Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Puppy Again

This is David's new dog, Eddie. He collected her from the breeder yesterday. There is some concern over how the energetic young pointer pictured here will get along with the in situ pet Daphne the Tortoise, but this potentially difficulty has been deferred by putting Daph into hibernation until February, by which time Eddie may have calmed down. Anyway, if it gets ugly then Daphne can always call on her time-honoured survival strategy of disappearing into the undergrowth. So effective is this tactic that it once occasioned our being extremely late for a cocktail party after spending a whole afternoon desperately angling shaving mirrors and poking broomhandles under the garden shed because David was convinced she must be in there. Several increasingly fraught hours later, after the apparent failure of all attempts to entice her out with portions of brussels sprout, we were just beginning the process of removing all the contents of the shed with a view to dismantling it completely to retrieve the allegedly trapped tortoise, when I found her hiding in a patch of dandelions. Daphne had a mate once, called Niles, but he was eaten by a fox during another ill-starred recreational garden excursion. Let's hope the dog fares better.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Written on the Body

Would you ever get a tattoo? (This is the first thought worthy of the name I've had for a week or so, hence my uncharacteristic blog silence.) I considered it for the first time recently when I came across a couple of lines of poetry which I have known for years but suddenly read with new eyes, and wondered how it would be to have them indelibly etched on some hidden bit of me. I also made a new friend who has many tattoos and piercings and who looks rather beautiful for it. Or maybe he's just beautiful.
So, Tom's post about things one would never do was timely. Not long ago tattooing would definitely have been high up my list, along with going to bed with more than one person at a time, drinking milk from the carton and becoming a management consultant. (Incidentally, it is very hard to think of things one would never do. Most are criminal, or obviously grossly immoral, which is surely not the point; otherwise I can only think of things which would only arise out of some kind of psychological distress, and are therefore outside the relevant realm of volition. Just about everything else is something I would conceivably do, and/or have probably done, but am embarrassed about. I don't think this counts. We could all claim never to listen to Radio 1 or that we would never cheat on our partner, but the first case is just snobbery and the second mere optimism. The project seems to be designed to highlight quite specific moral convictions, of which I have none, or to give an opportunity to air high-mindedness, which I am not going to take. Can anyone do better?)
I digress. Tattoos haven't appealed to me in the past. I have never had a rebellious streak, phase or even idea. I am a physical coward. I am ineffably vain and never fancied my lovely skin sullied with grubby blue-green smudges. I have an absurd but residual anxiety that they are essentially downmarket. I am easily bored.
I have also never quite understood the need to impose these marks of ownership on a body which, for better or worse, is plainly mine in any case. True, I don't think of my body as being *me* in any real sense, but it is the only one I have, and satisfyingly and distinctively mine in all kinds of ways. But then, if one is happy for one's body to be a physical testament to the cumulative story of one's life, I wonder how considered and deliberate markers and modifications might be different from or worse than stretch marks and appendix scars and wrinkles, muscles you did or didn't tone, weight you gained or lost. Why not a message, or an image, which is both as ephemeral and as permanent as a healed scar?
But amid all these good reasons not to bother, here, if anyone is interested, is the poem which makes me want to do it anyway. We can't be wholly sure about all the words: the first line is fairly secure, but the second is a mess of textual conjecture. As one critic has it, "While the statues at Olympia are beautiful in their broken state, with only empty air to suggest what has been lost, it is difficult to leave the lovely first line of this couplet sitting atop a pile of ruins. We can only hope for Sappho's indulgence."Evening Star, you bring back everything the shining Dawn scattered,
You bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring the child back to its mother.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Science of Sleep

Shame on the Bloor: I have just wasted five dollars on going to see this film, which is a right old pile of poo. It was billed a comedy, but it isn't funny, unless a couple of men dropping a piano down some stairs actually is hilarious, as all the fifteen year olds in the cinema seemed to believe. It also thinks it's very avant garde and quirky, which it's not. It has dream sequences in it, which are almost invariably utterly boring unless you're clever enough to be David Lynch. One online review said it "demands to be seen more than once", but I left after 45 minutes.
I can't remember when I last walked out of a film. I felt like walking out of some Chinese effort I went to see in Aberdeen about silent married people, but somehow forbore. I don't think I even left "Dick Tracy", for anyone who remembers that dogturd of a film. I should have left "Moonwalk". I would have left "Speed", but by the time I'd given up hoping it would get better it had ended. I remember wishing I could leave "Spring Summer Autumn Winter and Spring" a couple of years ago: it was about a floating monastery with one inhabitant and was every bit as fascinating as it sounds. It memorably included a sequence fully ten minutes in length of nothing but a small man dragging a big rock up a hill.
At the moment I feel rather like a small man dragging a big rock up a hill in an endlessly protracted cinematic sequence, possibly one which has been surreptitiously switched on to a loop (a la "Speed"...), so that I could be doing it for eternity and no one would notice. They would just be obliviously snoring into their popcorn. Or they'd have left.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dead Feminists

