Mary Beard’s Pompeii book reviewed

Mary Beard says she has wanted to write about Pompeii for ‘about 30 years’, ever since she travelled
there as an undergraduate with a passion for Roman archaeology. The old town has attracted its fair share of popular attention, from Frankie Howerd to Robert Harris, but rarely has it inspired the scrutiny of a classical scholar who confesses to a fascination with bad breath, Roman sex and ‘the sheer puzzlement of it all. Where did they go to the loo in the amphitheatre?’

And so, while Beard’s new book on Pompeii on the eve of its destruction in AD79 has a sober subtitle – ‘The Life of a Roman Town’ – it will also introduce its readers to the boastful graffito scrawled on the wall of a Pompeii bar that claims: ‘I fucked the landlady.’

None of this will come as much of a surprise to those who have followed the
obiter dicta of the classical world’s most irreverent star turn. Mary
Beard is a classics professor at Newnham College, Cambridge, the
distinguished author of The Roman Triumph and Rome in the Late
Republic, and a breezy feminist who, on a weekly basis, also writes ‘A
Don’s Life’ online for the Times Literary Supplement. The blog has a
global following, with visitors in Swaziland, Afghanistan, Benin and
Taiwan. She believes the Greeks and Romans would have ‘loved the world
wide web – this speed, this access and this extraordinary reach. Don’t
forget it took three months for a letter to cross the Roman empire’.

On a good week, Beard scores a staggering 40,000 hits a day. Visit her site (
and it’s not difficult to see why. Recent postings include ‘Let’s get
rid of the fascist Olympic torch’, ‘David Beckham’s tattoos’ and
‘One-night stands’. She’s also had a sharp exchange with Zadie Smith
about Trajan’s column and put the world straight on the reality of the
Colosseum (it was sheep, not lions, apparently, and no Christians were
put to death there).

Variously described as ‘maverick’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘wickedly subversive’, 53-year-old Mary Beard (or ‘Beard’ as she refers to herself) is famously the don who, having recorded that the classical philologist Eduard Fraenkel was a notorious groper whose nubile prey included a young Mary Warnock and Iris Murdoch, merrily added that mixed with her sisterly outrage was ‘a certain wistful nostalgia’ for the ‘erotic dimension of classical pedagogy’. So academic sexual harassment was OK? All hell broke loose.

But the trouble this got her into with her bien pensant colleagues was as nothing to the reaction she got from her post-9/11 statement in the London Review of Books that, ‘however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think’. Again uproar, hate mail and obloquy. But Beard simply dusted herself down and set about replying to her postbag.

That’s the great thing about your full-blown classicist: for students of Homer, Ovid and Thucydides, there’s nothing new under the sun. By the same token, the tall, witchily grey-haired, rather shambling scholar in academic robes who crosses the Newnham quadrangle to greet me on a dank vacation afternoon could have stepped from the cloister at any time in the last 2,000 years.

It’s probably the classics as much as her cheerful nature that makes the professor, on first encounter, not so much ‘dangerous’ as an angst-free zone, tough-minded and inwardly secure. Was this, I wondered, to do with growing up an only child? ‘It was enormously good fun,’ she replies, happily recalling her beginnings in rural Shropshire.

She was born on 1 January 1955, the daughter of middle-class professionals. Her mother was headmistress of a junior school, her father an architect, ‘an endearing public-school boy, you know, [pause] drunkard, [pause] you know. Jovial and clever’.  When the family moved to Shrewsbury, which she remembers both as ‘extremely exciting and slightly dull, especially if you were a sparky female teenager’, young Mary found ‘friends from many different age groups, and a slightly dangerous load of older men, most of whom,’ she adds wickedly, ‘are now safely dead’. There were plenty of ‘scrapes’, she admits. ‘Playing around with other people’s husbands when you were 17 was bad news. Yes, I was a very naughty girl.’

At her direct grant school, Beard was the star pupil. ‘I did Latin and Greek and I was very good at it,’ she says matter-of-factly. At this point, she does that English amateur thing of affecting to treat her studies as a bit of a game: ‘Never being much of a swot, with no interest in homework, I used to do a term’s worth of unseen translations in the first week and have the rest of the term to myself.’

As an enfant terrible with a good brain, she acquired a taste for risk. ‘Beard’s secret,’ she says, ‘is always to be slightly on the edge, but to pull back from disaster at the last minute. When the chips were down,’ she goes on, ‘Beard was happy to sit down with her unseen translations and get her As. So she learnt she could run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.’ In the same spirit, she took up archaeology, which gave her the best alibi. ‘People would ask, what’s Beard going to do for her
summer holiday, and you’d say something about a dig. Perfect!’

