On Saturday, instead of watching the Royal Wedding, Newnham Part II Classicists (plus Carrie and myself) went on our annual trip to Paris, generously funded by college donors (to whom MANY thanks). There is a bit of well-oiled machine by now, after 20 years: leave Cambridge in minibus at 5.00 am, onto Eurostar before 8.00 am, arrive Gare du Nord, walk to Gare de l’Est and metro to the Louvre; then a hard core classical hour and a quarter in the Louvre (including Hermaphrodite, Boy and Goose, Venus de Milo <above>, Ahenobarbus base), followed by a long lunch, a return to the Louvre for ‘private study’, until back to a drink at the Cafe du Nord, onto the Eurostar and Cambridge by 10.30 pm. A good night’s sleep was then, I think, had by all (important in the run up to exams).
I confess that in the ‘private study’ period, I chickened out of too much ‘study’, and spent most of the time in the huge Louvre shop, which is pricey but nicely chosen and has one of the best selection of exhibition catalogues on sale anywhere. I bought one of those, but also some Mona Lisa table napkins and a 3d copy or two of the Venus de Milo (partners for my 3d copy of the Arles “Caesar”).
But one complaint. It was not unreasonable to need to go to the loo. But why, oh why, a 15 minute queue? I can half forgive museums and theatres which are dealing with Victorian provision, but surely when you have built your nice new pyramid (in the Louvre’s case) why not have enough women’s loos? Is it because most architects are men (yes…I suspect)? It’s one thing that makes me think entirely unisex loos would be a good idea: it would make men realise about the painfulness of queuing.
We are featuring this on Front Row Late on Friday… partly because because of the “Masque of Blackness” in the title, which goes back to the title of a Ben Jonson 1605 masque which was (so far as we know) the first time that any actor in Britain had “blacked up”. We’re discussing colour blind casting on Friday and what the long history of blacking/whiting means. Meleisa Ono-George (just visible in the picture) is brilliant at explaining why Jonson (and Ann of Denmark behind him) is NOT the origin of the Black and White Minstrels!
500 acres of open space. It’s as different from the Louvre as you could imagine (though also an excellent shop!). And we had a great time. Do watch on BBC 2 on Friday at 11.05 (an ad. sorry).
As I said, I missed ‘the wedding’ as we were on the annual Newnham trip to Paris (on which more in a later post). We did, I confess, sneak a quick look at the dress on our phones, but not much more than that.
But when I got back home late last night, I did have a brief trawl of social media to see what had happened and how it had gone down, and I followed that up with the papers this morning. Maybe social media encourages polarisation, but that’s what I found — and the two extremes of opinion were equally misleading.
On the one hand, there were those who seemed to imagine that a ‘bi-racial’ royal bride, a gospel choir and a black preacher who actually mentioned slavery, had somehow destroyed British racism at a stroke. At best, that is wildly over-optimistic. You might equally well argue that those elements of the service were in fact a decidedly toned down version of African-American culture, carefully tailored to fit the template of ‘the royal wedding’ and so trimmed of almost any radical edge.
But, on the other, I found myself pretty out of sympathy with those who seemed to think the whole show a nasty trick of white supremacy, appropriating black culture to do the bidding of the white elite (and meanwhile ticking Markle off for not being black enough, and so getting a relatively easy ride into the upper echelons of the British aristocracy).
You don’t have to think that a revolutionary flame had been ignited. But how can it not be a step in a good direction to see a royal marriage ceremony that didn’t parade itself as 99% white? And shouldn’t we applaud, at least a little, the change in the colour range that might be expected on such occasions? In fact, some of the mothers who were on the radio this morning were particularly moving when they talked about how their children had for the first time seen ‘themselves’ at such a royal extravaganza.
Even the Daily Mail could do no worse than find some photos of celebrity and royal guests either apparently bored, puzzled or having a giggle at Rev Curry’s sermon (I thought, by contrast, that they looked as if they were listening hard and/or laughing at the jokes). I imagine that the palace PR team felt that they had had a good day. And indeed (if we forget about the poor Mr Markle) so they had.