I have just been back to find out what other feminist I might have been if I hadn't been Mary Wollstonecraft, but it wouldn't tell me unless I completed the quiz again. So I went through ticking boxes completely at random, and I still came out as Mary Wollstonecraft. I don't know if there's a message in that.
I get the sense one of the Pankhursts is lurking in there, and wonder which. I hope it's Christabel. I used to be a Latin mistress in a girls' boarding school where one of my joyful duties was to be head of Pankhurst house, but sadly it was (for all anyone seemed to know) named for Emmeline and not her good pinko daughter. Despite my admiration for the suffrage movement and love of my personalized house hoody with "Mrs Pankhurst" on the back, I really wanted to be head of Fry (Elizabeth, 1780-1845). This is not because my stint in the girls' boarding school gave me a special affinity for lunatic asylum and prison reform, but because our hoodies were regulation blue and theirs were, irresistably, scarlet and black.

I am Mary Wollstonecraft

Directed by Jenny and Tom, I took this short quiz and discovered that I am Mary Wollstonecraft, which is nice. The questions were a bit perplexing. At first I couldn't understand why I was being enjoined to decide whether I was either creative OR intellectual OR passionate but not allowed to be all three. Likewise why I couldn't use both humour and brains to win a debate, or even enjoy both coffee in cafes and also conversations with my friends. I began to wonder if everyone else had known for ages that you were meant to decide on just one of these and stick to it, and no one had told me. Then I started to worry that the reason for all my problems was that I had foolishly been trying to hold simultaneously the manifestly logically incompatible beliefs that women should be respected culturally and intellectually, and also have an equal share in government, and also not be physically brutalized. When it came to questions about the number and sex of my offspring I twigged that perhaps they were not signing me up for an ideology after all but just trying to find out how many basic details I knew about some historic feminists. By which time it was too late to tailor my answers to make sure I was Simone De Beauvoir. Damn.
Anyway, it turns that to be an inspiring woman I would need to be dead. Which is not very inspiring.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


A conversation about words with no rhymes arose in the library yesterday, fuelled by the kind of whimsy that overcomes those steeped in boredom with 1st century AD rhetorical theoreticians. Examples touted included "orange," "silver," "month," "purple" and "traffic". Of these "orange" seems to stand, as does "silver". "Month" I dimly recall rhymes with "krunth", which as far as I remember is something in Sanskrit (vel sim) and also has some botanical meaning. I don't know if that counts or not, I'm prepared to let it go. Purple is a scandal, though: "hirple" is a perfect rhyme and a fine Scots word to boot. I checked and it is in the OED, so there. (It means to walk with a limp or awkward gait, as any fule know.) However, I will let people off for not knowing about the word "hirple." But I must insist that there is no excuse for anyone, especially a classicist, claiming there is no rhyme for "traffic". As well as being an indispensable piece of metrical terminology and the adjective for one of the greatest artsists in the literary history of Europe, we must also consider how impoverished would be our vocabulary of euphemisms for sexual deviants without the glorious term "Sapphic." More elegant than "Lesbian," less graphic than "tribade," less prosaic than "gay," it is the choice of queens. It even rhymes with Seraphic (QED x 2). However, may I suggest that you do not, in your innocent determination to find rhymes for "Sapphic," type this word into google and press search. It took me half an hour to clear my desktop.