She had plenty of models for provincial trangression, notably her sixth-form English master, Frank McEarchan, from Shrewsbury school, who took some of the clever local direct grant girls under his wing in the run up to the now defunct Oxbridge exam. Beard remembers that ‘McEarchan was terribly influential. He taught us reams of English poetry, which we had to learn for financial reward. So it was 50p for Prufrock and some enormous sum (which he never had to pay out) for The Wreck of the Deutschland. Twenty quid, I suppose. Enough to get you to Greece.’

‘He’d probably be arrested nowadays but it was wonderful stuff. You had to stand on a chair – the Magic Chair – repeat the spell, “Beware, beware, the magic chair” – and recite poetry. Anything from Eliot to Bob Dylan.’ Another volcanic laugh. ‘I did so little science it’s an embarrassment.’ What else did she read? ‘Loads of poetry and the novels of Margaret Drabble. You know: How we were going
to go to Cambridge, and get pregnant and go into the BBC.’

So who exactly was the Shropshire lass who applied to Cambridge in 1972? ‘Well,’ says Beard, ‘she was terribly left wing. I remember plastering the kitchen with Black Power pictures of Angela Davis.’ She toyed with King’s, until she discovered that it did not offer scholarships to women. ‘It wasn’t until I got to Cambridge,’ she says acidly, ‘that I discovered active discrimination against women.’ Today, however, she can laugh about the Roman epigraphy classes where her tutor would pose ‘clever questions for the clever men and domestic questions for the dumb girls’.

Cambridge made her a don. ‘I became more of a swot – though a disguising swot, of course – I was very much a Newnham girl.’ Student drama, music or journalism? ‘Not a thing. I was wilfully unpromising. I didn’t know any of the sexy people, didn’t know Griff Rhys Jones. At 21, I was what you might call a bluestocking – with added sex.’

Beard is still the ‘disguising swot’. When she says: ‘I’ve been bloody lucky with my jobs’, she’s leaving out a lot of hard slog. She refers, almost en passant, to getting married (to art historian Robin Cormack) and having two children, a boy and a girl, now grown up. The first time she was asked to write a review for the TLS, she thought: ‘Gosh, how glamorous. It wasn’t something I had thought of doing.’ When family life kicked in, it struck her, she says, ‘that book reviews are perfect for a woman with two kids under three who has no time for the big projects, but who wants to keep the intellectual wheels rolling’.

Beard presents herself as a provincial outsider, but she was probably more in than she’s letting on, because when her TLS mentor John Sturrock retired and she asked the editor Ferdinand Mount who would take over, Mount replied: ‘We rather hoped you would come on board – would you?’ It was a moment, says Beard, ‘that was the making of me’.

Well, not quite. What actually made her Britain’s best-known classicist, and the approachable, slightly batty don the media turn to for quotations about Greece and Rome, was the furore about her response to 9/11. The weeks after the attack, she says, now in classical mode, were ‘an intense moment of aporia. We were all over the bloody place. It was just not clear how language worked. I suppose my words got caught up in those extraordinary weeks.’

‘Today,’ she concedes, ‘I would put it differently. Now I would probably sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury.’ But she’s unrepentant. ‘Yes, I do think I should have said what I said. That’s what academics are for.  Speaking their minds is what you want your poor little dons to do.’ Beard’s outspokenness got her noticed. When she was offered a blog by Guardian Unlimited, ‘Peter [Stothard, the current TLS editor] said, “You should do a blog for us.” So I did. I was a complete tyro. I didn’t ask myself, do I want to do a blog at all? It just took off.’

Beard has been surprised by cyberspace. ‘When I started, I thought, oh help. This is cheap, tawdry, debased form of journalism, blah blah. I have come to find that it’s a hugely interesting form of journalism in the most surprising way. I can use the layers of the web to take people to places that would never appear in a broadsheet. For instance, I can give the English and the Latin texts of the Res Gestae. You can talk up, not down.’ She enthuses about ‘this incredible reach. What’s exciting is the combination of this IT Leviathan with a sort of intimacy. My cynical colleagues will say, “Beard, you’re being naive. Think about the power relations. Where are the poor and the elderly on the web?”‘

What else would her colleagues say about her? ‘They would say,’ she answers, smiling serenely, ‘that I work incredibly hard.’ Beard writes her classical blog late at night and checks her work in the morning before pressing send ‘just in case I was too pissed’. She writes it on aircraft and in bars and says she has now found her own voice. ‘I spend more time on it than I used to. I always go into the threads. You can’t say, I write my blog and here it is, but then don’t reply.’ Pause. ‘You have to engage.’ Later, as we say goodbye, she adds mischievously: ‘I also have up my sleeve a corker of
a blog about all the things we get wrong about Pompeii, the number of brothels, for example … ‘

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: