Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paper in Canterbury

I'm giving a paper in Christ Church Canterbury next week (and it's followed by what looks like a cracking paper on The White Album).

Canterbury Christ Church University
School of Media Art and Design
Research Seminars 2015-2016

25 November 2015

A Wild West Hero: Motifs of the Hollywood Western in four movies about Hadrian’s Wall
Speaker: Dr Tony Keen (Open University)

One notable phenomenon of the boom in ancient world movies post-Gladiator is the relative dearth of Roman settings, as opposed to Greek, especially in comparison with movies of the 1950s and 1960s. However, some Roman movies have been made, and this paper focusses upon four of them: King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua, 2004), The Last Legion (Doug Lefler, 2007), Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010) and The Eagle (Kevin McDonald, 2011). Though not produced as a series, these form a convenient thematic set. Not only are all four set predominantly or entirely within Roman Britain, but the most significant portion (and in some cases all) of the action takes place on Hadrian’s Wall or in the barbarian territory beyond. Three of them also involve the Ninth Legion – the exception being King Arthur.

One noticeable thing about these movies is the degree to which they employ the plot structures and mise-en-scène of the classic American western. The villa north of the Wall in King Arthur, which makes no sense in terms of Roman settlement patterns, becomes comprehensible as the equivalent of the isolated homestead that needs rescuing by the US Cavalry. Centurion, as Neil Marshall freely admits, steals substantially from the prolonged chase of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, including a virtual recreation of that scene’s climax. The Seal People of The Eagle are visually coded in costumes and make-up reminiscent of recent cinematic depictions of Native Americans, such as that seen in Dances with Wolves. Only The Last Legion avoids that approach, choosing instead to appropriate the mysticism of Star Wars (which has itself been described as a Western in disguise). Why are such elements so attractive to makers of Roman movies that they want to use them to supplement the more traditional tropes of the epic? Why does The Last Legion choose a different route? If moviemakers are so keen to make disguised Westerns, why are they not making real Westerns? Perhaps there is a certain portrayal of the Other that is no longer acceptable when applied to Native Americans, but can be applied on a different continent and at a greater chronological remove.

Tony Keen is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate with the Open University, and Adjunct Assistant Professor with the University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway. He writes on reception of Greece and Rome in modern popular culture, in particular in cinema in science fiction. He is planning a co-authored book on the depiction of Roman Britain in cinema and television.

Powell Building – Pf06
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Simonides poem that possibly isn't

For the University of Roehampton this semester I'm co-teaching Introduction to Ancient History. We're just covering the Persian Wars at the moment, and the epigram of Simonides (F 22.a Page) for the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae has come up. You almost certainly know it. In William Lisle Bowles' translation, which is probably the most familiar form (other translations often model themselves on this), it's
Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
I describe this as 'the epigram of Simonides', and there are plenty of modern accounts that assert this unproblematically, but it's more accurate to say that it is 'attributed to Simonides'. The problem is that Herodotus, our earliest source for the epigram (7.228), doesn't actually say that it is by Simonides. This is what Herodotus says, in A.R. Godley's Loeb translation (which I use largely for convenience).
All these, and they that died before any had departed at Leonidas’ bidding, were buried where they fell, and there is an inscription over them, which is this:
Four thousand warriors, flower of Pelops’ land,
Did here against three hundred myriads stand.
This is the inscription common to all; the Spartans have one for themselves:
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here obedient to their words we lie.
That is for the Lacedaemonians, and this for the seer:
Here fought and fell Megistias, hero brave,
Slain by the Medes, who crossed Spercheius’ wave;
Well knew the seer his doom, but scorned to fly,
And rather chose with Sparta’s king to die.
The inscriptions and the pillars were set there in their honour by the Amphictyons, except the epitaph of the diviner Megistias; that inscription was made for him for friendship’s sake by Simonides son of Leoprepes.
So, the only text that Herodotus associates with Simonides is the third of these inscriptions. And even there Herodotus only says that Simonides had the text inscribed (using the verb epigraphō). After that, there is then a series of assumptions, set out in J.H. Molyneux' Simonides: A Historical Study (1992), first that if Simonides had an epigram inscribed, he probably wrote it, which seems a fair assumption, and secondly that if Simonides wrote one of the epigrams, he probably wrote the other two, which seems to me to be rather more tenuous.

