Victoria Coren, The Observer, May 20
Boris Johnson in a toga - that's not something you see every day. (Unless, that is, you happen to live with Boris Johnson. I imagine he always wears one at home). Last week, the Henley MP slipped into a Roman robe for our public benefit, to protest against the abolition of ancient history A-level and the decline of classical education.
Well done, Boris! There are many down sides to living in decadent western luxury (our teeth are rotten from Coke, our brains are melting from mobile phones, we're all on Prozac for depression, and we keep waking up in front of late-night phone-in quizzes on ITV), so we mustn't risk letting go of the up sides: medicine, central heating, and the joys of an education which isn't purely functional. We can and should study ancient history, not just as the first key piece of a cultural jigsaw, but also because it's fun and has minotaurs in it.
As for Latin and Greek, their study helps us to understand our own, beautiful English language - one of the few things that Britain can still be proud of in an increasingly contemptuous world. Without the classical precedents, we can learn the history of our curious words and phrases only by watching Balderdash & Piffle on BBC2. Thank heavens that show is such a gripping delight, and that I get paid at least 30 quid for presenting it (Fridays 10pm, Mondays 11.20pm, hurry, hurry while stocks last).
I hope that Boris Johnson's campaign will prove successful, and that Latin and Greek will be installed safely on the national curriculum...but not for another six weeks, so that everybody is forced to watch our series in the meantime.
Unfortunately, as Boris parades nobly in his ancient attire, Cambridge university announces that it will henceforth be offering courses in etiquette. This makes things tricky. You can chart the decline of human civilisation quite nicely in what a generation thinks necessary to teach. Goodbye Iliad, hello Elbows Off the Table and Don't Scratch in Public. We're turning back into monkeys, and Cambridge knows it. If it comes down to a toss-up between 'amo, amas, amat' and not flicking bogies on the bus, I suppose we should opt for the latter.
But must there really be a choice? Surely there is a way to teach elegant manners and core school subjects at the same time? Below is a final exam paper, for Cambridge tutors planning their new etiquette courses...
The Greek god Poseidon cursed King Minos by causing his wife to fall in love with a bull. But should pets be allowed at weddings? And where do you draw the line?
It is an interesting anomaly that Hitler, though bloodthirsty, was a vegetarian. Cooking dinner is hell when a veggie is invited. Do they eat fish? What about cheese? Should you lie if the soup contains a little chicken stock? EITHER imagine that you are Hitler and describe how you would go about making yourself no bother to your host, OR imagine that Hitler is coming to dinner, you are planning a pot roast (Himmler's favourite), and explain how you would prevent Adolf getting offended and perhaps going on to start a war.
Draw up a seating plan for the above dinner party. Remember, the Fuhrer cannot be placed next to any Jews, and Heinrich is probably shagging Mrs Goebbels.
From the look of the paintings, guests at the Last Supper sat in a row on one side of the table. To what extent can the betrayal of Jesus, the crucifixion and the birth of Christianity be blamed on clumsy placement?
Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. But when is it acceptable to eat a piece of fruit without using a knife and fork?
Modern History (2)
You are Stalin's barber. He asks if he should keep his moustache. You think it makes him look like a badger, but you have a wife and six children. What do you say?
In his 'Funeral Baked Meats' speech, Hamlet sneers aloud about the food served at a party where he was an invited guest. Demonstrate how all his subsequent woes stem from this appalling faux pas.
Yes, the French are simply ghastly, but one isn't to let it show.
Is there a delicate way for a lady to eat a giant sausage standing up?
To what extent can mapping the human genome help us to understand why some people hold their knife like a pen?
Who will save us from this cutlery crisis?
Speaking of etiquette, the Daily Mail reports that Chris Tarrant has been arrested for throwing cutlery at a fellow diner in a restaurant. The presenter admits: 'I lobbed a spoon or a fork.' Yet the same incident was reported in the Telegraph as 'knife-throwing horseplay'.
Why such lack of precision about the implement? Our laws are far too vague. People must be severely punished for knife-throwing. They must be ticked off for fork-throwing, which could have someone's eye out. But if a chap can't throw a simple spoon without fear of reprisal, we're all sunk.