Friday, November 17, 2006

My friend Mark and his son Oscar, whom I was admiring in this post.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


I have just been to see what is possibly my favourite ever film, the hilarious Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959). I was in a filthy temper this afternoon and it cheered me right up. I wanted to share the joy, but my assiduous google image search didn't throw up any decent stills of MM in that incredible backless (and virtually frontless) spangled frock, teetering around in stilettoes and juggling a huge and fabulous white fur stole, which frankly is the main cheering aspect of the film. That and the shot where she is wiggling down the hotel corridor away from the camera in a tight white dress. And the train berth sequence, where she is barely kept inside her black maribou-trimmed peignoir, all milky skin and smooth flesh. Gorgeous.
I also went to see a truly terrible film on Sunday, and gladly warn anyone who fancies the look of The Illusionist not to waste their money. The script is awful: it is really badly paced and the dialogue is rubbish and the whole thing is lame instead of romantic and implausible instead of fanstastical. And the heroine isn't remotely attractive. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I thought this was seriously cool.

I am rather into deserty things at the moment because today I started learning Persian. I am very excited and therefore verbally incontinent, while knowing this is a stupid thing to post, because when I fail dismally or give up in despair I will have this public announcement hanging over me.
The chances of me getting anywhere with this endeavour are practically nil. Contrary to cursory appearances, I am not at all an instinctive linguist, and the phase of life in which such things come easily fled by in a mist of pointless crushes, amateurish eyebrow-shaping, and the rote learning of the few French verb endings I have managed to retain. In adulthood I have tried Italian, with modest success, and German, with none. Learning German had the same effect on me as learning to drive, viz that I was no use at it despite my genuine (if ephemeral) enthusiasm. This was actually incredibly useful at the time: nothing improved my teaching more than being on the other side of the didactic divide. I earnestly believe that all teachers should try to learn something new every year, just to remember what it feels like to be hopeless.
I have been reliving this experience today, embarking on lesson 1: The Alphabet. Unfortunately Persian uses the alphabet of the more brutal and visceral Arabic, which consists of a series of dozens of virtually undifferentiated loops and strokes, combined with a handful really annoyingly intricate figures, all of which alter beyond all recognition when placed in the middle of a word. The result is that the merest slip means you have written "petrol-tin" instead of "corner", or "brackish" instead of "kind," and I toiled cackhandedly over inept and doubtless highly comical scribbles. The friend who is teaching me was very encouraging, but I did feel like a particularly stupid five-year-old.
However, I am determined to persist. Some years ago I fell in love to the strains of the Persian tongue and have never quite managed to fall out of love again. It is incomparably beautiful and I think I will never again hear anything so enchanting as the sound of Persian lyric love poetry on the lips of my lost amour. It really is a language to be wooed with. As for Arabic - well, it has other uses.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

No Name

My friend Tom's blog mentions that I am blogging anonymously. I never wanted to be anonymous, as anyone who knows me will easily believe. I find it artificial and faintly absurd and also somehow grandiose and self-important. I can't see what difference it makes if people who know who I am know who I am, and it's not as though it would be hard to work it out anyway.
However, I have friends much more circumspect and generally cautious, one of whom told me a creepy story of being stalked, and insisted I take my real name off. So I have. There is also that old chestnut that I'll be unemployable when interviewers discover that I once had one too many gins or made a catty remark at the expense of Aristotle's prose style or something, though (quite apart from the unlikelihood of this scenario) it is no drawback for a person who experiences massive attraction to anything which might relieve me of the necessity of ever having a proper job. (Actually, that may be the sort of thing which is better said anonymously.)
I feel like Odysseus, playing the No Man trick, and thinking thereby to evade all reponsibility for his actions: vanity will out, of course. Endlessly circling the jobmarket must be the modern equivalent of being cursed by a man-eating giant to meander the Aegean for a decade. What strikes me, and this may be revealing, is that it's all even worse when he does finally get there. It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