There are, however, other ancient testimonia. The Greek Anthology (7.248-50) attributes all three epigrams to Simonides. Moreover, Cicero also attributes the text to Simonides (Tusculan Disputations 1.49.101). But I also note that other testimonia for the epigram, Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 109, Strabo, Geography 9.4.16, and Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 11.33.2, do not mention Simonides' name in connection with it. I wonder if perhaps Cicero and whichever of the many editors of the Greek Anthology first attached Simonides' name also went through the same chain of assumptions mentioned above.

It doesn't mean that Simonides didn't write this epigram; but perhaps we should be more open about the chain of assumptions involved.

Friday, September 18, 2015

An alternative model for looking at classical movies

There's a common model I have encountered for the recent (i.e. in the last fifteen years) development of movies set in the worlds of Greece and Rome, and it's this: no-one was much interested in making ancient world movies in Hollywood until Gladiator came along in 2000, and after that, people have kept making ancient world movies such as Troy (2004), 300 (2007), Clash of the Titans (2010) and Pompeii (2014), with the momentum never dissipating. It's nice and simple.

And I think it's wrong.

Oh, I'm not trying to say that Gladiator isn't an important factor in what we have seen on cinema screens in the first decades of the twenty-first century. But it is simplistic to see all the subsequent Classical-set movies as solely direct consequences of Gladiator's success. It's a view that comes about, I think, from the fact that Classical Reception scholars are often only interested in those movies set in, or directly referencing, the ancient world. Which on one level is fine - one has to set limits to one's scholarly interests somewhere. But there is a danger that this approach can become very inward-looking.*

And whilst Greek and Roman movies may be the primary focus of those of us in the Classical Studies discipline who are studying them, this is not the case for the Hollywood creatives making them. Ridley Scott's previous movie before Gladiator was the modern military action movie G.I. Jane (1997); his next was Hannibal (2001), despite the ancient history-derived name a modern thriller, sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Gladiator star Russell Crowe bracketed his performance in that movie with appearances in two thrillers, The Insider (1999) and Proof of Life (2000). David Franzoni, the writer who originated the concept of Gladiator, did indeed go straight on to another Roman project, King Arthur (2004), but his previous screenplay was for the nineteenth century-set Amistad (1997). The two people who worked on subsequent drafts of the Gladiator screenplay were John Logan and William Nicholson, Logan fitted Gladiator between Any Given Sunday (1999), a sports drama, and The Time Machine (2002), science fiction based on H.G. Wells' novel. Nicholson, who is less prolific a screenwriter, had come from Grey Owl (1999), set in 1930s Canada, and went on to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), set in the sixteenth century.

Yes, I know that the order in which people work on movies isn't necessarily the same as the order in which those movies appear, but I think my point still stands. No-one in Hollywood works exclusively on Classical movies. So when studying those movies, we as scholars need to take account of the wider industry. Not doing so properly can at its worst lead to things like Martin Winkler's introduction to Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic (2007), where he writes as if Wolfgang Petersen's entire career was leading up to directing Troy. (The fact that Petersen has only directed Poseidon [2006] since doesn't validate this view.)

Less seriously, it leads to neglecting or misunderstanding important factors in how movies are made, and what the movie-makers are doing. The beach landing sequence in (again) Troy is pretty obviously an homage to the beach landing that opens Saving Private Ryan (1998); yet the only mention of Spielberg's movie in Winkler's book is a brief comment on the visual echoes as part of an unconvincing argument for Troy as an allegory of the Normandy invasion. To take another example, I would suggest that the most significant movie in getting 300 greenlit was not Gladiator, or any other ancient world movie, but Sin City (2005). Sin City was based on a Frank Miller comics series, as was 300. Though pre-shooting work on 300 had begun before Sin City was released, it was known that the latter was in production. I suspect that the studio heads who gave the go-ahead for 300 were aware that Sin City was looking good, and expecting it to do good business (which it did), and were looking for something similar. So, rather than looking for another ancient world movie, I think that they were looking for another Frank Miller property.

