Wednesday, December 22, 2010


In lieu of proper academic content, here is a link to a review written by me that went online today:

I hope to get back to proper blogging here in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Letter to my MP

Dear Sir John Stanley,

I am writing to you to express my concerns about the Government's plans for Higher Education. The Government wishes to shift the burden of cost from teaching grants to fees paid by students. The increased fees are likely to deter students from poorer backgrounds, and many institutions may not be able to make up the lost grant money through fees.

Every government since the Robbins report has accepted the need to fund Higher Education for the national good. The Government is now turning away from this, and leaving the universities to operate as private sector organizations. The effects of this radical change to the way universities are financed have not been properly considered, but are being rushed into.

Many arts, humanities and social science courses will be entirely dependent upon fees income. The Government's lack of support for such courses suggests that they do not consider them important. This is a serious mistake, which will leave the country lacking in many of the skills it needs, and culturally impoverished.

The Government claims that it wishes to maintain the status of the country's universities as among the best in the world, and that it wishes to widen access, and improve social mobility. Their reforms will achieve none of this. I therefore urge you to vote against the Government on Thursday.

Yours sincerely,

Antony Keen

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Marches, riots, and Remembrance

I went on the NUS/UCU march yesterday. I could only appear in my lunch hour, so I missed the end where people 'rioted' across London. Well, across one street in London. Well, actually in one building in one street in London. As riots go, this is not really up there with the likes of Brixton, Notting Hill or the Bogside.

I do not, for a moment, condone the violence. But if you make people angry, and then make clear that you've no intention of listening to their grievances, then people will get violent. And students are angry. And not just selfishly - a lot of the people on yesterday's demonstration will have graduated by the time increased fees come in. But they care about education for all. They will not be the last to get angry, as the government introduces new methods of treating the unemployed as workshy. I doubt they will be the last to riot.

Tory MP's aide Simon Renwick apparently twittered that students should "Remember what tomorrow is and put it in context!" All right, I will. People fought and died in the First and Second World War for a lot of reasons, but a very prevalent one was that the world after the war should be a better one. This came up at my grandmother's funeral on Monday, how proud she and her husband were of here children going to University, and how keen they were that the children should take advantage of opportunities they never had. The Coalition government is set on a course that will reduce those opportunities. They are working on an assumption that money cut from teaching budgets is bound to be made up through fees. This assumption is naive. Debt-averse students will not apply for places. I am not convinced that the government will put enough money into the Student Loans Company to support the increased fees - after all, if all they are doing is moving money from teaching grants to the Student Loans Company, where will the short-term savings to government come from? Students will find that courses they want to do get marginalised out of existence by market forces, because that's what market forces do. Institutions will find they cannot survive, and other institutions will not be able to take up the additional burden.

So, I find that there is no contradiction in going on yesterday's march, and going to a Remembrance service today. Yesterday, I marched to defend a better world. Today I honoured those who fought for it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

excitusque hilari die

I got married on the May Day weekend. I'm not sure that this is necessarily something that I'd discuss on this academic blog for its own sake. But I thought I would reproduce one of the readings, as it is relevant to the sort of material I have here. We decided on a couple of Classical-themed readings. My wife chose an excerpt from Ursula Le Guin's rewriting of Virgil, Lavinia, about which I've written before. I chose a poem of Catullus - not the wedding epithalamium from which I quote the title of this entry (Poem 61), but Poem 5. Being the sort of person that I am, I wasn't going to be satisfied with using any translation that I could find on my bookshelves or on the 'net (the poem has been much translated and imitated, by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh, among others).

Instead, I decided to translate it myself. But I also decided not to do a plain prose translation, but to try to render the Latin verse into English verse. This was quite a challenge. I decided any sort of rhyming structure would be beyond me, but I wanted some sort of structure, rather than just free verse, which would make my translation little different from prose. In the end, the iambic tetrameter seemed the correct metre - a pentameter, more typical in English poetry, would make the lines too long to match the content of each Latin line, and so I would not have the line-for-line translation I wanted. So each thirteen-syllable Latin line is rendered, as best I can, into eight English syllables. Technically, not every line is strictly iambic - the third line certainly opens with a trochee (I evidently remember some Latin scansion!). But a pure iambic rendition would be very difficult, and I am told that part of the effect of English poetry comes from the clash between the stresses of the metrical feet and the natural stresses of the English lines.

