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It’s all Greek to us common folk.


OUR LIGHT POST-ELECTION treat came when someone unearthed an old video clip from 2013 of Boris Johnson reciting from memory a dozen lines of The Iliad in classical Greek. This was posted on Twitter with the provocative caption, “Your move, Labour.”

Since Twitter is now the official organ for Hysterics International the provocation was duly taken up. For about a week various non-entities, classics scholars, Tory-haters and Professor Beard took to their various social media sites to pass judgment on Johnson for this intolerable display of “expensive”, privileged education. His pronunciation was bad, they said, he missed out a couple of lines, he finished on a line of poetry from somewhere else entirely, etc, etc.

Many of them, Mary Beard included, dismissed the recitation as a party trick. As party tricks go, however, I rate it as top notch. It certainly beats lighting one’s own flatuses, downing a pint of beer in one go or inserting one’s private member in the mouth of a dead pig.

Having no Greek myself — but a decent store of Latin — I think memorising a chunk of Homer is a harder task than many would assume, especially if they have no knowledge of classical Greek. I just spent a fair amount of time over the last fortnight trying to commit to memory the famous “Ave atque vale” poem by Catullus – and that’s a mere ten lines in Latin. I have it now but cannot guarantee I can recite it at any time without stumbling. Learning to repeat it with no knowledge of the language and no grasp of the prosody, all that quantitative stuff and elision, must be doubly difficult.

Homer may be somewhat easier than Catullus to recite since it was written to be declaimed — as Mary Beard rather dismissively puts it, “the poem’s orality makes spouting it quite easy; that is the point.” Proper scholars “recite”; horrible Tory toffs “spout”, you see. Even so, I’m still willing to be a little impressed even if it doesn’t reach the heights of another Etonian PM, the young Harold MacMillan, lying wounded in a shell hole during the battle of the Somme, reading Aeschylus in the original as he waited to be rescued.

The criticism also begs the question: who has been to any party in the last 70 years where recitation of anything, let alone a piece of classical literature, has been regarded as a great trick? Given the deliberate eradication of literary memorisation by the British educational establishment over the last couple of decades I wouldn’t expect one of today’s pupils (or university students, come to that) to be able to manage more than a few disconnected phrases in any tongue.

As for the expensive education trope, then yes, the Eton part was expensive but at the time Johnson was there Latin, at least, was still being taught in many state (ie, grammar) schools as well. Thanks to the policies of the comrades in the education industry, though, this sort of old-fashioned bourgeois nonsense has been virtually erased. They have made it a sign of toffness and therefore bad. They have the bonus of knowing they can tap into the infinite well of British class resentment with ease should they need to encourage the mob. Brilliant.

None of this detracts from the fact that Johnson’s posh eccentric act is obviously just that and has ever been thus for at least the twenty years he has appeared in British public life. Nor does it matter one iota that he has been known to lie, something which his detractors love to repeat ad nauseam with a faux child-like offendedness as if lying were not an essential part of every successful politician’s armoury.

Where modern scholars go hunting in texts for examples of Greeks and Romans engaging with topical questions of sexuality, gender and multiculturalism (yawn) Johnson has absorbed some practical lessons in power.

Johnson’s love of the classics seems real enough — there’s no reason to doubt it — and even if his willingness to drop the occasional classical tag into conversation is merely a marker of social and educational superiority we would do well to step back a moment and consider that he may have learnt some political lessons from the ancients. Where modern scholars go hunting in texts for examples of Greeks and Romans engaging with topical questions of sexuality, gender and multiculturalism (yawn) Johnson has absorbed some practical lessons in power. His classical heroes were men of action and masters of rhetoric. We have already seen him exercising his ruthlessness in despatching the twenty anti-Brexit rebels from his party, an act of decisiveness and audacity that took nearly everyone by surprise. Very Roman, just without the swords.

Ironically enough, his old classics-loving Etonian predecessor acted in a similarly brutal way when he chopped seven members of his own cabinet in 1962, in the famous “Night of the Long Knives” reshuffle. Macmillan stepped down the following year due to ill-health and the Tories lost the election in 1964. His ruthlessness came to nothing. Johnson, on the other hand, has ridden victoriously over the political corpses of his opponents and emerged triumphant with a large parliamentary majority and the good prospect of a second election win in the future. Not bad for a blustering buffoon who mispronounces his Homer.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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