The standard Reception Studies model does not just neglect the circumstances of individual movies. I'd argue that it also distorts the overall story of ancient world movies since 2000. The model ought to predict a number of Roman set movies following directly following on from Gladiator, in the tradition of the Hollywood historical Roman epics of the 1950s and 1960s. In reality, it seems to me that such movies have been few and far between, at least until recently. There is Pompeii, but as I shall argue later, there's another influence at work there. There is Agora (2009), but that emerges from a European tradition, rather than Hollywood, and is not really 'epic'. Similarly, there is Caesar, due later this year, to which Sean Bean was at one time attached, though he was absent from the IMDb 'full cast list' before that was shunted into IMDb Pro, and made unavailable to non-subscribers (but so was Julius Caesar, the role that Bean was up to play, whom one suspects cannot be excised from this movie) [ETA 08/02/17: Shortly after I posted this original article, Bean announced that he had pulled out of the project, which seems subsequently to have collapsed entirely.] - but as it is based to William Shakespeare's play, this belongs more in the tradition of British movies adapting the plays of Shakespeare than in that of the Hollywood Roman epic. In any case, while there will always be exceptions, the general trend does not seem to me to be that the model predicts.

It is true that there are often Roman historical movies supposedly in development, such as Angelina Jolie's Cleopatra project. Very often, as in this case, a sober assessment of the project being developed would suggest that it will never happen. There's been a litany of Roman movie projects that have been talked about but ended up stillborn for one reason or another, such as Roman Polanski's planned version of Robert Harris' Pompeii (Polanski lost patience when it looked like there might be a strike of the Screen Actors Guild, and went on to make The Ghost [2010] instead) or John Boorman's take on Marguerite Yourcenar's novel Memoirs of Hadrian, which again supposedly was going to be filmed in 2008, but never happened (Boorman was evidently talking up a project that he had yet to secure the money for, and which he never was able to finance). Vin Diesel continues to speak of his pet project Hannibal the Conqueror, but it's been pretty obvious for a decade that it is very unlikely that this will ever appear at a multiplex near you. Of course, it's always possible that the stars will suddenly align themselves in favour of some of these projects, but don't hold your breath.

That is the way of cinema. A great number of movie projects get talked about, and only a handful actually make it to the screen. This is why I get frustrated whenever anyone reports some announcement that a project is in development as if it will definitely happen - the truth is in all probability it won't. Scripts are commissioned all the time, and this isn't seen as a significant investment in a project (because writers are not really valued in Hollywood, partly because, as William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade [1983], everyone in Hollywood thinks that they could do the writer's job). As Gideon Nisbet says in Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2006), all talk about movies in development is just so much hot air until someone actually begins building sets - and even then, it's not guaranteed, as is apparent from the saga of Peter Jackson's remake of The Dam Busters (1955), where replica Lancasters and other props were built as long ago as 2009, but so far not a minute of footage has been shot.

The sort of Roman empire stories that used to be staples of 1950s Hollywood epic have instead transferred to television; so we have had Rome (2005-2007), the various STARZ Spartacus series (2010-2013), and mini-series such as Julius Caesar (2002), Imperium: Augustus (2003), Spartacus (2004), based on Howard Fast's novel, Empire (2005), and Ben-Hur (2010). It is worth noting that two of these mini-series, Spartacus and Ben-Hur, were based on novels that in the 1950s and 1960s had given rise to movies. The small screen now seems to be often viewed as a more appropriate venue for these sort of stories.

