Saturday, 17 March 2018

Why THIS Elderly Classics Prof. IS on Strike

The phrase 'I’M ALRIGHT JACK' has been boring a channel between my ears ever since the University and College Union, of which I am a longstanding member, asked us to strike after an overwhelming majority voted for industrial action over pensions.  Like so much UK slang it originated in the Royal Navy. ‘Jack’ is slang for sailor. When the last sailor climbed on board he would say, ‘I'm alright Jack, pull up the ladder’. 

But the phrase has changed meaning. That sailor presumably ensured that everyone else was safely on board before he said it; the contemporary meaning, that the speaker is not prepared to put themselves out in the slightest to help others, may have been cemented by the 1959 comedy, appropriately about a strike, I’m All Right Jack. This seems to me to be the position of all the large number of senior and retired academics who are neither striking nor at least speaking up in support of the strike. They are happy to pull up the ladder while younger colleagues emit distress signals below.

All pension money already ‘paid in’ to the system before the proposed changes kick in (April 2019) is guaranteed to be ‘paid out’ as a fixed percentage of earnings, not left to the mercy of the stock market. This means that I, like everyone else who has been paying in for many years, have a relatively secure future financially. I am alright Jack. So are academics who have already retired.

KCL Classicists Young and Old!
But my young colleagues who have joined the Universities Superannuation Scheme more recently are in a precarious position. And when they signed up for an academic career on a salary which is tiny relative to what they could be earning in other professions, they did so believing they would receive a fixed-percentage-of-earnings pension. They have been conned.

Academics have been polite about not criticising non-striking colleagues. I do accept that some people, for political, religious, or ethical reasons, do not approve of industrial action in any context and/or feel concerned about the welfare of their students. But the strike will be over most quickly, and the students suffer least, if senior academics stop propping up the daily activities of the university.

And what I believe is really motivating most of the large number of retired academics in not speaking up, and senior academics  in not striking, is, in philosophical terms, the 'Rational Egoism' of Ayn Rand: they have convinced themselves that no action is justifiable unless it maximizes their own self-interest. Or, as Henry Sidgwick put it, the agent ‘regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself alone important in choosing between alternatives of action.’[i] They are not prepared to have their own wages docked on strike days, or deal with any disruption to their routines, even in support of younger, poorer colleagues.

Yet it is precisely the senior academics who have most job security, can best afford to lose a few days’ income, wield institutional clout, and can activate the loudest voices in the media. The quietists are in my of course very personal view guilty of committing what Aristotle called a ‘wrongdoing by omission’. I would ask non-strikers, as the action continues, at least to reconsider their position one more time, and retired academics to begin writing those collective letters to parliament and the mainstream press.

[i] The Methods of Ethics  (1872).

Sunday, 11 March 2018

How Ancient Greek Men Appropriated the Drama of Childbirth

Satyr carrying baby in an ancient play
As my sister Nicky’s daughter has just become a mother, I am delighted this Mother’s Day to have become a great-aunt, partly since the name Edith seems to demand it. Everyone loves a new baby. Childbirth dramas like Call the Midwife began in ancient Greece.  

Pasiphae Burps Minotaur
One of the reasons both Plato and the early Christians hated theatre was the popularity of performances featuring childbirth.  It was a staple of ancient comedy, which featured dozens of labouring maidens beseeching the childbirth goddess Eileithyia/Lucina. But the founding father of all obstetric drama was the tragedian Euripides. 

Auge and New Dad Heracles
In his Auge, the priestess heroine screamed long and loud as she gave birth. The Tegeans put up a statue of ‘Auge on her knees’ in her temple to commemorate it. In Euripides’ Cretans, the horrified Minos demanded to know whether Pasiphae was breastfeeding the minotaur, or hiring a cow to act as wetnurse.  

But the most shocking of all was his Aeolus, in which Canace gave birth to her full brother’s baby, and stabbed herself to death when the grandfather discovered it. The role of ‘Parturient Canace’ was a favourite of the Emperor Nero, who loved acting tragic parts in public.

