Mary Beard and Marina Warner have fun, talk myth (and do some ironing) in Brighton
Yesterday afternoon I went to Brighton. First stop was Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, to talk to a group of students about their AS and A2 Classical Civilization topics -- that is, Cicero and Augustus. There were about 40 of them in all, and they were good value. I banged on a bit about how impossible it was to write a biography (in our terms) of anyone in the ancient world, except fictionally. In which case, asked one of the audience after the formal session had ended, how should they study Cicero, when the whole AS topic was in a sense "biographical". A fair cop really. And I'm not sure that my answer -- which came down to reading the biographies "critically" and looking out for all those points where the author says "Cicero must have" (ie we dont know) -- really hit the spot.
Then it was on to the Pavilion Theatre where I was due to do a discussion with Marina Warner (chaired and hosted by Peter Guttridge) on the role of the classical world today. The event was sold out ( that was because Marina, not me, I emphasise realistically), which meant 200+ people -- and beyond a ten minute phone conversation earlier in the week we hadn't planned anything, nor had we arranged anything with Peter.
I was slightly anxious.
You can never quite tell how this kind of public discussion is going to go. Or rather, it is very hard to tell what is likely to make it a success or not. It's partly about some sort of personal chemistry between the speakers, partly about getting a good feeling going with the audience from the start . . . and partly something quite imponderable.
Last night I thought the occasion went really well. I got a buzz from it -- and I hope the audience did too (it certainly felt like it, and those people who came up afterwards were very nice about it, but then they would be.)
In the fifteen minutes before we went on, we decided to focus on classical myth and myth now -- but NOT to start with any attempt at a definition of myth (on the "getting a good feeling going from the start" principle -- defining myth never gives anyone a good feeling).
So we plunged into Troy and why stories of Troy still acted as a way for talking about war and its atrocities. And we moved on to myth as a way of thinking about big issues and human values (the Cyclops story came in here: did we see Odysseus as a saviour of his men or an example of the barbarity of civilisation?). Marina had a nice line about the way myth can prequel science and society. Think of all those myths where people fly before flying had been invented (this fitted nicely for me with Lucian's story of the visit to the moon in his True History).
After 50 minutes of this, the questions were good too. What, for example, would be our inherited myths in 4009? I thought Homer's myths would still be going strong. But how would the myth of Princess Di have fared?
The reward for all this was a great reception with the University of Brighton in the Royal Pavilion next door. To my shame I had never visited it. So, as well as the food and drink, I got a tour. As someone pointed out, it was all a myth -- the Prince Regent's myth of the orient.
So why did the occasion work this time? Partly I think because the interests of Marina and myself overlapped enough, but not too much. Partly because we weren't trying to score points, and be alpha-male about it. Partly because Peter was a good chair. And partly because we actually hadn't done too much preparation, so it all felt quite fresh and a bit unexpected.
And where does the ironing come in? Well in the dressing room where we had a drink before the show, there was not much furniture apart from a sofa and an ironing board (the sort of things actors need I guess). When the photographer came in to take our pics, Marina suggested that the ironing board would be a suitable prop for the photo (the myth of female academics?). And so it was -- one of the nicest pictures I've had recently.