There is now, however, a cinematic remake of Ben-Hur on the way. This is a case where the stars do seem to have aligned correctly for the movie, and it has actually started principal photography, so the likelihood is that we will actually see this in cinemas in 2016. But this is so far very much an exception to the overall trend. It might possibly signal future developments, especially as there is another epic of the Roman Holy Land in post-production, Christ the King. But these might not be a sign of a revival of the Roman epic, but of the Biblical epic (a genre that is, admittedly, closely related to and intertwined with the Roman epic), a revival already seen in movies such as Noah (2014) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). In any case, I must emphasize that fifteen years have passed between Gladiator and what I would consider to be a movie firmly in the Roman epic tradition that Gladiator supposedly revived.

On the big screen, movies of antiquity have been dominated by the Greek rather than the Roman - so the big ancient world movies since Gladiator have been Troy, 300, Clash of the Titans and its sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012), two Percy Jackson movies (2010 and 2013), Immortals (2011), and The Legend of Hercules and Hercules (both 2014). This is in stark contrast to the 1950s and 1960s. There were Greek movies made then, such as Helen of Troy (1956), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). But, for reasons discussed by Nisbet, primarily a difficulty in coding Greece as notably different from Rome and escaping notions of camp, Greek movies were very much in the minority, and the first ancient world movies that people think of for this period of Hollywood history are the Roman ones.

Not only are things different in the twenty-first century, but the first Greek movie to follow Gladiator, Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), was a perceived commercial and critical failure which ought to have done the same damage to the epic genre as was done in the 1960s by Cleopatra (1963) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Why did this not happen?

I put the continuing appeal of Greek epics down to a movie that was near-contemporary with Gladiator, that was also massively successful, but is rarely spoken of in connection with ancient world movies. That movie is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and, of course, its two sequels. Lord of the Rings is not often mentioned by Classicists, presumably because they generally don't see it as overtly Classically-influenced. I think that's missing something - Gondor in particular as visualized by Peter Jackson seems to me to be drawing on the visual aesthetic of the Byzantine empire, and there's clearly a connection between Byzantium and Rome, however much it is sometimes played down. But more importantly, I feel that to cinema audiences who are not Classicists, the world of Lord of the Rings looks less different from the world of Gladiator than it does to Classicists. I would argue that the influence of Lord of the Rings is at least as pervasive in post-2001 ancient world cinema as that of Gladiator. And I don't just mean in endless helicopter shots of small groups of people walking over mountains. I believe it is thanks to Lord of the Rings that the ancient world movie managed to survive the failure of Alexander.

The shadow of Lord of the Rings means that creators of cinematic epics with a pre-modern setting are looking for other stories with magic or monsters. And that pushes people in the direction of Greece. At a conference on Classics in children's literature that took place in 2009, it was observed that authors in this field tended to turn to Rome when they wanted historical stories, but to Greece when they wanted mythology (it often being assumed, wrongly as it happens, that Roman mythology is no more than Greek mythology with different names for the gods). I myself have observed in print that this phenomenon can be seen in Doctor Who in the 1960s and 1970s. And now it is apparent in ancient world movies.

The influence of Lord of the Rings can be spotted as early as Troy. In some ways this is a very traditional epic treatment of the Trojan War, following a standard pattern of historicizing the material and removing the gods from the narrative, as seen in Helen of Troy, and a lot of the impetus for it being greenlit probably did come from Gladiator. But the battle scenes are clearly imitative of Lord of the Rings, and Jackson's fantasy epic particularly shapes Troy in the casting of two of the most important roles, Sean Bean as Odysseus, and Orlando Bloom as Paris.

The shadow of Lord of the Rings falls particularly heavily on 300. Frank Miller's original comic (1998) had already mythologized the story of Leonidas' last stand against the Persian invasion of Greece, but the movie takes that process considerably further, depicting the Immortals as deformed in a way that Miller does not, and which echoes the Orcs of Jackson's epics. The movie also includes an 'Uber Immortal', a near-mindless character not to be found in the comic, and which is strongly reminiscent of Fellowship's cave troll.

