A good old-fashioned misogynist -- and a classicist with form
Once you get to be fifty, as I am sure I have gloomily remarked before, invitations to funerals tend to outnumber invitations to weddings. Just while I’ve been in the States, three old Cambridge Classicists have died.
Frank Walbank died a couple of months ago. He had been (and still in a way remained) one of the subject’s real radicals -- not just writing the standard commentary on Polybius (on whom he gave the Sather lectures), but also a gloriously Marxising treatment of the late Rome empire, The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West.
I only got to know Frank after he retired to Cambridge more than thirty years ago. He was just short of 99 when he died. I vividly remember his 90th birthday party in Peterhouse, his Cambridge College. The other guest of honour was the man who had been Frank’s Director of Studies when he was an undergraduate, Bertrand Hallward (the first Vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, and the man who almost certainly invented the myth that Scipio ploughed salt into the fields when he destroyed Carthage -- see Classical Philology 1986).
Imagine, I remember thinking, what it would be like being 90 and still being 'young Frank' to your old teacher.
Then a few weeks ago, one of my own undergraduate teachers, Geoffrey Woodhead, died. He had been a charming misogynist of the old school, who had vehemently opposed the admission of women into his college. I had taken a very dim view of this at the time. Thirty years on, I think I prefer an old-fashioned out and out misogynist, to the crypto-variety that now stalks the Senior Combination Rooms of Cambridge in left-wing disguise. At least you know where you are with the out and out sort.
Whatever his views, Woodhead had to teach a mixed group of us how to study Greek inscriptions. It was only a couple of weeks into the course that I saw how the misogyny found its expression. When it came to the time when he would ask the class questions, the women of the group were always given very simple ones, often with a house-keeping theme. “What would you do when you first found an inscription Miss Beard?” “Clean it, Mr Woodhead”, was the right answer. The blokes, on the other hand, got really tough googlies. “Could you compare the letter forms of IG 1.2, 4098 with SEG …whatever.”
I always wondered if he thought I was stupid or not.
Then just last week, one of my best beloved teachers, and later colleagues, died – Dick Whittaker. Dick was a really smart guy, selflessly generous and capable of reducing many a dinner table to incapable laughter, occasionally alcohol assisted. He will be best remembered as an economic historian, in the Moses Finley tradition, but for me it is as the excellent translator of the Loeb edition of Herodian that he will forever remain in my pocket.
He was also the only member of my Faculty to have done time behind bars (unless some colleague is carefully concealing their criminal record). When I was teaching a course on “Classics in the Twentieth Century” a few years ago, I would get Dick – then himself well into retirement – to come along to talk about his career to a seminar group. Cheaply, I kept his identity secret and billed him as the “only Cambridge classicist to have done time”. Speculation grew intense…who was it, the students wondered, concealing a few years for GBH?
In fact it was nothing like that. As much of a radical as Frank Walbank, Dick had taught Classics in Rhodesia (as it then was), and fallen foul of Ian Smith. So it was political imprisonment . The students, of course, were even more impressed.
So, all in all, a sad few weeks.
But there’s some brightness on the horizon too. My first date when I get back in just under three weeks now is another 90th birthday party. This time the guest of honour is my old Director of Studies at Newnham, Joyce Reynolds (pictured here)– who has inspired and helped so many of us. Like Woodhead, she is an epigrapher, and is still in her tenth decade travelling to places that would defeat many of her younger colleagues (Libya, for example) on the hunt for undiscovered Roman inscriptions -- one of the main ways we get new information about the history, life and culture of the Roman world.
I'm hoping active longevity is academically inherited.