• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

40 Books in 2018

Natalie Haynes


275pp Profile Books 2010

“Caecilius est pater”

That wasn’t much to remember after two years at ‘big school’ grappling with the orange-covered Cambridge Latin Books.

At the time, I didn’t see the point of learning a dead language. Only when we were told that father Caecilius and his family had perished in Pompeii’s ashes did the interest level increase.

Not that it had any impact on my summer exams. My percentage mark didn’t trouble C, L or X – only V and an I.

No ‘O’-level in Latin. And only tourist Greek. Μιλάτε αγγλικά (Mee-LAH-teh ag-li-KAH)?

However, something about Classics seeped into my awareness, consciously or otherwise. Perhaps it was I, Claudius, and Derek Jacobi’s hypnotic s-s-s-stutter. Or maybe Kenneth William’s “Infamy, infamy”, the ‘greatest one-liner in movie comedy’.

"They've all got it infamy"

Appropriately, my read this week - An Ancient Guide to Modern Life - was written by a classicist who had trodden the boards as a stand-up comedian. Not that it’s full of jokes. Natalie Haynes transmits her enthusiasm for the politics, philosophy, history and culture, in the hope that it offers rules and insights to living now.

While it covers a lot of ground in a compact volume (nine chapters of 30 pages each), it’s rather uneven.

Chapter 3 ‘Thinking Allowed’ tries to shoehorn 800 years of philosophy into ten thousand words. Starts with the pre-Socratics (Thales and his olive presses, Heraclitus never stepping in the same river twice), moves onto the big three – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - then the multiple schools: Platonists, Skeptics, Cynics, Epicureans, Sophists, Hedonists, Stoics.

(Musically, think Sinatra, Lennon-McCartney and Prince - followed by boy bands.)

Chapter 5 ‘Frankly, Medea, I Don’t Give a Damn’ covers eight centuries of women’s roles while saying much less because “women were missing from a great deal of public life.” Haynes does reference (one paragraph) that Roman women “could run a business”, with examples of importing wine and oil, manufacturing bricks and pipes, and being the patroness of local fullers.

But most of the text focuses on poisoners, goddesses, enchantresses, wives, mothers and daughters of emperors, and the ultimate barbarian queen. Hence the sub-title pun.

(Mary Beard’s new book, Women & Power, goes on my ‘to be read’ list.)

Britain's Go-To Classicist

Haynes’ unevenness comes from the book’s uncertain point of view. Sometimes her lens looks forward, helping us to understand today (‘The Ancient Guide to Modern Life’); while at others we’re invited to look back to help explain yesterday (‘The Modern Guide to Ancient Life’).

Both are legitimate, but consistency would be much appreciated.

The book is at its best when Haynes refers to a poet who:

a) She has sought for inspiration during her comedic career;

b) I hadn’t heard of when starting the book;

c) Seems to be spot on with his description of the modern world. Not in 2011 when Haynes published, but now, 25 February 2015

Decimus Iūnius Iuvenālis - known as Juvenal - was a Roman poet active in the late first and early second century AD. (His final book refers to a political figure which gives the context of 127 AD.)

The Greeks created almost every literary form: tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, philosophical dialogue, biography, history. So what did the Romans ever do for us (other than the Monty Python list)?

They created Satire.

Roman Satura was a formal genre, more than just being clever and at a cost to those in power or status. Technically, a satire verse was written in dactylic hexameter (each line with six – hex – beats, each dum-di-di – dactyl), and a wide-ranging discussion of society and social mores.

And if by Juvenal, very often obscene. In his 16 Satires (in five books), Juvenal could be misogynistic, xenophobic, scornful, dyspeptic, bigoted – as Haynes describes him, “Rome’s most articulate grouch.”

Reading his work, it’s hard to tell if he really believes what he writes, or he’s just using excessive rhetoric to ‘stir things up’. Juvenal certainly has a finger of the pulse of the human condition.

Here are three examples (translations by Peter Green, MA, Ph.D.) that didn’t demand a lot of research for immediate relevance:


So farewell Rome, I leave you

to sanitary engineers and municipal architects, fellows

who by swearing black is white find it easy to land

contracts for a new temple, swamp-drainage, harbour-works,

river-clearance, undertaking, the lot – then pocket the profit

and fraudulently file their petition for bankruptcy.

On 15 January, construction and outsouring company Carillion collapsed under a £1.5bn debt pile. Carillion employed 66,000 people, working on 450 projects, including the building and maintenance of hospitals, prisons, defence sites and the UK’s new HS2 rail line.

The company made its first profit warning just days before it was awarded a £1.4bn contract in July 2017 to build part of the line.

The outgoing Chief Executive earned £1.5m in 2016, including £591,000 in bonuses. He continued to work for the firm until autumn 2017. The interim chief executive was a Carillion non-executive director who joined the company in July 2015. receiving a £750,000 base salary. The former finance director stepped down September 2017 from his £425,000 a year job.

All were expecting extended remuneration period into the second half of 2018.


But here

we inhabit a city largely shored up with gimcrack

stays and props: that’s how our landlords postpone slippage,

and – after masking great cracks in the ancient fabric – assure

the tenants they can sleep sound, then the house is tottering.

Myself, I prefer life without fires, without nocturnal panics.

Grenfell Tower / Outside Ebbing

Seven months after the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people in west London, the number of council and private blocks over 18 metres high across England found to be wrapped in similar combustible plastic-filled cladding has risen to 312.

Almost all of those – 299 – are likely to be in breach of building regulations on fire safety. Only three of the social housing towers identified as dangerous are known to have been reclad with safer materials.

Campaigners have taken inspiration from the Oscar-nominated drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to highlight what they say has been “a lack of progress” in the Grenfell Tower fire investigation.

Members of the Justice 4 Grenfell group paraded billboards emblazoned with the words “71 dead”, “And still no arrests?”, “How Come?” around central London locations to keep victims of last June’s tower block blaze “in the national conscience”.


Demand that the teacher should mould these tender minds, like an artist

who thumbs out a face in wax. Insist on his being

a father to all his pupils, responsible for forestalling

their indecent tricks with each other (though it’s no sinecure

to keep check on all those darting eyes – and fingers).

“See to it,” you’re told, “and when the school year’s ended,

you’ll get as much as a jockey makes from a single race.”

On Thursday 22 February, academics and lecturers in 61 universities across the UK started “the most extensive strike action ever seen”, in protest over proposed changes to their pensions. They claim it will leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 worse off each year in retirement.

There has been growing anger among lecturers since last summer when the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the sector’s main retirement fund, demanded an extra £500m a year from university employers and staff to fill a £5bn funding hole.

And this week, Channel 4 Dispatches programme will show evidence that those charged with running many of the country’s universities are enjoying first-class air travel, five-star hotels and fine dining.

They include a series of questionable items including a “pornstar martini”, a silver salver, Easter eggs and a Fortnum & Mason hamper. One university even paid £1,600 for its new vice-chancellor’s pet dog, a Maltese called Oscar, to be relocated from Australia.

* * *

The ancient guide to modern life: What goes around comes around...

(1288 words. Thanks for reading.)

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