The influence of Lord of the Rings and the fantastic version of the ancient world that it encourages also extends to Roman-set movies. King Arthur and The Last Legion (2007) present themselves as historical movies of the end of Roman Britain, but both draw upon mythological material. The Last Legion, in particular, codes much of its action as a fantastic quest, with legendary swords and Ben Kingsley's Merlin being very much in the mould of Obi-Wan Kenobi - he never actually performs any magic, but the movie wants the viewer to believe that he is always on the verge of doing so. Centurion (2010) and The Eagle are more realistic movies, but these are dealing with a modern myth of the Roman empire, the supposed disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Scotland, a thesis advanced by Theodor Mommsen, still supported by some, and dramatised by Rosemary Sutcliff in The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), but for which there is precious little actual evidence. And aerial shots of small groups crossing wastelands, a trope that Fellowship of the Ring made its own, turn up in all of these movies. (Albeit that in The Eagle a crane seems to substitute for a helicopter as camera platform.)

Pompeii also codes itself towards the fantastic. Strictly speaking a historical movie, it is also a special effects spectacular. (One might compare James Cameron's Titanic [1997], which though lacking overt fantastic elements, through its special effects sequences looked like the science fiction movies that Cameron had made up to that point.) Pompeii is further coded towards fantasy through casting Kit Harrington, famous through his role in TV fantasy epic Game of Thrones (2011-), in the lead role.

So I strongly argue that most movies set in the ancient world need to be seen in the wider context of fantasy epic. But needing to see Classical movies in the light of other movies is not a new phenomenon. The truth is that Greek and Roman epics have always existed in wider contexts. Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959) are all Roman epics, but they are also Biblical epics, tales of early Christianity. Even Spartacus (1960), set before the time of Jesus, adds a strong Biblical flavour by casting its hero as a pseudo-Christ, who ends up dying on a cross. Indeed, it is noticeable that when epics turned to subjects without an overt Christian element, they did considerably less well at the box office (though there are other reasons for the failure of Cleopatra and Fall of the Roman Empire). These Biblical Roman movies need to be discussed alongside the likes of David and Bathsheba (1951) and Solomon and Sheba (1959), but rarely are, particularly by Classicists - noble exceptions are Jon Solomon's The Ancient World in Cinema (2001) and Hollywood's Ancient Worlds (2008) by the film historian Jeffrey Richards.

Even restricting the idea of the epic to the ancient world (i.e. adding Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East to Greece and Rome) is too narrow. A BBC documentary in the Timeshift series, 'Epic: A Cast of Thousands!' (2011), included in the movies discussed El Cid (1961), set in eleventh-century Spain, and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), both set in and around the First World War. El Cid's presence in that list suggests to me that Hollywood audiences and producers draw less firm lines between the ancient and medieval periods than Classicists do, and we should be including movies such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) in our discussions. I myself have made a case for considering Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (1981) alongside Ray Harryhausen's three Sinbad movies.

It is also worth noting the date of Doctor Zhivago, 1965. There is a common narrative (indeed, one followed in the Timeshift programme) that the failure of Cleopatra in 1963 and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964 marked the end of the epic. If Doctor Zhivago is to be considered an epic, then that view requires some modification. It is more accurate to say that Fall of the Roman Empire marked the end of the ancient epic - after this time excursions into Greek or Roman antiquity tended to be confined to comedies such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), or European art-house movies such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) or Iphigenia (1977). But the epic as a broader genre continued, merging with the war movie, a process that had already begun as early as The Longest Day (1962) and is exemplified in Battle of the Bulge (1965), which includes a lengthy Overture and Intermission, both of which are scored but lack filmed action - these are typical features of the epic, seen in movies such as Ben-Hur, Spartacus and El Cid. The actual end of the epic perhaps should be connected with the decline of the all-star war movie, which followed the relative commercial failure of Battle of Britain (1969) and Waterloo (1970).

