From The Scotsman 28 November 209
Interview: Mary Beard, blogger
By DAVID ROBINSON
IF I'M to begin this story at the beginning, I have to start back in 1960 with a five-year-old girl from Shrewsbury visiting London for the first time with her parents. They take her to the British Museum, where a warden notices that she's too small to see some of the exhibits. He opens the glass case and gets out a piece of 2,000-year-old Egyptian bread. "Jesus," remembers Mary Beard, "that was just gobsmacking." It probably is a wee bit simplistic to wonder if touching that ancient chunk of carbonised bread led her to become, 50 years later, a Cambridge professor and Britain's best-known classic st but I can't help thinking it all the same. And why not? That day, she'd also seen the Elgin Marbles for the first time. Even at five years old, they made an impression. She thought they were stunning. She didn't think that people so far back in the past could produce anything so beautiful. "Yesterday," she adds, "I visited Elgin for the first time. Bit of a sad place. I've written about it in the blog." Ah, the blog. It's called It's a Don's Life, and even though the blogosphere is a vast and ever-expanding universe (175,000 new blogs are being added every day, apparently) I can't imagine that there's anything else there quite like it.
What, it asks, are academics for? Why was Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech so ironic? What made Romans laugh? What did Greeks wear under their togas? Is Cambridge really impossibly elitist and out of touch? And while the blogosphere probably does have answers to all these questions somewhere (16 million posts per day: I haven't checked them), I doubt whether the discussion in cyberspace will be as civilised and ostentatiously knowledgeable as it is in It's a Don's Life.
About 50,000 people follow Beard's blog each day, and its flavour of Oxbridge high-table banter also flows through the book Profile has just published of its edited highlights. It's the book, not the blog, that brought me to Aberdeen University to interview her – she has just finished a series of lectures there on classical archaeology – although by the time we meet, that distinction has blurred. What I want to work out for myself is, quite simply, why there aren't more blogs like hers – blogs that any publisher would quite happily turn into a book without risking the accusation of dumbing down. Why, if university is supposed to train the mind, aren't there more academics like her, prepared to use their own special subject to filter through the issues of the day?
It helps, obviously, if they've already got a proven track record for readability: in Beard's case, most recently for her wonderful book on Pompeii – "a forensic adventure through the back alleys and mansions of a dead city" (Michael Pye on these pages joining in a universal chorus of approval last year). If they can shrug off academics' habitual fear of communicating enthusiasm for their subject – the thing that drove them to study it in the first place. If they can, just for a moment, leave the dry-as-dust approach behind, loosen up and generalise. If they could only, when blogging to a readership a long way from academe, be as outspoken in public as they are among their colleagues in the senior common room.
Beard scores heavily on all counts. "I do have form on being outspoken," she says. And of course she does: this is the woman who, the week after 9/11, went into print in the London Review of Books saying that, "however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming". Cue mass outrage from across the Atlantic. The LRB even briefly withdrew her name and address from its list of subscribers "in case someone did something nasty".
She's keen to defend herself. That quote was preceded by the words "many people think that" – and indeed both in her local Cambridge newspaper and on Question Time she had detected precisely such feelings, no matter how much such people also sympathised with America's victims of terrorism.
"You always regret upsetting people needlessly," Beard concedes. "You regret when you've criticised a student's essay and you look up and see that they're very upset and you think, 'Perhaps I got that slightly wrong'. But I think I would say the same thing again. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury says much the same thing from the pulpit now. Admittedly, if I had been writing six months later I might have learnt how to rhetoricise it more appropriately so that it was less upsetting."
She spent ages, she says, replying to the shoal of antagonistic e-mails. But she's not the type to backtrack. What annoyed her about the discussion of 9/11 was its cant about describing terrorism. "However judicious academics may be – not like me – they are all taught to see through crap. Describing terrorists as cowards, for example: 9/11 was stupid, terrible, evil, murderous and despicable, but it wasn't cowardly. Unless you can say that terrorists are brave and have qualities that you can't just write off, you'll never solve the problem."
