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.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

On Seeing the Wood despite the Tory Trees

When Small I thought Tory was short for Conservatory
Times are tough for the British Left.   For four long years, since UKIP broke into the mainstream by returning 147 elected councillors in the 2013 local elections, the news media have been obsessed with issues of national identity. The debates leading up to the referendum were dominated by immigration rather than sovereignty or socio-economic wellbeing. I voted Remain, but there are other things that matter besides our relationship with Europe, which in general worries the mobile, professional-class elite far more than the poor. But you would not know it from the news coverage on offer.

When I was a child I thought that the name ‘Tory’ was short for ‘Conservatory’ and that it meant rich people with big enough properties (i.e. not back-to-back terraces and council flats) to support greenhouses full of exotic blooms tended by obedient gardeners. The Conservatory Party, I believed, existed to stop less rich people upgrading their accommodation.

It was only when got interested in the English Civil War that I discovered the real, original meaning of ‘Tory’.  This may seem baffling in the light of the Tories’ historic attitude to Irish independence, but it comes from an Irish word tóraidhe (modern tóraí), which means ‘pursuer.’


Tory Pin-Up Boy James II
In the 17th century it was an insulting term applied by promoters of English imperialism to Irish outlaws, equivalent, according to one historian in 1693, to ‘Robbers, Thieves, and Bogg-trotters’. This was transferred in 1679 to the ‘Abhorrers’—the Cavalier, pro-Stuart, often Roman Catholic devotees of James, Duke of York, later James II, who had support in France and Ireland. After James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the Tories became one of the two big political parties and took to their historic missions of (1) conserving limits to parliamentary representation; (2) conserving economic inequality; and (3) conserving the privileges of the established Church.

It wasn’t until the early 1830s, when the Tories hit an all-time low in popularity, that they tried to abandon the name Tory and turned themselves into ‘Conservatives’. This was described in Hansard Commons for 25th May 1832 as ‘the fashionable term, the new fangled phrase now used in polite Society to designate the Tory ascendancy’ and by John Stuart Mill in 1861 as ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’.

Pimenta, Hero of People's Health
They may be the stupidest in the grand scheme of things, but they have been canny in keeping so many current emergencies off our collective radar. The NHS can’t last much longer unless we pay attention: see this brilliant short video explaining why by junior doctor Dominic Pimenta.

Even the Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael, admits that by 2020 there will be such a shortage of teachers that the quality of secondary education will be under severe threat. The serial reductions in benefits, especially to young adults, and austerity cuts hitting local councils, charities and mental health services have made thousands more people homeless even than a year ago.

All of which means I’ve stayed in the Labour Party despite everything which the BBC, especially their snide, irresponsible Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, has done undemocratically to belittle it and its leader. And I would start calling the Tories ‘bogg-trotters’ as well as ‘Abhorrers’ and ‘thieves and robbers’ if it weren’t offensive to our free Irish neighbours.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Birthday Bash for Britain's Best Bard

Tony Harrison, who likes alliteration even if you don't, is 80 today.  He is far and away Britain’s most important living poet. 

I spent Thursday-Friday  at the British Academy, convening a celebration of his work, which caught the attention of the Guardian. His committed, radical voice, which swerves between joyous mischief-making and snarling despair at human cruelty, has reached far beyond the inward-looking Poetry Establishment. His life has affected yours whether you know it or not.

Harrison Fan Andy Burnham
Over these two days, Lee Hall said that he could not have made Billy Elliot without Harrison’s example.  Simon Armitage said that his own approach to poetry and the possibility of fusing literary sophistication with everyday experience were direct results of his youthful encounters with Harrison’s work. Andy Burnham said that he would never have gone into politics if he hadn’t read Harrison as an undergraduate.


The Story Harrison's Artistic  Example Underlies
Blake Morrison beautifully dissected Tony’s revolutionising of the English sonnet. Jo Balmer showed how he has transformed approaches to translation from classical languages globally. Peter Symes illustrated how he had pushed the boundaries of what is possible artistically on TV further than any other person.

Sian Thomas in Harrison's Fram
Theatre superstars Vanessa Redgrave, Jasper Britton, Sian Thomas and Barrie Rutter performed his verse with gusto and affection.  Sirs Melvyn Bragg and Richard Eyre acknowledged their long and sometimes tricky relationships with the uncompromisingly socialist Bard from Leeds. A superior class of  gatecrasher turned up in the charismatic form of Sir Tom Stoppard, who also joined our delicious feast, laid on for Tony by my admirable colleagues in the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.

I was already walking on air when we gathered at the British Academy on Thursday, after listening to Tony’s latest play, Iphigenia in Crimea, directed by conference guest Emma Harding, and a documentary about his work. They were both broadcast on BBC last Sunday and are still available

Having him with us throughout the entire event was a surprise pleasure. A selection of his prose works, which I’ve edited (and supplied a Foreword of which you can read a version of here) is published this week. He'll be discussing it with me at a ticketed do on 24th May at Faber's London HQ.

Kicking Off Events on Thursday
Tony's spending his birthday today, Sunday 30th, doing what he does better than anyone—a public reading of some dazzling new poems at Salts Mills in West Yorkshire. He's found a  new generation of fans amongst the young (a conspicuous proportion of the attendees were in their twenties); he's Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite poet. His theatre works have begun to enjoy a major revival, beginning with the brilliant staging of Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Jimmy Walters’ Proud Haddock theatre company in January.  