Let me conclude by coming back to Ridley Scott, with whose Gladiator I began. Gladiator is not the only pre-modern epic that Scott has directed. He has also made Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010), and Exodus: Gods and Kings. There has been very little interest expressed by Classicists in the first two (unless someone is able to point me at something that I have missed), and I would argue that this is because both are set in medieval times rather than ancient history. (Kingdom of Heaven might be thought to have some interest to Classicists, being set in the twelfth century kingdom of Jerusalem, when the Byzantine Empire was still a player in the region, but the movie eliminates Byzantium entirely from its script.) Only with Exodus, set back in the ancient world, albeit Egypt rather than Greece or Rome, have I noticed Classicists paying attention. I would, however, strongly argue Scott probably does not recognize such a clear difference, and that these four movies need to be treated as a group, especially by anyone wishing to draw links between Gladiator and Exodus.

This is a rather more complex model than that which is sometimes used in discussing Classical movies. But if Reception Studies scholars are to be Film Historians rather than simply Classical dilettantes, as I feel they must be, then I wish to argue strongly for a more nuanced understanding of Hollywood, based upon awareness of wider contexts.

* At this point I could launch into a long digression about how some Classical Reception theory is intrinsically inward-looking, in a way that I think is not helpful, but I have dealt with that in the introduction to a special issue of Foundation, issue 118, that I've guest-edited. 

[ETA 23/08/16: I have realized that this post leaves out Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ, but that is a movie that I consider very much sui generis and outside the Hollywood system. I am no longer able to find any trace on IMDb of the movie Christ the King referred to above, and I suspect it may have been the movie actually released as Risen (2016).]

[ETA 05/12/16: I now think Christ the King is not Risen, but The Young Messiah (2016), originally titled Christ the Lord. I assume a misreading on my part.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New review on FA Online

New in FA - The Comiczine: I review the first three issues of Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps - A fun, but ultimately slight coda to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s excellent Captain Marvel run.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, London

Performance seen: 7 September 2015

There was a moment in the Almeida's rather fine production of Euripides' Bakkhai (that is the transliteration that they use) where I realised that the cheeky buggers were doing this as a three-actor production, as it was originally written in the fifth century BC. And extremely effective it was too. Never again will I say that three actors require the use of masks - instead it just requires clever use of costuming, make-up, accents and lighting. Most impressive in this respect was Ben Wishaw's performance as the Messenger (a role that I suspect in the original production would actually have gone to the third actor, the one playing Cadmus and the Herdsman, rather than to the protagonist, the actor playing Dionysus and Teiresias). Through keeping his face away from the audience except when at the back of the stage, when his face was partially distorted by smoke, Wishaw almost had me believing that there was another actor in the cast - and one of my companions didn't realise that only three actors were used (besides those playing the Chorus) until only three came out for the curtain call. 

Wishaw gives an excellent performance. I had wondered whether he might have been more appropriately cast as Pentheus, but that, I think, was because I had seen him being extraordinary in the role of Richard II in The Hollow Crown on television, a role that has more than a little of Pentheus in it. He carries off Dionysus with style, in a performance that emphasises the character's divinity, rather than, as Alan Cumming did, his sexual ambivalence. Having played Richard II as Jesus, we now get Wishaw doing Dionysus as Jesus. Presumably someday he will be allowed to actually play Jesus.

As well as praising Wishaw, I must mention Bertie Carvel, excellent as Pentheus and his mother Agave. He is deliberately unconvincing as Pentheus dressed as a woman, but much more convincing as Agave.

However, what first won me over to this production was the Chorus, which is one of the best Choruses I've seen in a long while, certainly for this play. It benefitted greatly from the presence of professional singers. They all harmonise well, yet each individual can be heard clearly. And I like Anne Carson's text very much.

If there's a complaint to be made, it's that the production doesn't quite convey the full horror of the play's concluding moments. But that may partly because I've seen so many productions that I'm inured to the dismembered corpse by now.

I've been left a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the big tragedy productions of the past year - the Old Vic's Electra with Kristen Scott Thomas, the National's Medea with Helen McCrory, the Barbican's Antigone with Juliet Binoche. But the Almeida has delivered the most innovative and compelling Oresteia I've ever seen, and now a far more conventional, but still superior Bakkhai. I'm very impressed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Today is Bloomsday, the day of the events of James Joyce's novel Ulysses.

