Friday, 12 February 2016

THE GOOD WIFE, Classical-Style

King's College Greek Play 2016
Cross London Bridge to  the Greenwood Theatre and this week you could watch my students enact the most peculiar of ancient plays. Euripides was always avant-garde, but his Alcestis is borderline outrageous.

Northern Broadsides/Hughes Alcestis
King Admetus gets the unusual chance of avoiding death on his allotted day provided he can produce someone to die in his place. Only his wife Alcestis offers. He accepts. She dies. All involved (including their lovely children) weep. Then Admetus’ old chum Heracles turns up, gets drunk, wrestles with Death, and brings Alcestis back from the dead. Everyone (except, conspicuously, Alcestis) cheers.

The sting in the tale is that, even before the play is over, Admetus breaks the single promise he made to Alcestis—that he would never marry again, thus inflicting a step-parent on their children. He doesn’t realise that the attractive veiled lady Heracles offers him a blind date with is in fact Alcestis. He takes her in as a new bedmate anyway. So the play ends with a revenant wife who has a bit of a bone to pick with her morally invertebrate husband.

T.S.Eliot's Alcestis, Vivienne
My favourite adaptation is a Victorian musical-comedy burlesque (1850), performed next door to King’s College at the Strand Theatre, in which Alcestis leapt at the opportunity to leave her self-important husband and bunk off with the handsome young Death to a fun new life in the Underworld. Its title was Alcestis! The Original Strong-Minded Woman!!!

But writers with absent wives have always taken the play more seriously. Robert Browning adapted it in Balaustion’s Adventure (1871) when trying to cope with the loss of Elizabeth Barrett. T.S. Eliot adapted it in The Cocktail Party, which he wrote in 1948, the year his estranged wife died in a mental hospital. Ted Hughes, who had buried two mothers of his children, left his version when he died, with the instructions that it should be performed by Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company.

But how can a supposedly gender-equal world restage a patriarchal story in which a woman’s greatest virtue is defined as embracing the idea that her life is worth much less than a man’s? Euripides does his best, not only by that sinister ending but by portraying Admetus as a weasel-worded slimebag who can’t stick by a principle for two minutes. 

The Ever-youthful Professor Silk
My enterprising students did their best by rewriting the ending and with Marcus Bell’s superb choreography; Pina Bausch-style movements accompanied the exquisite ancient Greek verses recited by my esteemed colleague Professor Michael Silk, who knows more than anyone alive about the poetic rhythms of classical Greek. But the play still bothers me and always will.  Anybody out there have any ideas about how the plot could be made truly 21st-century?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Heroes of Classics in Wonderful Worcester!

My next project up: advocating the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans, by whatever means possible, in British Secondary Education. That includes the 93% of young Britons not schooled in the private sector.

It is time for Action. Studying Mediterranean antiquity superbly equips individuals to think socio-politically and to persuade other people orally, visually and in writing. It hones transferrable skills like source criticism and culturally relativist analysis. It's a perfect A Level to do with any other subject because the Greeks invented all academic disciplines including Medicine and Material Science. It gets school-leavers and graduates great jobs and gives them nourishing and beautiful brain-food for non-working hours for life.

Christopher Whitehead School
We really can get Classical Civilisation or Ancient History available at every state school in the land. So let’s do it. The cheapest and easiest way is to identify and support teachers of any subject, provided they have a PGCE, who want to get Classical Civilisation or Ancient History up and running in their establishments. These heroic individuals usually learn a huge amount about ancient Greece and Rome  fast because it is satisfying intellectual material and makes for  outstanding pedagogy.

Simon Beasley and Simon Callaghan: Local Classical Heroes
Next year I’m going to start a systematic programme of visits to any school/sixth-form college that will have me in order to liaise with such enthusiasts. Please do pass the word around. I received many letters in response to an article on this topic in the Guardian last year, but not enough to keep me quiet forever.

Neil Morris, Enterprising and Enlightened Headteacher
On Wednesday I was inspired by a pilot run to the wonderful Christopher Whitehead School in Worcester (too many Ws?). There the Two Sensational Simons (Beasley and Callaghan), teachers of Drama and of German/ Business Studies respectively, have already persuaded their enlightened Head Teacher to let them get Classical Civilisation up and running. And I hope that after 30 minutes’ noisy interaction with me, another good wodge of the current year 9 (the most attentive of that age I’ve ever met) is signing up for the GCSE next year.

What is the Police Connection?!
Worcester has classical roots. Its ancient tribe which fought the Romans were called the Cornovii. Edward Elgar, who wrote the nationalist oratorio Caractacus about Britons defying Roman invaders, was born nearby. Worcester holds some Roman objects in its museum, and boasts a very straight road to Bromsgrove. In the West Mercia Police HQ there hangs (and don’t ask me how I know this) an Italian-School oil painting of Cupid surrounded by naked boy mini-gods.

But now everyone in year 9 at the Christopher Whitehead school knows that the Roman Empire really became Christian in precisely 391 AD. They also know the difference between (and can spell) Ethics, Epistemology and Ontology (under-18s are BRILLIANT at philosophy, as Steve Neumann correctly argued in The Washington Post this week).  I foresee a whole generation of outstanding Worcester classical graduates taking over our top national positions in about 15 years. Check back in with me then. I guarantee it. 


Photo by Simon Callaghan of Brilliant Classics Class (Simon Beasley centre)



Saturday, 30 January 2016

Atheism and Atrocity at Aulis

Two ferocious ancient stories asking whether we should believe in gods are set within spitting distance of each other across the turbulent straits of Euripus which divide mainland Greece from the island of Euboea (today pronounced Ėvia).

Death Site of Iphigenia and Aristotle
Drive less than an hour north-east from Athens, to the strand facing the town of Chalkida, and you arrive at the sanctuary of Artemis where Iphigenia was murdered by her father’s soothsayer Calchas. He told the Greeks that Artemis would not otherwise grant a fair wind to their fleet, waiting to sail for Troy. In a searing tragedy by Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, to which a fascinating conference at Nottingham University was this week devoted, there is little doubt left that the goddess’s command had not been verified. Iphigenia died for reasons of political expediency masquerading as piety.

 Such are the Crimes to Which Religion Leads
The superstition-repudiating Latin poet Lucretius uses this story in the great first section of his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. After describing the atrocity, he concludes in his resonant line 101, ‘Such are the crimes to which religion leads’ (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum). This memorable hexameter has ever since been quoted by atheists, sceptics, agnostics and humanists all over the world (just google it).

Aristotle's fabricated suicide
And Aristotle, who believed that God was remote and unresponsive to prayer or ritual, died just opposite from Iphigenia, at Chalkida. Early Christians, who needed to cast his human-centred philosophy and matter-based science into disrepute, invented a story that he had been converted to religion at the last minute. They said he had hurled himself into the waves caused by the violent tides at Chalkis because he could not scientifically explain them. [They were not explained until an article by the brilliant Greek astronomer, Dimitrios Eginitis, in 1923]. The Christians said Aristotle's last words were these: ‘If Aristotle can’t grasp the Euripus, let the Euripus take Aristotle’.

Aristotle disapproved of suicide and had been drummed out of Athens on charges of impiety. He almost certainly died of stomach cancer. He would have been appalled by the Christian slander, as by all the far greater crimes subsequently committed in the name of religion.


The only Oscar-Nominated Greek Tragedy
In April I’m visiting this site, where the ancient imagination thrashed out its religious doubts, to relive these sad deaths and take photographs. But in the meantime, I recommend watching Michael Cacoyannis’ dazzling 1976 film of Iphigenia in Aulis on Youtube, and reading both Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings (2002, an exquisite retelling of the tragedy with clear echoes of the pro-war spin used by Tony Blair’s henchmen), and Tim Whitmarsh’s outstanding new book  Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. There should always be time for an intellectual workout in company with the Greeks on subjects as important as religion.

