home: ‘When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either’.

Owens was a conflicted character, who endured misery as well as glory: a supreme athlete, he chain-smoked and died of lung cancer; a member of the Republican Party, he suffered from the sharpest end of free-market capitalism and was bankrupted; acutely aware of racism, he initially objected to the black power salute after the sprint at the 1968 Olympics.

But surely he would have approved of Pindar’s image of Perseus as sprinters’ hero: when asked what mindset had allowed him to win such extraordinary races, Owens simply said, ‘I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.’  Owens could do poetry in prose as well as motion.

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, Women 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!