Agree with her or not, you have to admit there's a certain thrawn-ness about Beard's approach to debate. She's not afraid to stick her head above the parapet. Her blog last week about visiting Elgin, for example, hardly pulled its punches. While the boarded-up shops and others with ugly modern frontages made the High Street "a complete disgrace", she noted, one of its really interesting buildings, a Greek revival church with a replica Monument of Lysicrates on the roof, was closed to the public, its porticos occupied only by sullen teenagers and "No Skateboarding" signs.
The key here isn't the fairly standard attack on bog-standard Britain but that Monument of Lysicrates on the church roof. This far north, where Roman legions had never trod, the classical world had invaded all the same. Talk to Professor Beard about that, about what she's doing in the North-east, and you see a different side to her altogether – less of the "wickedly subversive commentator" as the Times describes her, and more of the passionate pedagogue.
When Beard was studying classics as an undergraduate at Cambridge, the subject was only just starting to turn itself inside out, applying the interrogative techniques of structuralism, feminism and sociology to both the ancient world and those who had studied it in the past. Beard's own work would soon bear that out, not least The Invention of Jane, her study of the Victorian classicist Jane Harrison, who was so famous a lecturer on ancient Greece that 1,600 people turned out in Glasgow to hear her talk about ancient Greek grave monuments.
Beard spent most of this month in Aberdeen researching and delivering the Geddes-Harrower lectures about Greek art and archaeology. And although the university now no longer formally teaches classics, Beard has set about uncovering the subject's perhaps surprisingly deep roots in the North-east. When Jane Harrison (like Beard, both a student and lecturer at Cambridge's Newnham College) was first awarded an honorary degree, for example, it was in Aberdeen rather than anywhere in England.
Because Aberdeen wasn't a residential university, she explains, it was far more open to the whole notion of having women studying classics than crustily collegiate Cambridge. It was open to other innovations in the subject too: while English classics dons kept a narrow focus on studying the language and literature of the ancient world, Aberdeen was pushing ahead in opening up the new subject of classical archaeology, learning from the German universities that were world leaders in the field. Oxbridge would catch up, but it would be a struggle: it was in places like Aberdeen that the modern discipline of classics was being formulated.
As she talks, my impression of her changes. I'd read an interview in which she had talked about herself – rather offputtingly, I felt – in the third person ("Beard says", etc); in our conversation, she does not do this. At the time, I'd thought her comments on 9/11 insensitive, without realising how she'd been selectively misquoted. Then there's the general suspicion our culture has of media dons: maybe at some slight level I'd shared this too.
I realised I was wrong as I listened to her piecing together a nexus of cutting-edge classicists in Aberdeen, explaining about how the public would, in 1871, flock to pay for (in Aberdeen!) the privilege of looking at an Alma-Tameda painting of a Dionysian celebration, about the onset of mass tourism to the ancient sites, or how the university's leading Victorian classicists, so dour in their portraits, were "fantastic radicals" in their day. Listen to all of that, catch how energised she is by her material, and an altogether different impression emerges.
It's of a woman – a feminist as it happens – who is totally engaged in her subject. Nowhere did I see that more than when I asked what it was about studying that she enjoyed the most.
"It's just finding things out, following trails," she says. "It's detective work. I'll give you an example. I'm very interested in how people in the 19th century travelled to Greece. John Murray produced a brilliant series of travel guides to Greece all through the 19th century. But there was one that came out in 1884 that is completely different to all the rest. It says don't just look at the classical stuff, look at the medieval stuff too because it's really interesting.
"So I went to the John Murray archives, found out who wrote it and it turns out that she was a woman and all the rest were blokes. A woman called Amy Yule. A North-east name. Then I found her address – Tarradale House in Ross-shire, and I Googled that and discovered that until 2005 it was actually owned by the University of Aberdeen.
"I talked to the people here and they said, 'We've got some of the stuff from Tarradale House in our collections, including watercolours.' And I thought, 'They're going to be by Amy Yule, aren't they?' I'm going to see them tomorrow. A chain of detection, you see?"
I do. Just like this has been.