Friday, 22 January 2016

When did Aristotle first rhyme with Bottle?

A research week investigating Aristotle’s post-Renaissance cultural presence was intended to reveal dazzling paintings and treatises which would help my bid to become an International Intellectual Historian. What I found instead was a glut of poems in which the great thinker’s name, as pronounced in my Mother Tongue, furnishes a rare convincing rhyme with bottle

I had always assumed this rhyme was first exploited by Eric Idle in Monty Python’s immortal ‘Philosophers’ Song’, ‘Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle, Hobbes was fond of his dram, / And René Descartes was a drunken fart: "I drink, therefore I am".'

Determined nevertheless to use this research to prove my own intellectual credentials, I asked when the assonance of the proper name and the noun meaning liquid container had first been discovered. The earliest certain example I have identified is in Daniel Defoe’s satire The Trueborn Englishman, where he argues that our most significant national characteristic is alcohol consumption:  

         Nor do the Poor alone their Liquor prize,
The Sages join in this great Sacrifice.
The Learned Men who study Aristotle,
Correct him with an Explanation Bottle.

If bottle is derived from the early English noun pottle, however, which means a container holding a portion of something to eat or drink, then Defoe was preceded by a Civil War ballad, with additional cunning internal rhyme prattle/pottle, attested as early as 1650:

Come, come away, to the Taverne I say,
for now at home 'tis washing day,
leave your pritle pratle, and fill us a pottle,
you are not so wise as Aristotle.

Aristotelian logicians will already have noticed that sometimes Aristotle appears in English verses to be equivalent to a bottle (i.e. a boozer) and in others to be presented as somehow antithetical to bottles, as a sober sage. Overall, the latter sense prevails in English poetry. The 18th-century theatre balladeer Charles Dibdin was distinguishing between the learned and the drunk in this forgettable stanza:

         The book-worm hunts the ancient schools,
     And walks with Aristotle;
          Black-legs and ladies hunt for fools,
     The toper hunts his bottle.

Likewise, John Hookham Frere (the great late Georgian translator of Aristophanes), who, in praising British preference for booze over brainpower, courageously implemented at line end an additional terza rima, ‘throttle’:

  The Muses served those Heathens well enough---
     Bold Britons take a Tankard, or a Bottle,
  And when the bottle's out, a pinch of snuff,
     And so proceed in spite of Aristotle---
  Those Rules of his are dry, dogmatic stuff,
         All life and fire they suffocate and throttle--- 

But if we award the prize for best Aristotle/bottle versifier on the criterion of quantity rather than anteriority or quality, there is no question that the winner is an Augustan bard named Edward Ward. He used Aristotle/bottle twice, but daringly once branched out to use prattle as an avant-garde half-rhyme instead. In ‘Delights of the Bottle’ (1720), he claims that ancient philosophers always ‘ow'd their Wisdom to the Bottle, / From Thales, down to Aristotle.’ In  ‘The Merry Travellers’ (1724) he describes a school library converted into a drinking den:

In one dark Nook lay Aristotle,
And by him a huge Brandy Bottle:
Descartes next had place, by whom
Stood that damn'd Devil's Piss, call'd Rum.

Yet, adventurously, in a third ditty, Ward has a cuckolded scholar cry, ‘Damn the old Rules of Aristotle, /And all his Philosophick Prattle.’         

Finally, a crowd-source request to all cockneys. I am told that ‘Aris’ is rhyming ‘double slang’ for ‘arse’. The original gloss for ‘arse’ was ‘bottle and glass’, which  evolved into the abbreviated ‘bottle’. Since, as we have seen, ‘Aristotle’ is the favoured rhyme for ‘bottle’ since 1650, ‘arse’ soon became signified by ‘Aristotle’, later shortened to ‘Aris.’

Despite watching Eastenders regularly, I have never heard this particular locution. I would appreciate information from anybody on any of the topics covered in this blog. The intellectual clout of my book-in-progress on Why Aristotle Matters absolutely depends on such crucial research.