There remain some bits, especially towards the end, that I'm not entirely happy with (indeed, I've changed the penultimate line from what was read on the day). But I showed it to my OU colleague Paula James, who knows Catullus far better than I do, and it passed muster with her. And some guests recognised the poem from past experience of it, and at least one thanked me for rescuing it from associations with dreadful school experiences.

So here it is, as read on the day by my dear friend Alison Freebairn, who, in the words of another guest, "gilded [the poem] with a gentle Scottish burr".

Catullus, Poems 5, ad Lesbiam

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus

Let’s live, my darling, and let’s love.
And let’s not give a monkey’s for
Gossip of mis’rable old men.
The sun sets but can rise again.
But when our brief light fades from view,
We must sleep through an endless night.
Kiss a thousand times, a hundred,
Another thousand, a hundred,
Then yet more thousands, more hundreds.
Then when we’ve kissed many thousands
Of times, let’s lose count, so we won’t
Know how often we’ve kissed, and no
One can harm us with that knowledge.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

General Election

Tomorrow, the UK goes to the polls to elect a new government. Whichever of the main parties wins, the prospects for education, and especially in the Classics, are not good. Both parties are agreed that universities must bear their share of the cuts necessary to take the country out of a recession which was not of the universities' making (nor of the making of most of the sectors of the country that seem to be bearing the brunt of the pain). I did catch Gordon Brown saying how he was dedicated to ensuring that everyone's potential and ambitions in education be fulfilled, but it's pretty clear from the statements of Labour education minister after education minister that if your potential and ambitions lie in the arts or humanities, that doesn't really apply. Nor are the Conservatives likely to be any better, as that sort of narrow-minded utilitarianism is part of Margaret Thatcher's legacy, and too many Conservatives still revere that. I might feel differently were Boris Johnson still Shadow spokesman for Higher Education - for all his buffoonery, he believes in education for its own sake, and the value of the humanities and the necessity for them to be supported. But he isn't.

On a wider scale, I don't really want either of these parties to win. Labour have sunk into the sort of excessive authoritarianism that has ruined many a socialist revolution, whilst the Conservatives remain, under the skin of 'caring Conservatism', dedicated to the self-interest of the rich and powerful. A Labour government will be slightly better than a Tory one, but it is a bit like havoing to decide whether you'd rather have Nero or Caligula as emperor.

The only encouraging thought is that we might be heading towards a hung parliament, and that the Liberal Democrat vote might be sufficient to make the argument for electoral reform unassailable. There is much talk of the danger of a hung parliament, and how it will prevent 'strong government'. Good. Strong government brought us the Poll Tax and the Iraq War. A hung parliament will get us closer to consensus government, rather than the 'elective dictatorship' (Lord Hailsham's phrase, I believe) we have at present. 'Strong government' really only means that a minority of the population can impose its will upon an unwilling majority. If you're wondering why so many people feel disenfranchised, that's why.

In the constituency I live in, only the Liberal Democrat candidate has a hope of displacing the incumbent Tory (who actually is quite a decent bloke). In a proper proportional system, I would probably vote Green (as I do in the Euro elections). As it is, I will vote LibDem, in the hope that this will initiate a change that will allow me to vote Green next time. And I encourage you to do so too.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Classics at Leeds under threat

The UK government recently imposed cuts on the overall grants given out to universities, making education shoulder its part of the UK government's need to cut costs. In a time of such cuts, arts and humanities subjects are vulnerable, as short-sighted utilitarians (wrongly) see them as economically unproductive. In that context, Classics is particularly vulnerable, as it is seen as elitist, old-fashioned, irrelevant and boring (all of which are wholly untrue).

