10 Questions: Mary Beard

MARY BEARD: “Once naughty, always naughty!” HOLLY STEVENSON talks to Britain’s best known Classicist about Jamie’s Dream School, Kate and Wills’ wedding, and being ‘the thinking man’s Ann Widdecombe.’

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My own experience of Classics at school was the somewhat predictable reciting of “porto, portas, portat,” and finding out what Caecilius and his family got up to. Mary Beard blows this staid view of Classics out of the water with her wickedly bold ‘sex, drugs and Latin’ approach. Never afraid to be outspoken, The Guardian describes Mary’s blog A Don’s Life as “a heady mix of Horace and Heat magazine.”

Recently, Mary appeared as a teacher on Jamie Oliver’s Dream School – a reality television series, which saw celebrities, academics, and professionals teaching a group of children with fewer than 5 GCSEs each. She is proof that learning Classics doesn’t mean that you are stuck in the past – in fact, i might give you a better perspective on the here and now.

Holly Stevenson: Tell us about your experience at Jamie’s Dream School. Did you or your ‘pupils’ learn anything from it?

Mary Beard: I think they did. But that wasn’t because I was inspirational (unlike their regular teachers). What I learned was that trained teachers do a brilliant job; and also that there is a way in which Classics still speak to kids. Indeed young people maybe culturally impoverished without it.

HS: Would you consider doing it again?

MB: I don’t intend to become a reality TV person (the thinking man’s Ann Widdecombe, maybe?). But if I can promote Latin in any which way, I will.

HS: Do you think the new national curriculum might make some more room for Classics, or is it as doomed as ever?

MB: I don’t think that Classics is doomed. It’s too important a subject for that. But I would be very pleased if a revised national curriculum gave Classics more of an official foothold.

HS: You recently had a spirited debate with David Lammy about access to Oxbridge. Do you think it’s Oxbridge that needs to change, or attitudes about Oxbridge?

MB: Well, that’s a tough one. I think that we would probably all agree with David that there is a problem about the success of (especially) black Caribbean kids in the UK – and that’s not just at Oxbridge. Where I disagree with him is that I don’t think that it is Oxbridge admissions that are single handedly to blame. More broadly work by the Sutton Trust shows that there are all kinds of pockets of ‘dis-encouragement’ to aim high, and some of these pockets are in schools. But overall I don’t think that the blame culture is what we need here; we need more joined-up thinking across the education sector from five to 25. Where those kids start to ‘fail’ (as Frank Field has shown) is before they are five.

HS: What do you think of  the misspelling on the Classics Faculty doors?

MB: It was very funny. I was surprised people took it quite so seriously! The mistake was caused by a computer error between the Greek text as submitted (which needless to say we got right), and the Greek text as produced for the door! I wished that those who had picked up about it on my blog had concentrated on what the doors said, not the mistakes. They are great slogans about the importance of learning.


Mary Beard’s Guide to Tattoos and Grafitti

HS: Do you often talk about sex in your programmes because it’s a way of getting Classics over to a wider audience, or perhaps because it’s integral to our understanding of Ancient History?

MB: I am not sure that I ‘often’ talk about sex… but, if so, it’s because one of the reasons that the ancient world seems so different and odd to us is its different engagement with sex and sexuality. For example, you can’t understand Pompeii if you haven’t started to think why there were so many phalluses on display in the town. So, no – it’s not gratuitous, but an integral part of cultural difference.

HS: You’ve confessed to ‘playing around with other people’s husbands’ when you were 17, and being a “very naughty girl.” Have you ever grown up or is some of the naughtiness still there?

MB: Once naughty, always naughty! But more seriously, one of the things that young people never get (and I didn’t), is that the old look at themselves in the mirror and by and large see themselves young (perhaps the Dorian Gray problem?). I don’t know anyone who actually feels old, even at 90. Old bodies have young people inside.

HS: You’ve said that in your schooldays you talked about ‘How we were going to go to Cambridge, and get pregnant and go into the BBC.’ Do you think aspirations for women have changed since?

MB: I hope so… but I think there are still a lot of factors that operate against women’s success. The still unequal burden of domestic and child care, and the assumptions about women’s roles re-enacted in (for example) Kate and Wills’ wedding.

HS: What is your view on the reaction of the death of Osama Bin Laden?

MB: Much the same as that of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

HS: You’ve ‘done’ Rome, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and Pompeii. What’s next?

MB: I am writing up lectures on Roman laughter, and on the images of the Twelve Caesars in modern art, then a big and over-bold history of Rome.

READ: Mary Beard has been nominated for a BAFTA.