χρόνια πολλά!
I'm sure the cosmic satyrs of the celestial spheres will join us all in singing Happy Birthday Tony! Please Continue Inspiring Us  χαρούμενα γενέθλια!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sacramental Eggs Ancient & Modern

Baby Helen Says Hello
I have been amused by the painfully Little-Englander-middle-class spat between Anglicans, Cadbury and the National Trust over the secularisation of egg hunts. What is needed to reclaim the egg for longue-durée Human Studies is clearly a brief homily on Ovates in Classical Greek Art. 

Leda perturbed by finding a gigantic egg on the temple altar
  This means, if we move swiftly on from the masculinist Cosmic Egg of the Orphic mystery cult, from which hatched the primordial male Ur-being Phanes, that we need to talk about Helen.

"I'll smash it with my mallet and pour the contents into your bucket"
Helen was hatched from an egg laid by either Nemesis or Leda, depending on which ancient author you are reading. Nemesis was an important goddess worshipped in the well-preserved seaside town of Rhamnous, 45 km north-east of Athens. Zeus was believed to have impregnated her there in the form of a swan or goose while she was asleep; none too happy with the product of this rape, she dumped the egg on Leda, who incubated it and became Helen’s adoptive mother.

The Dioscuri, Literal Egg-Heads
Nemesis' Egg at Disgraced Theme Park
Nemesis’ Sub-Terra egg, a capsule in which terrified passengers were dropped into a dystopic abyss, was until recently to be avoided at the theme-park Alton Towers. But the other version of Helen's story is now better known. In this, the biological mother of Helen, the Dioscuri, and sometimes Clytemnestra, was Leda. One smartass Greek poet, Lycophron, claimed that the Dioscuri’s dome-shaped hats memorialised their antenatal egg-shell, split in two. Note the baby with half an egg-shell on his head in the Bachiacca painting below.

Lady Gaga hatching at the Grammys
The tradition of Helen’s egg had a spectacular potential, as Lady Gaga knows well. This made it a popular theme on the ancient Greek stage. Vases show Leda’s stupefaction at the gift Nemesis has deposited for her; others comically depict various spectators puzzling over the egg’s contents, wondering whether to smash the eggshell with a mallet, or watching Helen actually emerge.
Terracotta  Egg (όν)  

Alternatively, Greeks could buy a painted egg, made from pottery, perhaps showing Paris and Helen in a chariot, in an allusion to Helen’s birth. Some terracotta eggs were made, like prototypical Kinder-eggs, with a sweet little baby girl crouching inside. 

Instead of which, in my teen-dominated household at least, the confectionery of choice this year is an entire E-Number sty-full of alliterative pigs and piglets. I think I’ll be sticking to roast lamb.

Bachiacca's Leda & Swan have FIVE egg-babies

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Classical Comedy, Cannibalism & Commentary on BBC Radio

Lucian's ship ascends to the Moon
I spent most of the last 8 days at Broadcasting House. First, live recording 2 episodes of Natalie Haynes’ Stands up for the Classics. This dazzling classicist and comedienne interviewed me on the topics of Sappho and Lucian, the second funniest ancient Greek author after Aristophanes. 

Matthew Sweet and I argued about the varieties of vegetable attached to the bodies of the extra-planetary beings whom Lucian met when he visited the moon in his ironically titled sci-fi novella True History—hominids with cabbages attached to their behinds and others with lettuce wings.

Thyestes, who eats his own sons unwittingly
The food theme continued with a bizarre invitation from the World Service’s award-winning Food Chain programme to discuss mythological cannibalism, or anthropophagy (human-flesh-eating). In 'revenge anthropophagy', an aggrieved individual makes his enemy unwittingly eat his own child: in Seneca’s Thyestes there is a disturbing ‘recipe’ for this, followed by Atreus, when he joints, roasts and casseroles his cuckolding brother Thyestes’ infants. You can download the programme here.

Erysichthon, Autophage
There are also battlefield threats to sink one’s teeth into the flesh of a combatant—Achilles makes this threat to Hector (Iliad 22.347).  One hero, Erysichthon, is punished for sacrilege by hunger so relentless that he consumes himself (autophagy).

Most foul is the devouring of babies at birth, as Cronos feasts on his newborn sons, through terror of being toppled by the upcoming younger generation. But psychoanalysts say this reflects the breastfeeding post-partum infant’s confusion of bodily orifices, parental flesh and alimentary processes.

'I usually prefer Fromage Frais'
Polyphemus, no baby but an outsize hominid, usually sticks to dairy products but happily devours several of Odysseus’ crew. Perhaps he constitutes a folk memory of Palaeolithic humans whose struggle for survival was so desperate that any old flesh, dinosaur or human, tasted as good as any other.

At New Broadcasting House with Daughter
Fresh from these gruesome tales, yesterday I took up my 6-monthly role as commentator on the World Service’s Weekend programme, presented by Julian Worricker. The (in my view) crass and illegal US airstrike on Syria dominated, but we got to discuss the Civil Rights activist James Baldwin, Gibraltar, sustainable food policy (to continue the week's main theme) and masochistic Scottish cyclists as well. I have talked myself out and am trying not to speak for the remaining Easter holiday. What are the odds on my succeeding?