We're already seeing the effects of the recession on Classics, even before this latest round of cuts was announced. The Open University has cut its intermediate Greek course, the University of Glasgow advertised for a post in Classics and then cancelled the search, and proposals were made at King's College London that included the loss of the Chair in Palaeography and two posts in Classical Art/Archaeology.

But the biggest threat so far is at Leeds, where one of the proposals being considered is to abolish the department altogether. I am absolutely flabbergasted that a long-standing institution such as Leeds could consider such a closure. On a personal note, when I was a postgraduate in Manchester, I used to visit Leeds regularly for seminars. I found the staff there to be amongst the most welcoming of departments I've ever encountered; I still enjoy catching up with them at conferences.

Members of staff at Leeds have set up a blog that explains the current situation, and there's a petition. If you care at all about Classics in the UK, and tertiary education in general, I urge you to sign it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An open letter to Ed Balls

Rt Hon Ed Balls MP
Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families
Sanctuary Buildings
Great Smith Street
sw1p 3bt

Dear Mr Balls

I am writing concerning your comments on BBC Radio concerning the teaching of Latin. Unfortunately I did not hear these when broadcast, and am only able to judge them as reported in the media. But I gather that you stated that few businesses are asking for Latin, and that you have never been shown an inspiring Latin class, whereas you have been shown inspiring classes in dance, technology or sport.

I am not surprised that businesses are not asking for Latin, but I doubt many are asking for sport or dance either. In any case, our educational needs should not be geared solely to the needs of business. To do so would reduce our educational establishment to business schools and technology colleges, with only English and foreign languages surviving from the humanities (and even then clearly only for commercial use, and not for reading Voltaire or Tolstoy in the original). Of course we need business schools and technology colleges, but a nation that had nothing else would be intellectually and culturally impoverished.

It does not surprise me that you have never been shown an inspirational Latin lesson. But it is illogical to assume that, because you have not seen any, they do not exist. There is no subject so inherently dull that it cannot be presented to a class in an inspiring fashion by an enthusiastic and motivated teacher. Many, if not most, students able to study Latin will recognise that inspirational Latin lessons certainly exist.

I would suggest two reasons why you have not been shown any. First, the vast majority of state schools, due a number of factors, of which lack of government support is one of the more important, have dropped Latin from the syllabus. So they are not in a positio0n to show you an inspiring Latin lesson, even if they wanted to.

The second reason is that when a government minister comes to visit, a school wants to make a good impression, and so will gear what they present around what they think will contribute to that. For at least twenty years, education ministers from both parties have given the impression, explicitly or implicitly, that they do not look with favour upon Latin as a subject. Hence the school will show the minister a lesson in a subject (such as dance, technology or sport) that the minister does look upon with favour. In other words, you are not shown inspirational Latin lessons because you and most of your predecessors have given the impression that you do not want to be shown inspirational Latin lessons.

So, Mr Balls, I offer you a challenge. Next time you are in a school where Latin is taught, ask to see a Latin lesson. I think you may be surprised.

Monday, March 08, 2010

KCL and UCL Greek Plays 2010

Aeschylus, Persians
2010 King’s Greek Play, Greenwood Theatre
Performance seen: 11 February 2010

It is, as the programme notes, quite surprising that the King's Greek Play has never tackled Aeschylus' Persians before. It's a regularly studied text, because of its uniqueness as the only surviving tragedy based on historical events (indeed, events within the lifetime of the audience, featuring onstage depiction of at least one person who was still alive when the play premiered in 472 BCE). So this year, King's took on the challenge of that work.

As is often the case with King's productions, it was okay, though nothing that enormously impressed me. One potential problem with Persians is that it can end up looking very static, and in fairness, this was well-dealt with. The Chorus was used to add movement, and to underline the dialogue through their actions. There are some nods towards tradition, notably in the half-masks worn by the cast.