I confess that I have never finished Ulysses. I have, however, got further than many - the bookmark in my copy is at p. 856 of 933, in the middle of the 'Ithaca' issue, a little more than a dozen pages before Molly Bloom's monologue. It seems silly that I never got to the end - I guess I just got distracted by something else that needed doing, and never got back to it. It's so long since I read it now I would surely have to start again. (I nearly read it along with an online acquaintance, but didn't have time.)

That copy is a Chinese Yilin Press edition bought in 1997 in Changchun, I guess because I was looking for something to read in English that actually looked worth my time. It's a pirated copy of the 1992 Penguin with Declan Kiberd's introduction.

When I started Ulysses it was a revelation. The first chapter is full of Classical references - Buck Mulligan quotes Xenophon - and, of course, the whole work refashions Homer's Odyssey. I was gripped by the early chapters (which makes it all the more surprising that I never managed to finish the novel). I revisited the first one today, and I still like it.

It also gave me an insight into Thucydides. I could see similarities in their writing styles, and I came to believe that both writers were interested in the full possibilities of their respective languages, and in choosing exactly the right words to express the precise meaning that that wanted to express. That many not be an observation that modern Thucydidean scholars would subscribe to. But it works for me. I must read this book again.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Fantastic London Course, Middlesex University

I haven't done a good enough job of publicizing the course I teach for Middlesex University in the summer, on 'Fantastic London'. There are still places available on it - the cost is £495 for British and EU residents. You don't have to be a Middlesex student, or indeed any kind of student, to apply. 

The course runs for two weeks, from 2 to 16 July (though if they got enough students, they might add another group which would run into the following week). The object of the course is to explore London as a background for the literature of the fantastic (it's a slimmed down version of a longer course I teach for the University of Notre Dame - well, actually the ND course is an expanded version of this). We look at three texts, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, London Falling by Paul Cornell, and The Wicked and the Divine: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. There are also four walks through different bits of London, explaining how they were used as background for various bits of fantastic literature - The City, Bloomsbury, Camden and the East End. At the end of the course, students submit a short critical piece (1,000 words) and a short creative piece (2,500 words).

It's a fun course that I enjoy teaching, and I encourage anyone interested to apply. And please share this with anyone you think might be interested.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett

I've never been a massive fan of Terry Pratchett. I've read a few of his books, and liked them and found them funny (especially those featuring the Witches), but I was never one of those waiting on the arrival of every Discworld novel.

That does not mean, however, that I don't recognise how important he was, and fully understand why my Facebook feed yesterday and this morning is full of tributes to him. With Douglas Adams, he helped reshape the English comic novel. With Neil Gaiman, he helped reshape the English fantasy novel. And Ankh-Morpork is one of the great Other Londons.

Over a quarter of a century ago, Pratchett, just recently gone full time as a writer, was a guest at Edinburgh University SF Society's Freshercon. For some reason, I ended up on a couple of panels with him, one on writing where he and Graham Dunstan Martin did all the talking, and one in which we were telling a live round robin story - so in a way I've collaborated with Terry Pratchett. I never really spoke to him after that, though saw him on panels a lot. I also have a very vivid memory of Iain Banks doing a note-perfect Pratchett impersonation.

And I always liked the stuff about dwarves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Places still available on the 2015 Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

There are still places available on the 2015 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism. If you would like to apply, please contact

Full details of the Masterclass are here:

"The 2014 SFF Masterclass."

