Harry Mount’s diary: Class war with classicists and wisdom from Brian Sewell

Plus: A trick for lighter packing

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

I never knew classicists could be so scary! Last week I wrote a Telegraph article saying classics exams had been dumbed down. It followed the news that Camden School for Girls — the last comprehensive in the country to teach Greek A-level — is planning to drop the subject in September. Soon after, the classics trolls came a-calling, on Facebook’s Classics International forum. The insults were impressively high-minded. A classics student at King’s College London called me an ‘antediluvian ape’. A classics teacher at Durham Sixth Form Centre predicted my next book would be ‘bowel-achingly derivative’.

My kind former tutor, Professor Greg Woolf, disagreed with my argument but flatteringly suggested I should become president of the Classical Association. That incensed Richard Wallace, a former classics lecturer at Keele. He compared the idea to the time he stopped Enoch Powell becoming the association’s president. I’m not remotely as well-qualified for the job as Powell. After a double, starred first at Cambridge, he became Professor of Greek at Sydney University at 25. In 1938, aged only 26, he published an edition of Thucydides’s Historiae and the lexicon to Herodotus. But this row wasn’t about qualifications. The classics trolls instantly associate any dumbing down suggestions with far-right fogeyish snobbishness. One classics teacher said, ‘Before we all panic too much, this was in the aspirational Telegraph, a paper marketed to people who would like to be thought of as posh.’ Meanwhile, comprehensives are deprived of the wonders of Greek for ever. And posh apes with expensive educations — like me — go on benefiting from the dumbing down of non-selective, state education.

To the West London Synagogue near Marble Arch for its 175th anniversary. Two hundred descendants of the synagogue’s founders gathered for a service. One founder was an ancestor of mine, Sir Francis Goldsmid: the first Jewish QC, in 1858, and the third Jewish MP, in 1860, two years after Lionel Rothschild became the first. Many of the people at the service had ancestors who came over here in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to the country. It was sad, but understandable, that security men had to be stationed outside the synagogue. Still, Benjamin Netanyahu’s alarmist call last month that European Jews should migrate to Israel because of terrorism had never seemed so ludicrous. The descendants at Friday’s service varied in their degrees of Judaism — from the fully observant to unobservant Christians like me, with a single Jewish grandfather. But they couldn’t have been more British.

I worship Brian Sewell just this side of idolatry; not least because, when I interviewed him, he was funny, friendly and kind. He fits the rule that outspoken, supposedly reactionary writers are charming in the flesh. Auberon Waugh, Christopher Hitchens, A.N. Wilson, Kingsley Amis… all utter pussycats. In an interview at the weekend, Sewell was spot on about the correct use of money: ‘I have no jewellery, my watch is wholly undistinguished and I despise all who play the label game… Money should be used to improve a situation — to buy a better house, but not a better car.’ That used to be a classic definition of class: the more you spent on your house, and the less you spent on your car, the grander you were.

My father’s rule for betting on elections has come true again. The rule holds that there will always be at least two separate occasions between elections when the two leading parties are at more than evens to win or get most seats. Bet half your savings on each of those two occasions and you can’t fail to profit. In January 2013, I bet on the Tories to get most seats, at 34/25. They’re now at 4/9 and Labour are at 13/8. I should now stick a fortune on Labour. But I’m convinced the bookies have called it right. Betfair have the probability of a Conservative coalition at 67 per cent. They got the American election right, 30 months before it happened; and the Scottish referendum right, 13 months before. No need for David Cameron to book the removal van yet.

Ben Elton once said how difficult it was to come up with new observational comedy — would anyone in the audience share your odd habits? Would anyone laugh? I’m off this week on a ‘working trip’ to Antigua, where I will enact one of my own odd routines. I’m taking four ancient linen shirts — which I’ll dump in the bin on leaving. Hey presto! Practically no luggage on my return. The only time my obsessive light packing let me down was at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv a few years ago. Security were so astonished by my lack of luggage that they were convinced I was a suicide bomber.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Richard

    You could, of course, teach yourself either Classical Greek or New Testament Greek with the use of a primer, if you were so inclined. I think the real issue is the undercutting of our civilisational roots by means of stopping Greek, and of course Latin. But this is the aim of multiculturalists, the destruction of the idea of prior claim by an indigenous culture in order to place all on an equal footing. The other way would be to offer other ancient languages, too, but I think this smacks too much of hard work. Within a generation or two, many classics departments at universities will be gone, too. I note that the British Museum is enlarging its Islamic section, and building a whole new wing for that purpose, to make it more prominent. This is the gift of a Malaysian. I don’t think you need to be a genius to see the correlation between these two events.

    • Pacificweather

      Θέλω μάρμαρο πλάτη μου!

      • Richard

        Which μάρμαρο might you mean? I spent too much time on Plato to remember much else. Not the Elgin business, surely?

        • Pacificweather

          You said “I think the real issue is the undercutting of our civilisational roots by means of stopping Greek, and of course Latin.”.

