Month: June 2008

15. The Big Parade with Mary Beard

Mary Beard “I’m interested in saying, look, how can you challenge the Asterix-and-the-Romans kind of image that we tend to have of Rome? We are determined to turn a blind eye to Roman subtlety, humour and sophistication because the Romans do a very good job for us of being bridge-builders and thugs. The Greeks are sophisticated guys who go round thinking about the meaning of life, and the Romans conquer people. And those kinds of symbols of difference are terribly convenient for modern culture to use, as you can see if you look at how Rome appears in movies.”

I’ve recently been in Cambridge to talk to Professor Mary Beard about her radical re-evaluation of one of ancient Rome’s quintessential rituals – the triumph. There are few images more evocative of ancient Rome than the triumph. It’s one of the favourite set-pieces of countless “sword-and-sandal” epics.

To be awarded a triumph was the greatest accolade for a victorious Roman general. He would be drawn through the city’s streets, dressed as a god and surrounded by his raucous troops, his exotic prisoners of war and his captured booty. Surely nothing could better sum up the raw aggression and triumphal militarism?

The Roman TriumphHang on a moment, though, says Mary Beard, in her recent book on The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press): Are we really sure we know what was going on? And what was at stake for the general? And what the Romans themselves thought about a practice that lasted in some form or another for over a millennium? Isn’t there a lot more to the triumph than we customarily think?

Listen to the podcast and you will hear that Mary’s answer to this last question is a resounding yes. Indeed, as you’ll hear, rethinking the triumph is a very good way to begin to re-evaluate our whole relationship with ancient Rome.

You can follow Mary’s never less than stimulating commentary on life ancient and modern on her blog, A Don’s Life.

The bomb-hunters of Laos

Lao children “It’s a very surreal place… children have grown up with bomb scrap around them. So when they see bomb scrap, they don’t perceive any danger. It’s all around you.The houses are made of bombs. It’s piled up by the side of the roads. It’s part of the fabric of life.”

I’ve just completed a first podcast for the English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, the monthly French paper which now exists in many foreign-language editions and publishes in-depth reports on the political, social and cultural situation around the world. My guest in this first LMD podcast is Angela Robson, who used to work with Amnesty International, and is now a writer and journalist who broadcasts frequently on the BBC.

Angela recently visited Laos, the small land-locked country in S.E. Asia, ahead of the Dublin conference to discuss an international cluster-bomb ban. Though few people in the west know much about Laos, it is the country which has suffered the heaviest bombing of any nation on Earth. More than Japan and Germany in the Second World War combined. When columnist Simon Jenkins visited Laos’s Plain of Jars in 2001, he called it ‘the greatest bomb-site in history’.

What made the ordnance which US pilots dropped on Laos particularly harmful is the fact that many of their cluster bombs failed to detonate and lie there still in fields and gardens, waiting for a bomb-hunter to come along in search of scrap metal, or a curious child to pick one up and play with it. You can hear my interview with Angela here. And you can read here piece in Le Monde Diplomatique here, and you’ll find her BBC World Service documentary here.

‘Places can’t stand open’

David Runciman “In politics there’s a constant endeavour to expose hypocrisy. Because people don’t like hypocrisy, it’s a very useful weapon to attack an opponent. But the exposure of hypocrisy – the anti-hypocritical movement – doesn’t drive hypocrisy out of politics. It doesn’t even diminish the amount of hypocrisy that there is. If anything it just increases it.”

I was in Cambridge last week to interview David Runciman about his new book, Political Hypocrisy, for Princeton University Press. You can listen to the PUP podcast by clicking here (for iTunes) or here (for PUP site).

The title of this post is a quote from one of the people David discusses in his book, the eighteenth-century writer, Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of the Bees, which was thought by his contemporaries to be one of the wickedest books of his day on account of the cool eye with which its author regards the hypocrisy of his time.

Political Hypocrisy coverAccording to Mandeville, the difficulty of waiting for politicians to come along who bear not the slightest taint of hypocrisy, is that ‘in the meantime the Places can’t stand open, and the offices must be filled with such as you can get.’ In other words, being a politician may be a tough job, and the ones we get may be far from perfect, but someone‘s got to do it.

David Runciman’s book is an intelligent and carefully argued account of how thinkers as diverse as Hobbes, Orwell and Anthony Trollope have reflected on the in-built hypocrisies in our liberal democratic tradition. What he describes is political system with many more shades than just black and white, in which a dose of hypocrisy may turn out to be a lesser evil than some of the alternatives.

14. The Mighty Handful and more

marina_frolova-walker“In Russian music you have a very different portrayal of Russia [from the one you find in literature], which has very strong rhythms, very festive images. It’s very bright, very colourful, very, very different from the melancholy Russian soul.”

Writing of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar after its premiere in 1836, one Russian critic boldly predicted that ‘Europe will be amazed’. Surely Europeans would now want to ‘take advantage of the new ideas developed by our maestro’? Yet this opera, which is regarded as the very foundation of Russian music in its home country, is little known abroad, its composer (the ‘great father of Russian music’) merely another name in the long list of half-neglected nineteenth-century Russian composers.

Russian music and nationalismMarina Frolova-Walker, a Russian-born musicologist now based in Cambridge, set out to do something much more ambitious than explain the neglect of certain Russian composers. She wanted to examine the whole notion of ‘Russianness’ in Russian music, a story which starts with Glinka. What did Russianness consist of? How did it come about? What changing ideological purposes did it serve?

This last question becomes especially acute when she leave the nineteenth century behind for the more politically dangerous waters of the twentieth. In the era of Stalin, writing the wrong sort of music could have dire consequences, so the issue of what was appropriately Russian music for the Soviet Republic was not an academic one. Music was also a key ingredient in providing an escape valve for nationalist feelings in Russia’s Asian republics without them boiling over into serious dissent. The book, Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin, is a fascinating exploration of a topic which is little examined in the west.