Mary Beard: public life, trolling and Romans
Last Friday, Professor Mary Beard came to St Peter's, courtesy of a conversation with the JCR President about year ago. I asked her who the JCR would have on a list of favourite speakers and they plumped for Mary. So no surprise that we were full.
She talked about Trump (who I shall now call President-elect Trump, but who, all of six days ago, was a long, long shot) and democracy. Democracy, she asserted (highly correctly in my view) is not defined by elections alone. What matters, and a lot, is knowledge and the quality of public debate. Aristophanes and Thucydides were called into action for this early section of the talk. George Orwell had much to say about this topic too, with praise heaped on the House of Lords for the quality of its debates (participants often had knowledge). I jotted down this phrase: "The biggest crime is to make things simple (when they were not simple)." Yes – and that, of course begged further thoughts about President-elect Trump (I am just getting used to the idea) in the question and answer session that followed.
As to public debate, there was too much of a danger of everyone preaching to the converted. It was no good if liberals only spoke to Guardian readers, and so on. Radio 4 was mentioned (quite a lot) with deserved praise for More or Less.
There were some gripping moments when she talked about how she had added a public role as a debater and interpreter of current affairs to her primary role as a Professor of Classics, and she made it clear that the Classics role was the one that truly defined her. She had been spotted by a Controller of BBC 2 who took Mary up on her complaint that too many series were being presented by middle-aged frumpy men. So she was offered programmes (in her words) "as a middle-aged frumpy woman". They were spectacularly successful – my words, not hers.
There was a riveting section about the abuse she has endured, from people who have threatened to cut her head off and from journalists (including in quality papers) who had written about her in a way that might generously be described as cheap.
And she spoke about how in her early career she had not found her voice and had been quiet in seminars until she began to speak up. Interestingly, she could not work out quite how that change arrived. It preceded by many years the arrival of a public profile.
The audience was spellbound. At the end, several gathered around her, not merely to have a book signed but to ask for advice – in one case from a student who wanted an answer to an essay question about Cicero. Mary gave her a concise answer. I doubt the student will reveal this minor act of chutzpah in her tutorial.