The world is being slowly poisoned, the environment destroyed. Why don’t we care about such an apocalypse more? Clare Saxby joins us to discuss; Mary Beard considers the cultural legacy of Caligula, that most reviled of all emperors, via a revisionist work of fiction told from the perspective of the emperor’s exiled sister; as Arsène Wenger’s twenty-two year tenure as Arsenal manager draws to a close, the TLS’s History editor and Arsenal fan David Horspool shares his thoughts on football’s modern myth-making
I felt rather sorry for the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and his ‘menopausal’ gaffe. Now, I am fairly certain that a lot of high level economics IS terribly male, that it could be improved by incorporating the talents of women (and the appreciation of those talents). And the idea that the adjective ‘menopausal’ can be used as a description for ‘economic slump’ is something of an ideological give-away (and guaranteed to prompt a strong reaction from those millions of us 50+ year old women who don’t feel we are slumping). How long have we had to argue that being past (unassisted) childbearing is not like being past one’s sell-by date, as if fertility was the women’s only purpose? I could go on!
That said I felt for Mr Broadbent as a human being. There you are, you are giving an interview and you have just used the economic “terminus technicus” — “climacteric”. Then you think, “oh shit… no one is going to understand that’. So, on the spot, you produce a synonym that makes the word more comprehensible (and ‘climacteric’ IS a posh term for the ‘menopause’). And in few seconds’ thoughtlessness you have messed up. I’m sure I’ve been there myself.
It almost certainly is diagnostic of the gendered rhetoric of economics (and Broadbent didn’t invent the economic usage of ‘climacteric’) . But it is hardly a sackable offence as some of the more ‘outraged’ tweets have been suggesting. Surely better to call it out (as some, to be fair, have) as a way of pointing to the issues that it raises — and perhaps as a way of convincing the not unsubstantial number of people in this country who DO think that menopausal women are past it of the error of their ways.
I am spared the dilemma of whether or not to turn on the television on Saturday, because it is our annual Newnham, pre-Tripos trip to Paris (Louvre plus lunch). But if I were here, I suspect I would.
It is one of those occasions where my rationalising, poo-poo, ‘what do I care about such vastly expensive and politically worrying ceremonial?’ attitudes tend in practice to give way to picking up the remote and switching on. To be honest, I’m not really sure why I do. I’ve always felt rather embarrassed by such ritual occasions, at least when I myself am a participant. In fact, though I have enjoyed getting one or two honorary degrees in recent years (and am looking forward to doing that again at Oxford and Northumbria soon), I was so aghast at the whole idea of the flummery at my own graduation 40 years ago that I told my parents that no one ‘did’ graduation any longer, and got my certificate by post. (I think it is the only lie I told my parents that I seriously regret: they would have loved it, and my embarrassment would have been a small price to pay.)
So why then? I don’t think that it is the trapeze-watching syndrome, or the slightly wicked excitement of waiting for a gaffe high places (though I suspect quite a few of us enjoyed it when Di got Charles’s names in the wrong order, and wondered if the error invalidated the whole thing). And I don’t think in my case that it is the thrill of catching a first glimpse at THAT DRESS.
I think it is more about the marking of time, and the rhythm of such occasions through one’s own life. I vividly remember when I was five or six (and before we had a television) making scrap books for the weddings of Princess Margaret (1960) and the Duke and Duchess of Kent (1961). I cut out all the pictures I could find in the newspapers, and enlivened them with additional glitter stuck to rather messy glue. I also fantasised about being a bridesmaid (something I never got to do and certainly wont now).
I’m rather hazy on the nuptials of Princess Anne (which happened when I was in my first year at university), but not so about those of Charles and Di. That was when I had my first job at King’s College London, and we watched the procession go past from the Classics Common Room balcony, before turning on the telly for the ceremony itself. (It was then I discovered that some of my classical colleagues knew more about cavalry regiments than I ever imagined possible.)
Prince Andrew and Fergie’s wedding has faded from my memory, or perhaps is overridden by Lady Di’s funeral. By this time I was back in Cambridge and we made a day of it, alternating surreptitious weeping, rather too much alcohol and anthropological analysis of royal ritual (courtesy of the much missed Sue Benson).
