Monday, 30 April 2012

Bearded

I notice that Mary Beard has a post up on the peculiar tombstone (or perhaps just pseudo-tombstone) that was one of the highlights of last week's episode of Meet The Romans. If you missed it, this remarkable stela was erected allegedly by one Calidius Eroticus, identified as an innkeeper, and features a joke about a customer who spends so much of his budget on a prostitute that he can't afford the hay for his ass. I think that's what it's about, anyway. It's a trifle obscure, unlike Calidius Eroticus's own name.

Beard translates it as "Mr Hot Sex". Does it really need translating, though? Any attempt to render the name into English can only be a diminishment, I think. This applies even more strongly to Mrs Eroticus, whose name (titter ye not!) is inscribed as "Fannia Voluptas". I'm sure the metrosexual baboon-slayer would have enjoyed that, if he's still watching.

About him, the less said the better, except that I don't really buy the assumption (which his victim clearly shares) that Gill's uncomplimentary remarks about Professor Beard's appearance were motivated merely by sexism or by his fear of intelligent and educated women. As Bryony Gordon noted, he's got a long history of making similar remarks about men. (He once likened Tony Robinson to Gollum.) Rather, he's a professional troll. Being outrageous is his gimmick, as it's Jeremy Clarkson's gimmick or (in a different journalist genre) Liz Jones'. Someone I know on Twitter tutted that Gill was "influential", which I seriously doubt. The most likely outcome of the row will have been higher ratings for Beard's show, which is all to the good. (I also note she has twice as many Twitter followers as she did a week ago.)

The other thing I would say (and I hope Mary Beard will forgive me) is that having a female presenter who doesn't look like a supermodel is a huge relief, not least because it makes it easier to concentrate on the subject being discussed. (The sexual objectification of TV historians isn't confined to women, of course. I seem to remember female critics getting very excited, back in the day, about the tight jeans and chiselled jaw of another televisual interpreter of the ancient world, Michael Wood, as he strode around the ruins of Troy. These days there's Niall Ferguson.)

Is Mary Beard now this country's top media don? There's David Starkey, of course, but he isn't really in academia these days (and his own brand of professional trollery has started to wear a bit thin.) Otherwise (ignoring, for these purposes, the scientists) her main challengers for the title are Simon Schama, grandly transatlantic and above the fray, and Ferguson, now absurdly rich and vain. By contrast Beard looks and sounds like a normal human being, the sort of person one might just bump into in Heffers on a wet afternoon.

Except that she's probably way too busy to spend much time pottering around bookshops. The long hours and unremitting grind of modern academic life is one of the principal themes of her always entertaining blog, which has now yielded a second volume of highlights entitled All In A Don's Day. It's a slightly less eclectic selection than last time, I found. This might have something to do with the blog's return to the bosom of the TLS since the Times proper disappeared behind the great Murdoch paywall. Or it may be a symptom of the current crisis in higher education, with its constant soul-searching about fees and funding, cuts and admissions policies, which have all rendered the university sector more newsworthy and controversial as well as more fraught. On the other hand, Beard's publisher apparently advised her that prospective readers would be most interested in inside information about exam-marking and Oxbridge intervews, so perhaps it's just that.

Many of Beard's complaints will find resonances outside the rarefied (or not-so-rarefied, these days) world of Oxbridge colleges or the wider world of higher education, however. She describes academic versions of some of modern Britain's chronic ailments. A professor writes a satirical article about sex with students, is taken literally and denounced as a sexist (or worse). Plagiarism has ceased to be a moral offence (cheating) and has become a nebulous "risk" to which any hapless researcher might accidentally fall victim. The administrative burden grows daily. Threaded through it all is a lament for the way that bureaucracy has increasingly interposed itself between dons and their students, as it has interposed itself between nurses and their patients, or between parents and their children's schools, or between firemen and people they might otherwise be rescuing.

But if gripes about the box-ticking nightmares of Research Excellence Assessments aren't your thing there's plenty more to tempt the fancy, from the politics of Alexander the Great's nationality obscenties to some pointed remarks about Dr Starkey. There's an amusing account of how a post about the possible revision of her college's Latin grace got turned into a "Christianity banned!" scandal in the Daily Mail, a lucid analysis of one of Catullus' more obscene remarks and thoughts about the anthropology of Christmas. I particularly enjoyed a story about how a member of the Scipio family lost an election by cracking a snobbish joke at the expense of a lower-class voter. Arrogant posh boys are nothing new in politics.