More Pride and Delight

I suppose Oxford has a reputation for being hard to get into. Indeed, the admissions policy of the university is an indelible obsession of the British media, and a process about which almost mythical speculation hangs like a pall and generates a hysteria which would lead the casual reader of your average article on this subject to suppose that the commodity to which the poor slighted teenager du jour was being denied access was life-saving surgery or freedom of speech or clean water. Rather than, say, admission to one of many good establishments of higher education in the British Isles, all the rest of which remain open to them and at any of which they could obtain a perfectly good degree and the three or four years of drunken irresponsibility which are the birthright of those fortunate enough to be born clever, or at least middle class.
Well, admission to Oxford (undergraduate admission at any rate) is indeed competitive. Since this knowledge is so hard for the press to cope with, it is doubtless good if they don't look too hard at the tiers of competition which exist within the university itself. Having already loaded words such as "privilege" and "elitism" with such insupportable (though essentially meaningless) weight, I can't imagine what terminology they would have left for the institution of All Souls College. This is the Oxford-within-Oxford, a fellows-only college which generates among Oxonians the same class of myth that the University generates in the wider world. Perhaps among Fellows of All Souls there is a particular committee or something which evokes the same kind of legends and mystique. Members of that committee would I imagine spend their nights dreaming of the elusive and exclusive position of Chair. The Chair probably knows of a committee of Exclusive Academic Committee Chairs and wonders what cruel prejudice keeps him off it.
Anyway, at the inappropriately named All Souls, two fortunate souls per year are given a set of rooms and a stipend tenable for seven years, during which time they are obliged to do nothing but exactly as they please. The Prize Fellowship is awarded by exam, the focal point of much of the mythologizing, not least for the question which consists of a single word. This year it was "Water," for anyone who cares. The range of privileges which accompanies success in this competition is, I need hardly add, extensive, as is the associated cachet. It is also very pretty, though the website is a bit coy about photos so this is the best I could do.
My interest in all this is that earlier in the week one of my oldest friends was awarded one of these incredibly prestigious fellowships, to my enormous pride and delight. I have known him since school, when he was quite a little boy and I a worldly-wise 6th former, and subsequently adopted the approach of a terribly neglectful but very fond big sister who offers the well-meant but sporadic and probably useless voice of experience in such matters as debating competitions, Oxford admissions, finals, etc. Indeed, we have numerous endeavours in commmon, in which I as the elder am ostensibly better-versed but in fact a bit hopeless, and in every single case have been immediately, gracefully and very convincingly upstaged by my vastly more talented young friend as he graduates to each rite de passage in turn. Since in addition to his formidable intellect he is the nicest and most gracious and modest man in the entire world, it is not only right and proper that he should be the recipient of the richest academic honours, it is also a matter of genuine pleasure. How often can you say that?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

No Use

I am still broken-hearted about the cat. At the end of a second evening spent mostly weeping, I am starting to feel a bit foolish, but whenever I think about her I feel so racked with loss and a terrible sense of responsibility that I don't know what to do with myself. I can't bear to think about her suffering but it's just desolate to imagine home without her pootling around in it. I didn't even get to say goodbye.
Using her name seems to grieve me particularly. Twenty-four hours ago it was the name of my pet cat and now it's a word that refers to a memory of a cat I once had. I can't bring myself to write it, so I will just call her my cat.

Trying to be positive

Here are some (more) of the lovely things which have happened to me recently.

To begin with, this is a picture of Marc and Jess's new baby. She is called Frida and I am hugely excited about meeting her when I come home for Christmas. I met their first daughter Leonora the day she was was born, and was bewitched. Jess says Frida looks just like Leo did. They sent me a lovely letter telling me all about her which was a very nice thing to come home to after a long day of work and rehearsals.

My friend Cie is not only a phonetician but also a champion knitter - she sent me a beautiful alpaca-wool snood which she had designed and made in my colours. It appeared through the post one morning and pleased me so much I wouldn't take it off all day, even inside.

Today I spoke to gorgeous Peter, with whom I used to share an impractically laid-out flat and all my secrets and whom I have managed not to talk to since I arrived here. He is a hotshot lawyer and the most sensible man I know, not least because his fondness for babies almost equals mine. We caught up on all our secrets and it felt just as though we still lived next door to the gay pub and never did the dishes.

The nice Parsee man who owns my favourite cafe decided to take me under his wing and introduce me to a Zoroastrian speciality of his wife's making in place of my boring lunch order. It was a scrumptious and eminently replicable confection of spiced veal mince. He says they eat them for breakfast which I perhaps won't try.

I got a letter from my grandmother telling me all the family news. There is nothing like familiar handwriting.

Monday was the most beautiful day since I arrived here. It was autumnally coloured but there was dazzling sunshine and a bright blue sky and it was balmily warm. I spent the whole day perched on the steps on my department listening to Beethoven and Brahms and doing my reading and smiling at people who came past. A handsome man bought me coffee. I drank it with a bar of hazlenut chocolate (my favourite) while sitting in the sunshine lost in thought.

A senior colleague with many far better things to do spent an unnecessary amount of time listening to my trivial work problems and making me feel much better. He also revealed that another even more senior colleague over the pond had been asking after me, to my great suprise, since I wasn't sure he had ever really twigged to my existence. I was rather touched.