I caught more than a few glimpses of Kate and Wills going down the aisle, and have no doubt at all that if I were at home, I would at least have the latest wedding running in a window of my laptop — while I was carping at the commentary, ooh-aahing at the dress, tut-tutting at the expense, and remembering back almost 60 years when the biggest thing I wanted to be in life was a bridesmaid.
Real-life millennial Samuel Earle pops in to consider the status of young people in an unequal society, keeping avocado references to a minimum; Ruth Scurr analyses the role of mothers in life and literature; and Madeline Miller talks about inhabiting the role of Circe.
I have long been interested in the work of the director Peter Sellars, who seems to me to have a knack of breathing new life into old work, without making it seem as if the classics of the past have been put on some kind of life support machine (despite the picture above, to which I will return).
On the bank holiday I had the chance to go and see his new production of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito in Amsterdam (there’s a direct Eurostar train there now, though not yet back!). It features the Roman emperor Titus, who was perhaps the luckiest of all with his posthumous reputation (despite his brutal destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem). He ruled for just a few years (79 – 81 CE) and was succeeded by his brother Domitian. It was in everyone’s interest to see him as a golden boy. And so he has become and remain in almost everyone’s imagination ever after (notwithstanding a few academic attempts to puncture the mirage). Mozart’s opera focuses on just one example of his renowned ‘clemency’, in which after an assassination attempt he forgives all concerned.
Sellars’s version adjusts quite a lot. Clemenza, written at the end of Mozart’s life, has never been exactly a critical or popular success (it is loaded with a lot of quite dreary recitatives, which have been trimmed in this production). And there is a rather dreary virtue about it all.
Sellars has given it a new edge and a powerful modern guise. It is set in a world of displaced persons and refugees (who form the chorus). Tito is played by Russell Thomas and his strong arm man by Willard White, and this casting points us firmly to Nelson Mandela and the ‘clemency’ of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, in the biggest twist on Mozart’s plot, Tito does not recover, but dies in hospital (that’s where we are in the picture at the top of this post) having pardoned the ‘terrorists’ (as the surtitles translate what, in a more conventional production, would be ‘traitors’).
Sounds gloriously implausible? Well, it is opera, remember — so we are not doing social realism! And for the hundreds of people in the opera on Monday night, the clever changes and pointed modernisations, combined with the glorious music (at one point, in a particularly virtuoso display and Sellars moment, a clarinettist plays his instrument lying down on the stage floor).
If history has done Titus a good turn, then Sellars has done a good turn to his Clemenza.
One of the things I have always been most pleased about is being chosen a few years ago as the Royal Academy of Art’s Professor of Ancient Literature. There are no formal duties and the only formal reward (as it has been since the eighteenth century) is to get to go to the annual dinner. But it gives you all kinds of opportunities to stick up for the Classics (there is a wonderful collection of plaster casts of ancient sculpture in the Academy) and some of the previous holders of the job are, as it were, to die for. The very first was Samuel Johnson and I was directly preceded by Eric Handley, who was during my time here Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge. (The truth is that there are a few less glamorous, distinguished or glitzy — I probably should have known more about Henry John Chaytor, but I confess I had to google him.)
Anyway chickens have, I guess, come home to roost. And this year it has become my turn to give the main speech at the annual dinner: ten to fifteen minutes worth requiring weeks of preparation, and as much thought. This is a key year for the Academy (its 250th anniversary, the opening of its newly extended campus… not to mention , more widely, the centenary of some women getting the vote in general elections). So I have been getting down to research on the history of the institution, and in particular the wild and wonderful history of the annual dinner (whose speeches used to be broadcast, rather reverentially, on BBC radio).
I am sure that I shall find some space for women in what I have to say. The Academy had female Academicians from the very beginning in 1768 (Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser). But it wasn’t until 1967 that women Academicians or not, were invited to the annual dinner. That year the speech was given by Violet Bonham Carter (Baroness Asquith) — with a beautifully elegant address from a woman then aged 80. I think I wont be able to refrain from mentioning her.
