All in a Don's Day by Mary Beard

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All in a Don's Day by Mary Beard

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A second collection of the blog postings of classical scholar, Prof Mary Beard for the TLS about teaching at Cambridge and her enthusiastic musings on Archaeology and the Ancients,
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846685361

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Mary Beard's latest collection, All in a Don's Day, of her assembled blog pieces from 2009 until the end of 2011, covers similar concerns to her previous selection, It's a Don's Life. Professor Beard is a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and became Classics Professor at there in 2004. She is also an expert in Roman laughter, an interest which she fully indulges in the pages of her TLS blog. In her latest collection she bemoans the parlous current state of both Education and the Academy, and makes witty observations on matters as various as television chefs, what and how to visit in Rome and the art and worth of completing references in an age when only positive things may be said about postgraduate job-seekers.

Her latest collection is good at imparting the arguments for and against, for instance, the current system of A-levels. She writes with verbal dexterity and wit and then pounces upon weak arguments voraciously. She certainly calls a spade a spade and has little time for niceties or euphemisms. You often feel that she has the rustic honesty of an intelligent Campanian peasant who has quaffed excessively of the Falernian wine. One of her most engaging traits however, is her ability to also laugh at herself as well as the ridiculous in general.

Beard has many rants, less against the absurdities of ancient shibboleths, than new-fangled absurdities, some of which are even tempered but even more amusing when venting her ire. She appears, at times, to exemplify the customary testiness adumbrated in Belloc's Lines to a Don- whom readers may recall was given to:

…sail in amply billowing gown
Enormous through the Sacred Town,
Bearing from College to their homes
Deep cargoes of gigantic tomes;

The gown is still there and Beard claims her best thinking is done on the freewheeling glide to the lecture hall or the library. The cargoes of gigantic tomes have been replaced by the laptop and the colleges of the Sacred Town have become deeply embroiled in debates about the necessity for multicultural grace before college meals. She evokes our sympathy as she relates the paucity of common sense exhibited during the last general election. Party manifestos are amusingly examined and some dismissed as shear twaddle with her reasons given. There is a trace of middle age angst which is detectable in her trawl through the cemetery for great thinkers some 100 yards up the road from where she resides, The Ascension Burial Ground. Yet, there is wistfulness in these blog-postings which offer a subversive view, cast askance at all such folly. She is indeed engagingly open about her thoughts on ageing.

There are two areas where Mary Beard's postings are particularly thought-provoking. Firstly, when finding unusual parallels between the ancients and contemporary figures. There is a chapter on spin in the Roman World and the treatment of detainees. She provides informative comments on Trajan's column with its portrayal of the slaughter of civilians; women and children. She returns to her customary radical themes by proceeding to question the effect of the military complex on the innocent population in Afghanistan, holds the politicians directly to account and concludes that, after all, the Roman had a more honest perception of the barbaric effects of warfare.

Secondly, Prof Beard is consistently enlightening on the stultifying effects of Government directives and concomitant initiatives to manage Higher Education. Clearly Oxbridge, despite its privileged status, and in particular, Classics teaching have been badly harassed by various accountability exercises. What to do about the egregious ramifications of the Human Resources Compliance Unit? Illiberal and often badly thought through, a plethora of such bodies having a utilitarian or Dickensian approach are, it seems, inflicting heavy damage throughout Universities, colleges and schools. (NB (from Ancient Greek πληθώρη ;plēthōrē, “fullness” from πλήθω (plēthō, I fill) Constant demands are made that research states outcomes before the project is actually done and with demonstrable benefits to the Gross National Product. This eventually creates a grey, grey world full of weariness and woe.

Inevitably, the dominant concerns of the year before last in this diary format are going to appear rather less interesting than reading Prof Beard's on-going blog on-line. On the other hand, a reader might well enjoy catching up on some incidents and personalities in the very recent past. The pleasure and advantage of reading a book made out of a blog, is that you get more than just the author's input. Her mind certainly encompasses thoughts on all sorts of ancient and modern naughtiness. She includes comments on the views of what she slightly worryingly calls The Husband and favourite Latin Tags, affords us glimpses of the grand architecture of the past. However, it is actually the pithy, zany and ofttimes quirky readers' replies that add the zing! Also frequently insightful and informative they can give balance to this hardworking academic's output. Take the minatory comment from Michael Bulley, I think that part of the problem is the fetish for working hard. I'd say that in a country like Britain, at least, society would be better if people did less and did it more slowly. The cabbages are going to grow at the same rate.

This collection adds to the gaiety of nations and is probably best sampled a little at a time on a tube journey, or in an airport lounge or on a flight to Bithynia or elsewhere in Byzantium.

Many thanks to Profile Books for supplying the review copy.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy:

It's A Don's Life also by Mary Bear
The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars by Annelise Freisenbruch

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