Yesterday I was asked out shopping and spent a merry couple of hours trying on beautiful shoes with an old friend. One pair were red suede and as soft as butter and formed the subject of vivid, if short-lived, fantasies of glamour and beauty. For the last two days I have worn patent leather shoes which shine wonderfully in the rain and make puddle splashes a thing of joy. Today I wore my favourite skirt and woke up to a text message from the incomparable Ben, who would have approved the skirt in terms more aptly phrased than any other person alive could manage.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


My cat had to be put down today. I promised myself I would try my hardest not to get too upset. It doesn't seem to be working just yet, though.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Martial Law

Non est, crede mihi, sapientis dicere 'Vivam':
Sera nimis vita est crastina: vive hodie.

"I'm going to live" is not, believe me, what the wise men say:
Too late's the life tomorrow brings us: live today.

Thoroughly Modern Milly

Well, I have just made a mobile phone bill payment over the internet and I feel very clever. Online banking is so sensible! Why didn't I start doing it years ago? Oh, yes, because I'm utterly lazy and an addict of the short-term gain. However, a very small investment of time (like two minutes) has now paved the way for a lifetime of laziness and not having to do tiresome things like get washed, dressed and out of the house two or three minutes earlier to get to the bank before class. More time to spend in front of the mirror. Hurrah!

I have also just received the first credit card of my life. Neither I nor the man in the bank believed they could possibly approve my application, since I am not from this country and have no credit history here and almost none at any of the fifteen addresses I have lived at in the last five years, and my parents moved house the same day I did. In short, I am a credit papertrail cul-de-sac, but they have still given me a mastercard with which to make mischief. I am not at all sure this is a good idea. My ability to live within my means has been repeatedly tested and I have repeatedly failed. Not even when I was living rent- and bill-free in a village with no friends and no shops did I manage to keep my profligacy within the bounds of my (more than reasonable) salary. I wouldn't wish this reflection to be read as regret: I defend every penny ploughed into maintaining my reputation as an unparalleled vision of immaculately coordinated elegance, and expense is a risible rank outsider in the annals of whatever sorrows Burgundy consumption and its consequences may have occasioned over the years. I could not have squandered my money better. Nevertheless, the prospect of commercial debt alarms me, because my problem isn't cash flow, it's poverty: I have no more prospect of being able to pay for things at the end of the month, or even of the decade, than I have today. The card will not be coming out to play.

As for how I continue to spend the money I do have, I am simply unwilling resist to lure of delicious ephemera. Meals get eaten, drinks evaporate in a cloud of hangover, earrings get lost down the seat in the great drunken taxi-ride of life. One day I will have a mortgage and offspring and responsibilities and I will be jolly glad I made the glorious most of life's brief window of booze, shoes and opera twice a month. How wonderful a thing it is to be young and carefree and vain, and tipsy and well-fed and sunk in culture and beauty; and how sad it would be to realise this only when it's too late to indulge it to the fullest, when you have babies and will never, ever again be the most important person in your own life.

So, yes, I am a notorious spendthrift: the kind of person, in the words of my friend James, who would be a grand overdrawn at the bank and still think, "Ooh, pheasant...". Quisquam vivere cum sciat, moratur?

Monday, November 06, 2006


The cast of my play contains one of the world's nicest man. Like most of the world's nicest men, he is happily partnered; his wife is also lovely. Most enchanting by far, however, is their 18 week old son, whom I have been longing to meet and finally did today after the afternoon run. I know it is asking a lot to encourage all my friends to come and sit through a 200 minute-long incomprehensible play in which I do little more than walk on and walk off again. It was beyond the call of duty for them not only to do so, but to patiently wait in the foyer afterwards while I spent twenty minutes scraping panstick out of the ravaged remains of my facial skin. It was therefore indefensible that when at last I emerged I all but dived past them in my eagerness to meet Oscar, who had not bought a ticket, not sat through the play and not hung around to offer me kind, ill-deserved and dearly welcome congratulations on my nugatory performance.
But oh, this baby. He is delightful. You may refer to my previous post about my chum's puppy if you doubt my capacity for infant-induced hysteria, which is considerable. However, the paticular effect of meeting Oscar and stroking his downy baby face was to make me reflect on the compelling thing that is the human need for touching. I have always had a very tactile life: half my family is Welsh, and there is no stopping them from hugging one another constantly. I have for many years lived close to numerous dear friends with whom sharing physical affection is as regular as breathing, and I am not normally short of a chap or two. I suppose moving to a foreign country has various dislocating effects, but none of them has affected me with anything like the power exerted by the sudden radical diminution of physical contact. It's simply not natural to go untouched. On Friday I was shattered and needed a nap, and realised after an hour's procrastination that my reluctance to go home to bed was anticipation of the desolate feeling induced by having no one - not parent, spouse, sibling, friend, lover or child - to cuddle up to. Quite apart from the noted panacaea that is the Babycuddle, what is the point in general of a warm bed without a warm body in it?
Luckily I am blessed over here with the kind of first-rate friends who not only sympathise with this tragedy and compensate me with great big full-body hugs, but also sit through my boring play, listen with patience to my endless nonsense, keep my secrets, calm my worries, and ring to check I'm okay when I sleep though classes. I do not deserve them, and charming as Oscar is, I was secretly far, far more touched and pleased to see them in the foyer after the play than I could ever have been by even the sweetest and peachiest of baby boys.