Other aspects were less successful. Breaking the Messenger down into two roles was innovative, but I thought they were rather aggressive towards Atossa, who is, after all, supposed to be their Queen. And having Xerxes come on stage dressed a bloodied armed soldier misses Aeschylus' point, which is made pretty explicitly in the text: Xerxes has run away from the fight before actually seeing combat, has torn his own rich oriental dress, as a woman would do, and has nothing manly about him at all.

The best performer was Petros Boutros-Vallinatos as Darius, who confidently delivered his dialogue. Charlotte Maskell as Atossa, the Persian Queen, was rather more muted, though hers is the largest part, and therefore the hardest to learn in Greek.

As with last year's Lysistrata one felt that a little more rehearsal was needed. Atossa forgot some of her lines, the Chorus were not always in unison, and the surtitles were often badly out of sync with what was actually being said. But, as ever, one must make allowances for student productions - these are not professionals, and delivering a play in a language that is not your own is difficult.

Aeschylus' Oresteia Parts II and III: Choephori and Eumenides
2010 UCL Greek and Latin Classical Play, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre
Performance seen: 12 February 2010

I would extend the same allowances to the UCL Classical Play, if they ever showed any sign of needing them. Not every UCL production is first-rate - Acharnians in 2007 was a bit weak - but it's been a long time since there was a terrible production, and more often than not, the UCL productions get it right. Of course, they do have some advantages. The need to deliver the text in Greek restricts the pool of performers from which King's can draw - UCL, in contrast, can throw a wider net, which brings in people with considerable experience of the amateur, and in some cases professional, stage. And the benefits show. (Tonight I'm off to see a performance by King's students in English, which may be a fairer comparison.)

Following on from the successful Agamemnon of 2008, in 2010 UCL decided to stage the remaining two plays from the Oresteia trilogy. The burden was eased by giving the two plays to different directors.* This ambitious scheme pays off.

Despite featuring the killing of Clytemnestra, Choephori can easily get slightly lost as the middle play, between Agamemnon and Eumenides. This production brings it into focus. Where Lisa Gosbee's Agamemnon had used masks, here she takes a more naturalistic approach (though still not entirely naturalistic). Highlights of this were the opening entrance of the Chorus, to the sound of a single clear, beautiful voice, and a strong Electra. (Though unfortunately there were a couple of times when members of the Chorus forgot their lines.)

Eumenides was done very differently, in a far more stylized approach. The ghost of Clytemnestra is projected on a screen. The Furies are whiteface goths in tutus. But it works, and doesn't jar with the approach in Choephori. I might have hoped for a more menacing Athena when she speaks to the Furies (underneath Athena's consoling words, I always feel, is an implicit message that in any fight, Athena will not be the loser), but that's a personal bee in my bonnet.

Overall then, two different, complementary and both well-done plays from UCL. I look forward to next year's performance.

* Unfortunately, I have mislaid my programme, so can give no names. I will rectify this as soon as I can.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

K.J. Dover, RIP

News reaches me of the death of Sir Kenneth Dover, one of the great Hellenists of the latter part of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, I was reading one of his books, Aristophanic Comedy, a couple of days ago, as part of my own work on Aristophanes' Frogs (yes, it's a link to Wikipedia), and wondering if he was still alive. I only met him once, very briefly, and he was quite old then.

Dover is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for some slightly silly remarks he wrote in his autobiography, Marginal Comment, about driving his Oxford colleague Trevor Aston to suicide, comments that got blown further out of proportion by the media. Within the Classics community, it is his writings that will be remembered. Greek Homosexuality was a - erm - seminal work, that set the terms of the debate on the subject, projecting a view in which male-male sexual relations were power relations between older and younger men, and not ones of mutual desire. In recent years people have been deconstructing his model of same-sex relations in the Greek world, notably James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love. But Dover cannot be discarded.