[i] Full text:  Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.
There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya'
'Bout the raising of the wrist.
SOCRATES, HIMSELF, WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED...
John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: "I drink, therefore I am"
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ode on a Grecian Quarry

"Oi, I've invented earthquake-proof masonry!"
The showdown between Athena and Poseidon for the post of Guardian God of Athens took place on top of the Acropolis. Athena won, as she had to. The Athenians may have valued olive trees more than water, but it was more important that they prided themselves on being intelligent and technologically adept: Athena was defined by her strategic planning and wisdom, while Poseidon was in charge of elemental forces--waves, charging horses, the earthquake.

Athena’s temple, the Parthenon, was built so cleverly, on firm foundations and with elastic columns (slight sliding was possible between her column drums), that it was almost immune to earthquakes. Brainpower had defeated cosmological Force majeure.

Alex Rowson and Martin Gorst, Assistant Producer and Director
I thought I knew a lot about the Acropolis until this week. I went to Athens with a wonderful crew from Windfall Films to help make a TV documentary about the labour Pericles’ building project demanded. But I was not prepared for the psychological impact of my first ever visit to the quarries where the inhabitants of Athens (free, resident alien, or slave) sweated blood and tears for more than forty years hacking enormous slabs of marble out of the mountain.

Elias, with mallet, chisel & wedge
17 kilometres north-east of Athens, bitterly cold and wind-battered even though the weather downtown was warm, accessible only by dirt tracks and steep stairs etched into stone terraces, the ancient Pentelikon quarries awaited us. Elias, a local mason employed by Dionysus Marbles (supplier to the Acropolis Restoration Project), demonstrated the dangers of marble mining before the machine age.

With Eleni Phanariotou, TV Fixer Extraordinary
In the 5th century BCE, tens of thousands of tons were sliced off using only the strength of man and mule. It took days to cut them into roughly the shape needed for the temples. They were somehow slid onto rollers and hoisted onto carts, dragged  that long mountainside down to the plain of Attica, and then, by mysterious means, winched or dragged up onto the Acropolis itself. Most of the work had already been done long before designer Pheidias’ team could get on with the arty bit.



Athena's Olive at the Erechtheion where Athena & Poseidon share power
This seems to me to augment the argument that the bits of the temples crowbarred off by Lord Elgin’s servants ought to return to descendants of the people who did all that work. But it also made me think about the Athenians’ self-definition through mythology.  They were proud of being ‘autochthonous’— ‘sprung from their own earth’; it turns out that this was to echo the birth of the rocks that made their temples, themselves extracted from one Athenian summit and put on another. But since marble is made of compressed and twice-cooked seashells (Mount Penteli was once the bottom of an ocean), the sharing of the temples of the Acropolis between Athena and the Sea-God Poseidon suddenly made perfect sense.
Pheidias shows Parthenon artworks to Aspasia and Pericles, but much of the work had been done already


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Californian Rubicon

Having agreed months ago to attend my profession’s biggest annual convention, for the first time since 1993, I've spent most of this week in San Francisco regretting it. Despite knowing hundreds of people, I feel isolated and out place and guilty about flying unnecessarily. I’ve never enjoyed conferences, believing that most of them are attended by men anxious to get away from childcare duties or to have affairs. But this time I have crossed my personal Rubicon. I have promised myself never to agree to attend an overseas conference again. Skype is fine!

Rubicons have been on my mind since I was nearly knocked down by a speeding Rubicon Jeep at the airport the night I arrived.  They shouldn’t be allowed on real roads, since that is not what they are designed for: ‘It's the hammer, and every trail looks like a nail’ is the product strapline; ‘the most off-road oriented jeep of all time’.

For $45,000 you can pick one up at a dealer and pretend to be Julius Caesar himself. You can burn a gallon of gas every 19 miles and plunge the Roman Republic into Civil War; you can ponder the terrifying ramifications for the future of your civilisation.