Friday, November 03, 2006

It's time to play the music

Tonight the show opened. Woo hoo! There was even an audience, and the cast got very excited, but then the director revealed that he had given out thirty seven complimentary tickets, which slightly took the edge off. Naturally it was a triumph, though sadly it's not clear whether the audience thought so. It is a rather difficult work. Sweetly, one chap reported that his sister said I was the best thing in it. As most of my appearances consist of walking on with a box, the message to take from that would seem to be that the play's most successful moments are when there are no speeches or dialogue of any kind, which is not an optimistic evaluation.
My chief contribution to the whole production, other than to clutter up the stage for the most possible time with the least possible reason, has been the provision of a rather obscure prop. At the audition it transpired that one of the servant roles involves swinging a censer. Now, there are not many occasions in life upon which the claim to have been dining with a handsome young collector of thuribles only the previous night can be made with truth, and still fewer upon which one would freely admit it. For just this claim to be hailed with an admiration bordering on awe, and with the immediate welcome into an obscure renaissance drama of someone with exactly no qualifications in any relevant field, is surely unique. But it is a point of fact: I have had a wonderful month of happy rehearsals and nice new friends and impromptu dinner party invitations and backstage gossip, and all thanks to a random boozy evening with a man who spends his free time and money on the acquisition of ecclesiastical bric-a-brac. You couldn't make it up.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nymph and Satyr

Inspired by last night's rant, here is one of my favourite bits of ancient art: a mosaic of a Nymph and Satyr in (some variety of) flagrante, from the Casa del Fauno in Pomepii. This is the same house in which they discovered the glorious mosaic of Alexander the Great doing battle with Darius III, which I daresay tells us the original owner was bloodthirsty as well as a misogynist. Oh well.

Isn't it lovely? I now head straight for this when I am in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, one of my very favourite places in the world. (The Museum, that is, and not Naples, a city where the mafia are responsible for collecting the rubbish and mostly don't.) I'm sorry to have to admit that I was especially drawn to the rather plump-bottomed, black-haired and white-skinned nymph because I fancifully imagined that's what I might look like if I were rendered by a sympathetic mosaist. You can view snaps of just about all the Museo's exhibits from here. It is quite a resource for fans of the Museo, though tragically the website doesn't serve you lemon granita in a marble colonnade under the bright blue sky and blazing sunshine of an Italian summer's day. Nor, on the other hand, does it smell of garbage.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Have I Been In This Job Too Long?