But I am still working on the big theme. Wish me luck and may Samuel Johnson not be too scary a predecessor!
If you are on Twitter, you may have spotted my tweet about doing a short stint as a gallery attendant in the British Museum. It was something that I had always wanted to do (I mean, see the galleries from this different perspective) — and the opportunity was kindly set up by Front Row Late and the very patient BM. You will be able to watch a short film and discussion of what happened on the programme tomorrow (ie Friday night) and later on iPlayer.
It was hugely good fun, but more tan a stunt. For a start it gave me a chance to find out what that job was like (completely knackering, but also much less ‘warder-ish’ than I imagined … my instructions insisted that which I was there for security, I was also there to make visitors feel welcome and answer questions). But it also gave me an opportunity to study what visitors actually do in a museum gallery (it’s hard to do that when you are a visitor yourself without appearing to be snooping).
Monday, when I did my stint, was an incredibly busy day and the Nereid Monument Room where I was stationed (the picture above is from my brief change of scene in the Rodin exhibition) was absolutely heaving with people, and I rather expected to find people getting increasingly disgruntled. But far from it, the visitors (overwhelmingly from overseas) seemed actually to be having a great time — maybe simply entering the museum is fulfilling a goal in itself, but I don’t think it was only that.
It was for me a mixture of real surprises and the semi-predictable. The number of phones taking photos (selfies and others) would certainly horrify some. But I was torn between, on the one hand, a slightly sniffy reaction (‘why take a picture and get in everyone’s way, when you should be looking at the damned objects’) — and, on the other, a sense that selfies etc were doing no more than what postcards had done when I was younger (giving a sense of remembrance, of taking some engagement with the museum away with you).
This relates, of course, to the question of where people get their information about what the are seeing. That differs wildly. I saw no-one reading the detailed labels on the sculpture (think how long those labels take to write, for so little attention). A few people did concentrate on the large information panels, but far more had either the BM Top Ten attractions book or the audio guide — and more still were equipped with the Museum plan (even that didn’t prevent a small but significant minority thinking the Nereid Monument was the Parthenon).
The BM in general seems to be a gratifyingly rule-free place, without the strictures that dog quite a few other museums and galleries. You are allowed to take photographs (though no dangerous selfie sticks), and make phone calls. I asked what I should do if someone decided to sit on the floor (something I have quite often been told off for in other museums) … and was pleased and surprised to be told to make a judgement call (if they are in the corner and not getting in anyone’s way, fine .. if they are in the middle of the room forming an obstruction, ask them to move to the edge).
In my several hours on the job, I uttered a mild remonstration only once (to someone using a selfie stick, who instantly put it away). I was struck that no-one I saw tried to touch the sculptures (though the old hands said it was different in some of the Egyptian galleries). I wondered how far that was because most visitors, to my bit of the museum at least, had entirely internalised the ‘white glove rule’ — namely that it is almost beyond wicked to touch objects from the past with your bare hands. If so, I am slightly sad. Sure, there are some fragile objects that really ought to be off limits…but for an awful lot the inspirational effect of a direct contact with the distant past is well worth the possibility of slight erosion over the centuries (it takes a lot to do much damage to basalt). I was certainly turned on to antiquity by the real feel of real Roman coins in my hands. Heresy, but worth thinking about.
Anyway — you will find more reflections, a glimpse of me doing the job, and discussion with Tristram Hunt, Tom Shakespeare and Sara Wajid in Front Row Late, Friday night. Thanks to all at the BM for helping out… especially David (who briefed me) and my colleagues for the stint, Bob and Jenny.
How do we account for Richard Nixon’s stubborn unpopularity? Sure, he was a liar and a crook, but that has not stopped the rehabilitation of many a politician – as a new biography appears Barton Swaim joins us to discuss; why is it that certain ailments suffered by women are so scarcely discussed or resolved? Leonore Tiefer considers endometriosis and a “legacy of disinterest”; “The world is far more complicated than what we see”, says the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, putting it mildly. Reality “is mind-blowing” – here, he discusses the structure of time with the TLS’s Samuel Graydon