          It occurred to me that a Greek person might find it strange that people in Britain are or have been taught ancient Greek rather than, say, Middle English which would seem to be undercutting their civilisational roots. That same Greek person may also consider that Britain refusing to return the Parthenon marble figures is undercutting his civilisational roots. If the British care about ancient Greek culture more than their own historical language and cultural heritage they might demonstrate that by giving Greece its cultural heritage back that Greek person might opine.

          Greek and Roman architectural styles have been popular in many parts of the world as have their myths and legends but that’s really as far as it goes for Greek culture. Latin was a Lingua Franca for several centuries but we don’t use Roman Law and we certainly stopped making straight roads after they left. My Latin teacher objected to the use of the languages in our culture, well, mixing them, as in the word television. Is that all that remains of our Greek and Roman heritage?

          • Richard

            Ah, a political slant. On that I’m with the British Museum, as much for pragmatic reasons as anything else. But that is another matter.

            As for caring more for Greek culture, is it a matter of caring more for one than the other? If one has a tree, does one care more for the stem than the branches? To object to linguistic influence is to misunderstand etymology: words from another culture exist in English because they describe something not within the ken of English at the time. Most English is French or German, that does not mean one cares more for those languages. Greek and Roman heritage exist within the conceptualisation of Western culture. They give it a foundation, and something to which we can refer. They root us in an ancient past. But to the Left they are no doubt a divisive presence in our multiculture.

          • Pacificweather

            I agree entirely but our Greek friend wonders why his ancient tongue was taught in English public schools and ancient English wasn’t. Its all very well being rooted in an ancient past but why chose his he wonders. Are the British ashamed of their own? Are they merely basking in Greek reflected cultural glory hoping some of it may stick and obscure their own?

          • Richard

            Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf) is taught, isn’t it? If it isn’t, it should be. But your Greek friend must know that what the Greeks wrote is vastly superior to early northern European stuff. It isn’t the Greek language as much as the content that is valued, and the Greek taught as a way to access it. That is why law degrees require Latin.

          • Pacificweather

            “The Greek taught us a way to access it. That is why law degrees require Latin”

            The logic of that escapes me. Law degrees don’t require a qualification in Latin but you have to learn some Latin legal phrases. Every trade has its jargon.

    • John Leake

      If they are closed, it will more to do with the apparent current assault on humanities teaching in general than on ‘multi-culturalism’. Classical studies are currently thriving in terms of demand. The pressure is top-down.

  • Pacificweather

    The mark of a gentleman, spending money of your house not your car. I suppose that’s why Churchill had a Rolls Royce.

    • Richard

      I think if you do a great deal of driving, you might be excused a luxury motor-car. Items aren’t only purchased for their sociological significance.

      • Pacificweather

        I can only agree with you rather than the metropolitan based Brian Sewell but, unlike the Queen, Churchill is not known for being an avid driver. He usually preferred a ship to sunnier climes.

  • davidofkent

    The advent of faceless criticism on Twitter, Facebook, Disqus et al has meant a rise in the number if people who think it acceptable to be rude and insulting online. Obviously this encourages the sort of people who would otherwise risk a punch on the nose if they used such terms in the pub. Moderators should always delete comments that have any insults or vile language in them. Vile emails should be handed to the police, though I doubt they would do anything about them.

  • trace9


    Be Good. Be British! Be ‘Brave’. Become Badged!

    Probably more years ago than That; at Tel Aviv (BG) Airport I turned up with a stereo boom-box in a wee suitcase, was winsomely cutout from the crowd by an Israli Lovely to a portacabin on the tarmac & grilled for so long I had to catch the crew bus (Swissair) on to the bleedin’ terminal. A friendly engineer consoled – ‘They always pick on someone like that.’ No linen, just tight denims, long hair, mid-twenties, athletic build – a fairly classic terrorist look at the time one belatedly appreciated.. Miraculously the stereo stiill worked after its equally bugging experiences – sold for $110 before leaving. What price Mount’s soggy linen then.. Try a charity shop mate!

  • John Leake

    Harry, as a member of the Facebook group you mentioned (and a participant in the discussion), can I assure you that the student in question was not in fact calling you an antediluvian ape — I believe that was actually aimed at the author of a silly joke long deleted by the time you read the discussion.

    As to the rest of the discussion, you need to recognize that people who have devoted their lives to teaching about the Classical world are not doing so in the context of the educational norms of the 1960’s. Classical languages are not likely again to be taught widely in State schools from the age of eleven; GCSE pupils are likely therefore to be studying three years of Latin rather than five (or eight in independent schools), and the examination system has to reflect that.

    At university level, you wouldn’t expect a student of Arabic at university—an equally classical language with an immense literary heritage—to enter with ten years of Arabic under his or her belt, after all, or an undergraduate student of Chinese history to have mastery of Classical Chinese, and it is unreasonable to expect students of the Classical world to be entering university today with ten years of Latin and eight of Greek, I’m afraid.

    • gram64

      ‘Classical languages are not likely again to be taught widely in State schools from the age of eleven;’

      What about State schools that are under the age of eleven?