It is not surprising that someone would direct me to a webpage that unites feminism, antiquity, sex and blogging. I was surprised, however, to find myself quite so perplexed by it. If you have a moment, please do have a look here: I'd be really interested to know what people make of it. This is a long post but I am very interested in this.
I confess that while I could see the cause of the consternation, I didn't share it. I hope this is not because I am unsympathtic to the plight of kidnapped, enslaved and raped women. However, I simply cannot see that the renovation of a well-preserved ancient ruin and the promotion of visits to such a site is in any way identical with collusion in slave-rape. To begin with, these women (and boys) and the men who abused them (if this is what was, in fact, happening - I don't know that for certain, and I doubt the blogger does either) are long dead. Their experience was the product of a society, culture and politics which are also long dead: whatever parallels people may wish to draw between it and our own do not obviate the fact that, for instance, we have laws against this kind of thing. I think it's of limited practical value to get up in arms about the fate of these specific women.
Of course, I quite accept that there's such a thing as socialisation and fully appreciate that encouraging people to view slave-rape as entertainment has the potential to normalise it and contribute to a modern-day culture of (at best) indifferent or (at worst) titillated reponses to such stimuli. But it's not at all clear, at least from what this blogger writes, that the site is being marketed in deliberately callous or titillating terms. And quite apart from that, people do know this is the product of an another time and other circumstances. If that weren't the fundamental point of the site, why go? Sickos can, I'm told, look at clearer, faster, better and more anatomically convincing and wildly specialised porn from the comfort of their laptops and not bother traipsing round a dimly lit cavern in a manky town in Southern Italy.
Secondly, you can't restrict access to a cultural artefact of undoubted historical significance just because not everyone will have an "appropriate" reaction to it. It is a pity that not everyone who goes to Pompeii spares a thought for the possibility that some nasty stuff happened to real people in these places. It is unpleasant to think that anyone would actually enjoy the idea of said nasty stuff. But this is not something than can or should be policed; and the alternative is that no one has the opportunity to look at it. It is, of course, arguable that it is more important to protect the dignity of individuals who have been dead for two thousands years than it is to examine, document, collate, discuss and educate people about the exiguous and miraculously preserved remains of an ancient civilisation whose culture and history still fascinates and engages us, but you won't hear me saying so. Maybe I have been in this job too long.
Thirdly, it is not as though ancient historians don't notice or care that bad things happened in Greece and Rome; it's just that deciding in advance that a historical source is in its very essence wicked and corrupting defeats the entire point of scholarship. It is not enlightening to say "slavery and rape shouldn't happen." We know. It is enlightening, however, to explore what new things these sources can tell us about the society that produced them. I for one am much in favour of this apparently controversial process of discovery and enlightenment, unless anyone can point me to some active harm it may be causing, which they haven't so far.
The cleasrest attempt to demonstrate harm is this reference to the papyri which are so unjustly neglected. I need hardly add that I am very sorry to hear this. I have always yearned for more Livy and am devastated to hear that tranches of it are being kept from me. Seriously though, I don't presume to lay down criteria for which cultural artefact is more important. I am a convinced literary bug, but even I don't see that it is irrefutably the case that more Aristotle should necessarily and obviously be prioritised over extensive frescoes. Besides which, it's the limited funds which are the disgrace here. I don't complain that they pick the pix over the papyri, I complain that they have to pick at all. Surely the blogger isn't saying that the brothel (or "brothel", if you must - I'd have said the force of the punctuation is inherent in the term, myself) should rot altogether? Or is she?
From the point of view of the visitors, I would a) rather people visited ancient sites than didn't; b) rather they had something to look at there which engages them with the idea that the Romans were real people with real vices and virtues. You may think it a shame that sex sells, but it's no less a fact about Pompeii than all those boring ditches and far more interesting to most people. What exactly is the objection? That tourists are insufficiently discerning and highminded in their tastes and education, so as to prefer the (gasp) coarse-but-interesting bits to the dull-but-worthy ones? How dare they. That not everyone who visits knows the whole terrible history of Roman imperial domination and the details of its social effects? Shame on them. Whatever happens, we mustn't market these sites using points of universal human interest that might engage and involve people with no previous interest in antiquity and make them consider the humanity, with its joys and sorrows and everything in between, that we all share through the ages.
I note that nowhere in this thread is any allusion made to, say, the display of real human skeletons (NB: not drawings) preserved in their huddled poses of terror and futile self-protection as they were buried alive in burning ash. I note too that a similar objection is not made to tourism in the Colosseum, where countless people were tortured to death by public fiat amid the avid cries of hundreds of citizens. Or does human suffering only matter when it is caused by patriarchally sanctioned male-on-female violence? Perhaps it is not after all the Pompeii Tourist Board in whom a sense of perspective about sex, porn and prostitution is somewhat lacking.

Gratuituous Puppy Shot

This is a friend's new Brittany bitch, Eddie. She is so new that she isn't even weaned yet. I have never seen her, but I am uploading this partly for decoration and partly because I am all but driven to squeals by the mere thought of lovely little warm wriggling helpless things. I would like to make it clear at this point that I am a fully emancipated and equality-driven woman of the twenty-first century and in no way subscribe to or condone any shallow patriarchal gender stereotypes. But look how cute!