2015 BSFA Lecture

The 2015 BSFA Lecture at Dysprosium (the 2015 Eastercon) will be given by Dr Simon Trafford (Institute of Historical Research), and is entitled ‘“Runar munt þu finna”: why sing pop in dead languages?’ The lecture will be given at 5.30 pm on Saturday April 4th, in the Discovery room of the Park Inn, Heathrow. The lecture is open to any member of Dysprosium.
Simon Trafford is Lecturer in Medieval History and Research Training Officer at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. He specialises in the history and archaeology of the later Anglo-Saxon period in the north-east of England. He completed his undergraduate studies and his D.Phil. at the University of York, where his supervisor was Professor Edward James, who sf fans know as current Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation. Simon has a particular interest in the depiction of Vikings in popular culture. His talk for us develops this, with a special focus upon the use of dead ancient and medieval languages in pop and rock songs.
The BSFA Lecture is intended as a companion to the George Hay Lecture, which is presented at the Eastercon by the Science Fiction Foundation. Where the Hay Lecture invites scientists, the BSFA Lecture invites academics from the arts and humanities, because we recognise that science fiction fans aren’t only interested in science.  The lecturers are given a remit to speak “on a subject that is likely to be of interest to science fiction fans” – i.e. on whatever they want!  This is the eighth BSFA Lecture.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

International Women's Day 2015

Last year for International Women's Day I posted about Edith Hamilton. This year I want to write about something a little different. Instead of writing about Classical Studies, I'm going to write about classical music, and in particular Marin Alsop.

There are plenty of female virtuosos on piano, violin, etc., such as Nicola Benedetti and Arabella Steinbacher, the latter of whom I'm always ready to go and hear. But there aren't many female conductors, at least not in prominent roles. There doesn't seem any particular reason why this should be, other than institutionalized sexism. Conducting doesn't particularly need strengths that are particular to men - after all, Sue Perkins won the BBC's celebs-learn-to-conduct series Maestro, and has done some conducting since. Vasily Petrenko supposedly said that orchestras are too much in danger of being distracted by a pretty woman, to which the only reply is "Do you think with your penis all the time?"

Anyway, in about ten years of going to classical concerts, I don't think I've ever seen a woman conduct. So when I saw that Marin Alsop was conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February, Kate and I decided to go. It's unusual for us to go to the LPO - we're usually loyal to the Philharmonia. But as far as I know, Alsop has never conducted the Philharmonia (they should try to rectify this).

Anyway, we went to see her conduct three Beethoven pieces, Leonore Overture no, 3, Piano Concerto no.3, and Symphony no. 7 (which I always forget I know until I hear it). And it was great. Alsop really brought the music to life. She's a bundle of energy on the podium, and is clearly having a wonderful time. I would definitely go and see her conduct again, and I urge you to. And I hope that by the time I am put in the ground, a female conductor is not such a rarity.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Ninth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism 2015

The Ninth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism will be held from Friday 17 July to Sunday 19 July 2015

The SFF Masterclass involves three days studying texts supplied by three class leaders.  It is a great way to broaden your critical perspectives, sharpen some critical tools, and to make contacts with other people writing on SF and Fantasy.  The class leaders are drawn from professional writers, academics and fans, and this is a great opportunity to learn from people experienced in their craft.

Anyone interested in writing seriously about science fiction and/or fantasy, at whatever level they are in their careers, is welcome to attend.  This includes not just critics and reviewers, but historians and other scholars.  Those who have attended past Masterclasses are also welcome to apply (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).

Past students have found these events immensely beneficial, and often return.  For some reports and endorsements from past students and class leaders, see the Facebook page for the Masterclass;

We are pleased to announce that the venue will again be the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, founded by Charles II in 1675, and the home of the Prime Meridian.

Price: £200£150 for registered postgraduate students. 

The Class Leaders for 2015 will be: 

Pat Cadigan, multiple Clarke and Hugo Award-winning author of Synners and Fools, and Official Queen of Cyberpunk.
Nick LoweBSFA Award-winning critic and writer of Interzone's 'Mutant Popcorn' column.
Graham Sleight, Hugo Award-winning Managing Editor of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to  Applications received by 28 February 2015 will be considered by an Applications Committee consisting of Tony Keen, Andy Sawyer and Kari Sperring. Applications received after 28 February may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis. 

Information on past Masterclasses can be found here.