I've probably in recent years made most use of his work on Aristophanes - the aforementioned Aristophanic Comedy, commentaries on Frogs and Clouds, and the section on Clouds from a companion to the Penguin translation of Acharnians, Lysistrata and Clouds (the writing on Clouds, okay, I haven't used, but may well in the future). I don't always agree with Dover - like many Aristophanic scholars, I sometimes feel he gives more attention to strict philological interpretations of the text, and not enough to what actually works as comic theatre (this is why one of my academic heroes is Gilbert Murray, who knew not just how to go through a text with a fine-toothed comb, but also how to write for the stage, and allowed the latter practice to inform the former). But, again, his contributions remain of major significance. With the death earlier this year of Douglas MacDowell, another scholar whose work I respected but did not always agree with (though I think I have amended some of my opinions since I wrote that review), it's been a bad few months for Aristophanic scholarship.

Dover also made major contributions to scholarship on Thucydides. He wrote school/undergraduate commentaries on Books VI and VII, and, with Anthony Andrewes (not the Brideshead Revisited actor, who doesn't spell his name like that), completed Gomme's classic historical commentary on Thucydides. It was in these works that I first encountered Dover, as a young schoolboy setting out on what would turn out to be an erratic career in the Classics. (Inevitably, the wags at school referred to him as 'Ben' Dover. I suspect this happened in many schools.)

It was also about this time that I saw Dover on television, as part of a BBC series on the Greeks. Dover was sat talking to the documentary maker, Christopher Burstall, in a small boat off the Piraeus. I never quite understood the reason for this seemingly unnecessarily dangerous activity, but a scholar off this importance is allowed his eccentricities. And, though it's sad that he's died, at 89 he had a good and fulfilled life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to do your paper ...

My friend Liz Gloyn from Rutgers has written a piece on presenting a paper at a conference. It's well worth reading, even if you're not a graduate student (the intended audience). I particularly like the emphasis on the conference paper as a performance. This is something that gets forgotten about by many, but something I try to remember; these days I think of the papers I give as first and foremost entertainments.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Orpheus Down Under

So much for my resolution to post to this more regularly ...

Jacques Offenbach's operetta Orphée aux enfers, the source of the most famous music for the Can-Can, has always lent itself to adaptation. I remember seeing some sequences from the 1977 television Orpheus in the Underground, though I don't think I've ever seen it all the way through.

In Unexpected Opera's version, Orpheus Down Under, the action for the second half is relocated to Australia (as the new title rather implies). This had its premiere last night in the Tunbridge Wells Opera House. This building has passed through being a cinema and a bingo hall, and is now, most of the time, a pub. But the interior has been preserved, and it is still capable of putting on shows.

The production itself is rather good. It takes a bit to get going, and the first half is only patchily amusing (though there is a good joke about Venus' husband training for the Paralympics). It's not helped by the fact that the first Act is a bit on the overlong side (which is Offenbach's fault).

But the second half makes up for any problems with the first - funny all the way through, and well-performed. Go and see it - it's on in various venues across the south-east of England until June.

As for the portrayal of the gods and classical mythology - sometimes, there doesn't have to be a deep significance to the way in which a reception is presented. Sometimes it's just fun, and silly, and done for its own sake. And, you know, that's all right.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Some CFPs, etc.

It's my intention to be more active on this blog this year. But at the moment, I'm a bit short of content. So in the meantime, here are some notices.

Science Fiction Foundation: SF Criticism Masterclass for 2010

Class Leaders:
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay
Roz Kaveney
Justina Robson

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fourth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2010.

Dates: 11th June to 13th June 2010

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Paul Kincaid, Adam Roberts.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2010.

Democratic Inflections: Modern Performance of Ancient Drama

The Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance announces a call for papers for APA 2011 (San Antonio) exploring the relationship between democratic ideology and classical tradition in modern performance.

We invite papers that would explore the question of a 'Democratic Turn' in modern reception of classical drama. The word democratic is highly contested, but in our conception it seeks to draw attention the ways in which classical texts have been appropriated by diverse cultural groups and sections of society, both those in dominant positions but more particularly those that define themselves as disenfranchised.

