It's A Don's Life by Mary Beard

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It's A Don's Life by Mary Beard

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: Britain's best known classicist speaks her mind on worlds, ancient and modern.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846682513

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Professor Mary Beard, feisty Cambridge classics don, keeps an eye open for architectural detail wherever she goes. Even on holiday, she notices the changing urban landscape and records interesting parallels with ancient cities in her sparky blog. She is engaged in writing a detailed history of Pompeii and suddenly realises, whilst perambulating the backstreets of the Mexican city of Oaxacan, that this is exactly what Pompeii must have been like. She observes the low rise shops, dirt tracks across dusty streets and the close juxtaposition of rich and poor. Impressive portals of grand residential properties tower above humble workshops, and this prompts her into imaginative reconstruction. In her blog, from which this intriguing book is culled, she tells us about just how Oaxacan encourages her to ponder again the curious cart ruts of Pompeii. She even finds walls splashed with political slogans that are just like Roman dipinti. Indeed, here in Mexico, the local library displays an edifying message in Spanish which originates in Cicero's speech in his Pro Archia, Science and letters are the nourishment of youth and the diversion of old age.

Such is the fertile mind of this busy broadcaster, academic and editor-in-chief of the classics section of the Times Literary Supplement, that you wonder if her Sat Nav might be programmed in Ancient Greek. If she uses Twitter she probably tweets in Latin because more information could be conveyed in the 140 characters. Her sense of place returns again when she describes the vicissitudes of Cambridge life. The search for the necessatatis after lunch in one of the many male-dominated colleges requires the Professor to track across at least two courtyards and to climb a staircase to reach some dire cubicle which barely comes up to a hygienic minimum. She fairly admits that the facilities for men at her own college, Newnham, one of just three all-women colleges left, are equally Spartan. Her book encourages a little gentle and humorous voyeurism into Cambridge life. She rashly speculates how men might discuss business and college appointments whilst using neighbouring urinals. This, in turn, encourages further thoughts on open-air toilet arrangements in ancient times.

Mary Beard digresses on what appears to be known as Ally McBeal moments. These seem to happen because of the geographical arrangement of women's loos. Ladies are given to engaging in spicy and detailed conversation apparently, about another (surely not?), who then emerges from the closeted toilet to the embarrassment of those who have just disclosed rather too much information. In general, Mary, who is erudite and extremely hard-working, likes to be slightly edgy and provocative in her blogging hobby.

She speculates on the exact uses to which the upper rooms in a particular brothel in Pompeii might have been put. She is equally informative about larger structures such as Hadrian's wall- probably used for regulation of trade and for East-West communication. She contrasts this permeable barrier with the mesh construction ex-President Bush had built along the border with Mexico. She has radical and progressive views and has made some very apposite comments recently on the TLS blog about the precipitate Nobel peace prize going to President Obama, seems a bit like giving Neville Chamberlain one in 1938, on his way back from Munich. Bloggers beware - do not overstate your case!

It's a Don's Life is a thoroughly amusing read, well written and as the replies show, engagingly controversial. She is not just what used to be called a tele-don, she is frequently invited on the Today and other Radio 4 programmes. She also reviews for the London Review of Books for whom she has written an interesting article on the history of Harrow School. Indeed, she is thoroughly acerbic on education generally and strongly dislikes the tick-box culture of school exams. She believes that undergraduate scientists ought to learn at least one foreign language at GCSE level. Latin like Physics has practically disappeared from state schools. She endeavours to encourage her students to develop the ability to construct their own arguments based on a deep and thorough knowledge of the literature.

Crammed with speculations, she fascinates on matters such as what Romans might have worn under their togas, Tacitus on his father-in-law, Enoch Powell's apparent failure to think through the full implications his classical quotation from the sixth book on the Aeneid about rivers of blood and even did St Valentine really exist? She shows her concern over issues, from menstruating Kenyan schoolgirls being exposed to exploitation from multinational tampon manufacturers, to the condition of Guantanamo detainees. She deserves applause for her vigorous support of Amnesty. She joins her students in protest, puts on an uncomfortable and tight-fitting orange jumpsuit and rattles her tin, between lectures in the cobbled streets of Cambridge.

She questions the iconography of everything from figures on coins, newly emerging statues from French rivers and the ceremonial use of the Olympic torch, the latter owing much to fascist filmic propaganda; an invention of Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl. At this point, I began idly speculating if she might not do well to consider taking over as Mayor of London from call me but a toenail on the body politic, Mr Boris Johnson. Reading Mary Beard and her blogger's replies are enormous fun - especially if like me you agree with her on so many of them.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Literary Tourist by Nicola J Watson and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond. You might also enjoy All in a Don's Day or Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations both by Mary Beard

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