Canace, Suicidal after Labour
Since in antiquity all tragic actors and most audiences were male, these childbirth plots entailed a mass social enactment of couvade—the ‘hatching’ syndrome—the word used for men’s tendency to produce symptoms mimicking pregnancy—weight gain, tooth problems, and gastrointestinal pain—during their partners’ pregnancies.

The ancient world teemed with men who thought childbirth was all about them. Diodorus said that in Corsica the labouring woman was neglected, while her husband took to his bed for the birth ‘as if his body were the one suffering the pains’.  Apollonius reported that the husbands of parturient Tibareni women in the Pontus ‘groan and collapse in bed, with bandages on their heads’. For Strabo it is the Iberian women, who ‘when they have given birth to a child, instead of going to bed, put their husbands to bed and minister to them’.  

The Greeks took couvade up a notch and in Amathous in Cyprus gave it the status of ritual. Plutarch says that Ariadne had gone into labour on Cyprus after Theseus had put her ashore, heavily pregnant, during a storm. She died in labour and ever after there was an annual ritual where ‘one of the young men lies down and imitates the cries and gestures of women in travail’.

'Canace in Labour' was one of Nero's favourite theatre roles
I have heard one new mother, after a particularly painful labour during which her husband passed out, scornfully call couvade ‘man-stetrics’. If you have nothing better to do today, you can watch an experiment on Youtube in which men attached to a labour-pain simulator howl almost unimaginably loud. On reflection, this blog would have been better suited to Father’s Day. I promise to write one that is really  about mothers when June 18 rolls around.


[This blog summarises the research in The Theatrical Cast of Athens (Oxford 2006) ch. 3, readable online at]

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Classics and Strike Action Ancient and Modern

Rameses III: forced to negotiate
Should a classics prof. publish her blog when going on strike? Why not? Blogging is not an activity I am contracted to do. It will have no effect on the speed at which my employers do or do not decide, finally, to return to the negotiation table. So in honour of my striking colleagues and our wonderful student supporters across the nation, here’s my potted retrospect of the relationship between ancient world studies and strikes.

The 'Turin Strike Papyrus'
The first known strikers were the Deir El-Medina artisans who worked in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings in the twelfth century BCE. Unpaid for six months, they laid down their tools and occupied a royal mortuary temple.  A record of their (ultimately successful! Yay!) strike survives on a papyrus in Turin’s Museo Egizio. This what the strikers said to the bureaucrats in charge of them: ‘The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no fish, there are no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh, our good lord, about it, and send to the vizier, our superior, that we may be supplied with provisions.’

The 494 BCE Secession of the Plebs
In ancient Rome, the procedure called the secessio plebis was invented in 494 BCE, when the plebeians underlined their objections to the ludicrous debt laws which the patricians refused to reform by organising a sit-in on the Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain) just outside Rome. Also successful, the plebs won representation in the new office of the Tribune of the Plebs. H.G. Wells, an advocate of equality and human rights, wrote in 1920 of 494 BCE, ‘the plebeians seem to have invented the strike, which now makes its first appearance in history.’[1]

One of the landmark strikes in British Labour History was organised by the London dock workers in 1889. It resulted in pay concessions and the recognition of trade unions as a political force to be reckoned with. A peaceful approach to protests, especially carnivalesque processions, successfully engaged public sympathies. Dockers dressed up as figures from classical mythology—Neptune, a helmeted warrior she-god, and Hercules, a hero with whom dock workers,  as sellers of their own muscle power, often identified.
Liverpool Dockers=Hercules strangling Capitalism

Jump forwards to 1890, and the cartoon published in Punch to comment on a year of industrial unrest in Bristol.  Mr Punch takes Chronos on a tour of the planets. Saturn says that a new Titanomachy—fight between Zeus/Jove and the Titans—is taking place. Jove is Capital, sitting on the ramparts of Privilege, and ‘bastioned by big bags of bullion.’ He wants to treat all the Titans as his servants. But Labour-Briareus,  a son of Gaia and Uranus with a hundred hands, is not letting Jove/Capital get off lightly: ‘But look at the huge Hundred-Handed One, armed with the scythe and the sickle, / The hammer, the spade, and the pick!’ However many hands Capital may succeed in removing, the Labour movement can sprout more.
Workers as Briareus

The leader of a Roman slave revolt was the chosen hero of the great novels of ‘Red Clydeside’, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Spartacus (1933). The way the narrative is framed made it impossible for readers not to draw parallels between Crassus’ army and the British Ruling Class during the Great Depression.
Spartacus in Clydeside Activism

And in 1980,Triton was imagined as working-class leader by an anarchist group in London. They used this still from Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) to protest against the threat that containerization posed to traditional dock-workers’ jobs. The fish-tailed god no longer parts the clashing cliffs for the Argonauts to pass through unharmed, but instead represents the power of the self-organised and unified dockers.

The predicted cold weather suggests that I won’t want to dress up as a sea-god, snake-strangler or gladiator on the picket line tomorrow in defence of reasonable pensions for university teachers in old age. But I do know that the classical image which has most inspired me personally is Aesop’s fable of the twig bundle, which often appeared on early Trade Union banners.

The fable said that a father, worn out by the quarrels between his sons, asked them each in turn to break a tightly bound bundle of twigs. Each son failed. Then he asked them to break a single twig, a feat which they easily accomplished, because strength lies in unity. So the fable was integrated into the banners of several unions, for example the 1898 banner of the Watford branches of the Worker’s Union and the Ashton & Haydon miners’ union. I knew all the research I did with Dr Henry Stead for our Classics & Class project would come in useful one day!

My preferred placard would reproduce this illustration—complete with the red pileus cap of the ancient freedman and modern revolutionary--from the beautiful Baby’s Own Aesop by socialist artist Walter Crane: striking colleagues, UNITY IS STRENGTH!! 

[1]  H.G. Wells, Outline Of History, page 225

  1. Jump up

Friday, 2 February 2018

Why the Latest Trendy Theory in Classics is Crypto-Reactionary

Official Gospel of 'New Materialism'
I’m at Northwestern Uni, Illinois, where I’ve been asked to address the Latest Trendy Thing Classics has borrowed from other disciplines: ‘New Materialism’. New Materialism says inanimate things have agency. Humans oppress things. The trendiest New Materialist, Jane Bennett, wants ‘to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.’ She thinks Matter needs to be discussed without thinking (yawn!) about ‘human labour and the socioeconomic entities made by men and women using raw materials’.

Prof. Bennett, Johns Hopkins Pol. Sci.
Old Materialists like me are obsolete narcissists, cosmic imperialists who oppress inorganic elements, minerals, liquids, and gases as well as organic flora and fauna. Bennett goes directly for the jugular of Marxism-influenced thought: ‘Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?’

Please. The idea that academia been too focused on thinking about labour is preposterous. Only a scholar working in a country like the USA, where only about 20% of the workforce is engaged in agriculture or industry, the other 80% operating at a more or less extreme degree of alienation from the processes of material production, could possibly hold such an opinion. But try claiming that we are too focused on labour and the socio-economy to a citizen of Zambia or of Burundi, where the percentage of the workforce labouring in agriculture or industry is 96%. Globally, 40% of the workforce still works in farming, often at subsistence level in grinding poverty. Every year sees an increase in the number of humans involved in industrial labour.

New Materialists are Virtue Signallers who argue that they occupy higher moral ground than the rest of us anthropocentric narcissists. But Classicists—Be Warned! Ancient society, in terms of its relations of production, was far more similar to modern Burundi than to the UK or USA. If we are to understand the role of materials and objects in a play written in 458 BCE in Athens, then we would be well advised to ask how those materials were thought about in that society by—er, humans—as well as their ‘vitality’ or ‘thing-power’.  

The purple dye used to make the carpet which Aeschylus' Agamemnon tramples in his display of inter-class insensitivity crystallises millions of hours' labour, long before any weaving began. To obtain the amount needed to dye the TRIM of a SINGLE robe, 12,000 shellfish had to be culled alive and the vein containing the purplish mucus extracted and processed. The Phoenicians' most famous export was literally worth more than it weight in gold.

The Labour Theory of Value was not actually invented by Marx and Engels, but developed by them from the classical economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who sought to understand how commodities acquired prices relative to one another in early industrial capitalism.  No other theory has ever explained so satisfactorily the relationship between value of commodities and income distribution across classes.

