How to read a Latin poem, the ancient Booker -- and other Cheltenham events
I have just got back from the Cheltenham Literature Festival -- and from the start of the Classics "strand" which worked better than I could ever have hoped (there is still a "heroines" debate next week, if you are near Cheltenham and up for some high-fibre entertainment). I've already trailed this, so apologies for any repetition... but it has now actually happened.
First off, on Saturday, was that discussion I mentioned between Kevin MacDonald and Maria Wyke about the forthcoming movie, Eagle - based on the Rosemary Sutcliff novel. This went really well, I thought, because both Maria and Kevin were prepared to play and engage with the audience -- and in Kevin's case to talk frankly about how he had changed the original story and why (like the relationship between Marcus and Esca becoming less deferential and more edgy, and the virtual disappearance from the movie of Cottia -- the only possible heterosexual love interest in the original book). For me this was an eye opener onto adapting a book for the screen. (No less fascinating was people's recollection of old BBC versions on both radio and tv, which had stuck in their memory more firmly, I think, than the book itself.)
Saturday evening turned out to be a big prequel to an even bigger day on Sunday -- with two classical events. The first was the high risk discussion of two Latin poems, Catullus and Horace. I guess this is what I am most proud of -- because it would have been so easy to get it wrong (and dull). But we managed to go through the poems in such a way that I felt I saw more in them than I ever had before, and honestly I thought we had 250 people really gripped. One of the reasons it worked so well was that the Horace (the Plancus Ode, ie Odes 1, 7) looks pretty rebarbative at first sight, full of proper names and myths you havent heard of. Just the kind of thing that puts people off Latin poetry, in English or in Latin. But give it half an hours and it is quite easy to see what is going on, and why. (In fact one of the questins we dealt with was, quite how bookish and learned this all was for Roman readers too.)
So thank you Llew and Peter. I'd love to hear reactions from anyone who was there.
And finally, as some of you who could not be there have asked me to post, who won the ancient Booker prize?
There were four runners: Juvenal's Satires (pitched by Lindsey Davis), Sappho (and especially "phainetai moi") pitched by Germaine Greer, Euripides' Medea (pitched by Natalie Haynes) and Statius' Silvae (pitched by Peter Stothard). And the truth is that all gathered a very respectable clutch of votes -- but Medea emerged the winner.
The turning point came when Natalie read out a key speech of Medea and the stony hearts of the audience were melted... and continued to be so, despite the clever assault from Michael Bywater from the floor, pointing out that in 431 the play had come last in the tragic competition, so why give it the Booker now? Natalie's line was that its time had, at last, come.
Honesty, I couldnt have predicted the winner. Germaine was typically Germaine-like in enthusing about Sappho; Lindsey had a great line on Juvenal as wit and moralist; Peter puffed Statius as exactly the type of poet who really would have won the ancient prize (difficult, avant garde and innovative?).
Whatever the final order of prizes, I think we probably encouraged more people to read each of these nominees. Which was largely the point.