The reddish shallows of the Rubicon
This manly vehicle would scarcely register the waters or red (ruber) stones of the tiny river which marked the border with Cisalpine Gaul, negotiated jeeplessly by Caesar exactly 2065 years ago on 10 January 49 BCE.  

He had just been declared Enemy of the State by the Senate. Plutarch tells us that after a night in which he dreamt that he slept with his own mother (a dream many ancient Greek and Roman men experienced), J.C. set out in the evening for the Rubicon. Plutarch is charitable enough to grant him a psychological crisis at the last minute, fearing that this irretrievable step would mean ‘evil for all mankind’. 


But he finally plunged in, declaring ‘the die is cast!’ The Rubicon has ever since been a metaphor for what pilots call the PNR (point of no return), when the amount of fuel consumed means a plane is no longer capable of returning to the airfield from which it took off--the moment when you leave your other half, hand in your notice, or finally tell someone who misuses their power over you what you really think of them.  


I'm in the Tower (11th Floor)
Outside Hilton Fantasyland
Will you cross a 2016 Personal Rubicon? The vast impersonal spaces, overwhelming din, exorbitant food prices and bizarre academic life forms in the San Francisco Hilton, along with the desperate poverty and homelessness in the streets outside, have brought mine on much earlier than expected.  

Friday, 1 January 2016

Four Daft 2015 Events & A Resolution

Am I turning into a Luddite? My four daftest 2015 moments were all caused by modern inventions supposed to enhance 'progress'.

1. The Head Hunter. Last June a dim but snooty person from what she said was an ‘exclusive head hunter' rang me up and asked if I wanted to be considered for the post of Director of the British Museum. I cackled, assuming she was a friend playing a prank. She wasn’t. So I asked if she had actually researched my views on e.g. colonial rapine of the archaeology of the British Empire, the Parthenon Marbles etc., views publicly identifiable through my blog, website and broadcasts. She acknowledged that she had not done any such research yet. She did not call me back.

I think it was for reciting a speech of Alcestis
2. The Spell Checker. I won a ‘Goodwin Award’ from the august American Society of Classical Studies for a book I wrote. The prize certificate, written in Latin, said NOSTRIL instead of NOSTRI (‘our’) because of an illiterate spell checker. The certificate’s other mistake (not technologically caused) was to refer to me with a masculine pronoun. This reminded me of my teenage prize book label (left) for reciting Greek which assumed that as victor I must be a pupil at Nottingham High School for Boys. (I wrought revenge by using the W.H. Smith token to buy a cookery book). 


Autumn Term Garbage (poster not included)
3. The Health and Safety Ruling. The nice man who used to empty my work rubbish bin has been sacked or moved. Fear of rodents means No More Office Bins at King’s College London. Instead I now work alongside a cardboard box with THREE MONTHS’ (not three days’) worth of rat-friendly prawn baguette crusts and gin bottles, since I never seem to have time to get to Recycling.


4. The Data Ownership Obsessive (aka IP MAXIMALIST). A top academic press has gone bonkers. I co-submitted the typescript of a contracted volume last summer, and the editor demanded letters on file granting someone’s—it seems anyone’s—permission to reproduce every single quotation, image and epigraph, regardless of their antiquity, out-of-copyright or ‘orphan’ status, or claim to
Anyone got Milton's agent's email?
Fair Use (yes, I do know the laws). S/he wants me to get permission (from whom, I ask?) to quote a Sappho poem, an anonymous 16th-century tomb inscription no longer in material existence and lines from Paradise Lost. How to get permission cleared for Online Use from John Milton? Bring back Gutenberg and Caxton say I!

My new Aristotle Hoodie!
Aristotle's sad demise
Resolution. I have signed a contract (NOT with crazed IP Maximalist at said academic press) to write a book about Aristotle's 12 best ideas, which I hope can be Cleared for Digital Use and Electronic Reproduction (World Rights) since he jumped into the waves at Chalcis, Euboea in 322 BC and inconsiderately left no forwarding address. I have donned my best Xmas gift (right) and am about to jump into the Metaphysics! Wish me a less daft 2016!