When it comes to pre-industrial societies, the sheer scale of the man- and woman-hours needed to keep up the supply of commodities produced relationships between humans and humans (slavery) and material objects unimaginably different to our own. I, for one, will not be abandoning all the advantages of thinking about how ‘things’ crystallise human labour, at least when considering classical, pre-industrial society, by jettisoning it in favour of the allegedly ‘radical’ (i.e. dehumanised) ontology of matter which the New Materialists are trumpeting.

[This is a summary of an article soon to appear in Melissa Mueller & Mario Telò (eds.) The Materialities of Greek Tragedy. Bloomsbury].

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant

It’s been week of the unaccountable autocrats. I gave my second lecture as Gresham Visiting Professor in Classics, on Sappho, viewable online, by contextualising her poems in the Greek ‘Age of the Tyrants’-the 7th-6th centuries BCE. 

Hereditary monarchs were deposed by tyrannoi-popular leaders who initially represented non-aristocratic interests but usually ended up behaving even worse than the posh people they'd displaced.

1851 'Apotheosis' of Louis Napoleon
I began with Sapho, a once-famous 1851 opera by Charles Gounod. It has a radical subplot in which Sappho's lover Phaon leads resistance against the local tyrant oppressing Lesbos. The libretto was brutally censored by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s bureaucrats, since he was about to stage his coup, overturn the elected National Assembly of the Second Republic, and soon announce himself Emperor. 

Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham from 1099
Next stop was Durham, where I was reunited with much-loved former colleagues in the Classics Department. In the Great Hall of the Castle, built to proclaim to the northern English that they were the grovelling subjects of the Norman absolute monarch and his deputy, the Bishop of Durham, I illustrated Aristotelian ethics from famous movies like Amadeus. I was housed in the astonishing Bishop’s Suite. The autocrat's rooms are gorgeous, but agoraphobia in such a massive space ensured total insomnia.

Creon, prototype of tyrant in political theory
In Nafplio at Harvard’s Centre for Hellenic Studies’ Greek outpost, I hit tyrants head-on, by talking about the definitive picture in Aristotle’s Politics of the tyrant whose power depends on fomenting distrust within the populace. This picture is fundamental to political theory since the Renaissance, and, through a 1598 English translation, to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Lear, plays Stephen Greenblatt discusses in his eloquent forthcoming Tyrant (May 2018). But Aristotle owed much of it to Sophocles’ Theban tyrant Creon, available to Shakespeare in a 1581 Latin version of Antigone by Thomas Watson. 

Aristotle's Tyrant in English (1598)
Tyrants, of course, come in many disguises, from self-seeking parents and narcissistic teachers to ‘democratically’ elected heads of 21st-century states. They all rely, sooner or later, on fostering animosity between their subjects—not just between the large groups Caesar meant when he advised rulers ‘divisa et impera’, but at every single level of society, in every relationship. One way to resist creeping tyranny is to be civil and kind to every other human, in every transaction. So, a month late, that is my New Year’s Resolution for 2018.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The One Circumstance where Prison really is Necessary

The vacation meant that I finally had time to catch up on the Prison Reform Trust’s admirable  Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile  for Autumn 2017. I have always thought that any alien landing on our planet would regard as insane our use of incarceration to deal with most malefactors, especially in prisons like those in Britain which expose inmates to terror, danger, toxic levels of boredom, and being deprived of supportive relationships and opportunities for self-improvement.

As a society we excel at producing criminals, the usual culprits being poverty, lack of education, and our orphanages: 31% of women and 24% of men in prison were brought up in ‘care’. But we are catastrophically bad at helping them become more constructive citizens.

The Factfile shows how things continue to deteriorate. 49% of adults reoffend within a year.  The summer saw a surge in the prison population to more than 86,000. Only 1 in 20 people in prison are on even the basic level of the incentives and earned privileges (IEP) scheme. The number of frontline operational staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 23% in seven years. Members of ethnic minorities are 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court. Etc. etc.

Then there is the gender issue. A staggering 83% of women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence. In my idea of a sane society, hardly any of them should be in prison in the first place, rather than a rehabilitation system, or community service.