The panel aims to engage in the international debate on the notion of a 'Democratic Turn' in classical reception, initiated by The Reception of Classical Texts Research Project at the Open University (UK). Papers may pertain to all aspects of the history of performance of ancient drama, as well as to performances of modern works drawing upon the classical tradition (e.g., Gide, Sartre, O’Neill), but should make clear how democratic discourse is central to their analysis. The element of performance heightens the challenge to the use of drama for political ends because in performance a director must decide to how to represent issues and acts that can be deliberately left ambiguous in the interpretation of texts (e.g. rape). Therefore, we especially welcome papers that explore how modern performances deal with the social inequalities inscribed in classical plays; we are interested in the question of how modern directors represent ancient phenomena that cannot be reconciled with modern democratic ideologies (such as slavery).

Papers could offer case studies of politically- or socially-engaged performances of classical drama (e.g. the Lysistrata project), analyze the implications of the transmission of classical drama (including translation and the place of classics in school and university curricula), or consider whether staging ancient plays can still raise those questions essential to modern democracies.

For the 2011 meeting, abstracts must be submitted electronically by February 1, 2010 to Nancy S. Rabinowitz ( or Dorota Dutsch (

Presentations will normally be limited to 20 minutes. Please follow the guidelines for abstracts in the Program Guide (one page in 11-point type; 1.25 to 1.5 line spacing; top and right margins 0.8", bottom 1", left 1.2"; title in upper right-hand corner in 12-point, Times New Roman font). Your name should not be on the abstract, which should be an attachment in Word. Also indicate whether you expect to need audio-visual equipment. Acceptance for the program requires that one be a paid-up member of the APA. Anonymous referees for the Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance will review the abstracts.

Call for Papers: 2011 APA Outreach panel on classical reception and musical texts

The Children of Orpheus: How Composers Receive Ancient Texts

The musical qualities of classical poetry, from the epic and lyric of Homer and Sappho to the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus, and the affective power of music described by ancient theorists, have inspired adaptations and innovations since the Renaissance, In Florence, Caccini and Peri invented operas with the poetry of Rinuccini on the subject of Orpheus. Monteverdi wrote madrigals on sonnets adapted from Ovidian elegy, and Henry Purcell composed incidental music for Dryden's Amphitryon.

Art songs such as Brahms' Sapphische Ode and Schubert's Lied des Orpheus set texts inspired by ancient literature and mythology, Orff's cantatas Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Aphrodite set the texts of Catullus and Sappho, and Xenakis' Oresteia employs Aeschylus' Greek. Stephen Sondheim composed the scores for adaptations of Aristophanes and Plautus. In popular music, Led Zeppelin's "Achilles' Last Stand" and Bob Dylan's "Temporary Like Achilles" reference the heroes of epic.

The American Philological Association's Outreach Panel for the 2011 Annual Meeting in San Antonio invites papers that discuss texts set to music from 1400 to the presnt that are based on, or influenced by, ancient Greek or Latin literature, and analyze how their creators engaged with these texts through direct setting, adaptation, translation, or alteration. Subjects might include, but are not limited to, song-cycles, operas, oratorios, cantatas, hymns, film scores, or popular music.

This panel, organized by Professor Robert Ketterer of the University of Iowa and Professor Andres Simpson of the Catholic University of America, particularly encourages papers that discuss the structure or style of musical scores and texts in relation to their ancient sources, with the social, historical, or political conditions surrounding the creation of these works as secondary considerations.

Papers might productively ask such questions as:

To what extent--and with what significance--has the adaptation of the ancient work been altered to meet the requirements of its contemporary audience?

How do contemporary motivations--artistic, political, or otherwise--influence the musical works' structure and content as they interpret the ancient work?

Has the translation of a classical text into modern language and music impacted our interpretation of the ancient source?

Papers are to be no more than 20 minutes in length; presentations with strong aural and visual components are encouraged.

Anonymous abstracts of 500 words or less, should be submitted, by no later than January 26, 2010 to Judith P.Hallett, Please do not indicate your name on the abstract itself.

NOTE: the panel on Phi Beta Kappa and Classics originally announced as the 2011 APA Outreach panel will be taking place later in 2011, at another academic venue. If you are interested in taking part, please contact Professor Hallett at before February 1, 2010.