There is only one circumstance, in my view, where confinement in prison needs to be obligatory, and that is where a proven perpetrator, if at liberty, presents a real and present physical danger to other people. Despite my radical scepticism about the efficacy of imprisonment, I am finding it very hard to feel confident that John Worboys, convicted in 2009 of multiple vicious, cynical, premeditated sexual assaults on women in his black cab, is no longer capable of sexually motivated violence, whatever the Parole Board has decided.
The issue here is the notorious IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence, inaugurated in 2005, and designed for offenders who posed a serious threat to the public but whose crimes could not be given a life sentence. Far too many IPPs were imposed, and the system was discontinued. But the Parole Board is now desperate to release IPP inmates, having been left with a backlog of over 10,000 prisoners (14% of the prison population) who do not know whether, or even if, they will be released.

I am certain that many of those 10,000 IPP inmates have no place behind bars. But, surely, John Worboys and others convicted of repeated incidents of sexual violence should not be at the front of the ‘exit’ queue. 

There is just one cause for optimism in this dismal case: it has got people talking, which rarely happens, about the actual purpose of our hopelessly anachronistic, brutal and creaking prison system.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Five Ancient Greek Rings for the 5th Day of Christmas

The Five Gold Rings of the Fifth Day of Christmas were originally Jesuit ‘code’ for the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books. But snow has confined me to an AIRBNB flat in Leith, so I've here assembled Five Pagan Rings.

1] A rich Mycenaean’s grave, recently excavated near Pylos in the Peloponnese, contained gems engraved with astounding intricacy and this fine gold ring. Our Mycenaean may have raided it from Crete, because its bull-jumping scene, with its mysterious links to the Minotaur legend, is typical of Minoan art.

Theseus collects Minos' ring from Amphitrite on Ocean Floor
2] It was when sailing to Crete to kill the Minotaur that Theseus became star of my favourite ring-myth, told by an undervalued poet called Bacchylides. The sexual harasser King Minos tried to terminate Theseus. He threw his golden ring into the sea and ordered Theseus to retrieve it. This was silly, since Theseus was a champion underwater swimmer and the son of Poseidon. Assisted by friendly dolphins, he surfaced with the ring and a new outfit his stepmum Amphitrite gave him in her sea-floor palace.

3] Why do engagement and wedding rings symbolise fidelity? They often signified treachery and falsehood in antiquity. The most famous ancient ring belonged to Gyges. Plato tells the story while asking whether we would all misbehave if we could do so with impunity. 

Gyges was a shepherd who came across a ring of invisibility which enabled him to have sex with the queen, kill the king, and take over the throne.  It can be a good party game to get people to confess how they would use a ring of invisibility: I would reserve it for forcibly redistributing wealth and Bad Hair Days.

4] In Lucian’s dialogue Lover of Lies, a pathological liar called Eucrates describes how an iron ring, given him by a mysterious Arabian, allowed him to visit Hades. He inspected the River of Fire, the Acheron and Cerberus. He recognised his own dad because ‘he was still wearing the same clothes in which we buried him’.

Chaircleia, heroine of Heliodorus' Novel
5] The Fifth Ring belongs to Charicleia, the heroine of the novel An Ethiopian Story. Its gem is an Ethiopian amethyst, ‘more beautiful than those of Spain or Britain’.  The intricacy of the scene engraved on it is literally incredible. A shepherd boy supervising several pastures plays his pipe to his flocks. Lambs jump, climb rocks and dance in a circle round the shepherd. The youngest lambs try to escape but are prevented by a golden band representing a wall.

The dancing sheep are explicitly described as creating ‘a bucolic theatre’. This has excited historians of the ancient theatre who have used it as evidence for a genre of ancient pastoral drama. This is, sadly, to miss the point: the scene on the ring represents fiction’s power to write things into existence that are impossible in reality.

But there are times when I want to go with the more literal-minded amongst my academic colleagues. Having been appalled by the expensive mediocrity of Shrek: the Musical on Boxing Day, and since our TV aerial became detached in shock at the appearance of the new Dr Who, I would much enjoy a pastoral show with dancing sheep right now.