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Friday 17 November 2017

I owe it to edewcayshun

Bad education can pay off.

I left school knowing nothing about Greek or any other kind of myths, Roman history, poems other than a dozen rumti-tum pieces found on calendars, politics in general, physics, chemistry, musical notation, literary analysis, mathematics beyond simultaneous equations, the formalities of cooking, economics, the way my body works, morality, the emotional nature of love, DIY, most plays other than force-fed Shakespeare, the necessity of mortgages, opera, ways of earning a living, the fact that I would age but not necessarily become adult, the foreignness of "abroad", healthy practices, astronomy, honesty, and any sense of my own potential.

I left school disadvantaged by adolescent lust, insatiable hunger, a thirst for alcohol, unfounded cynicism and unperceived selfishness.

Last night, sixty-six years after I left school, I discovered Ovid, the Roman poet who died in exile two thousand years ago and whose best stuff concerns such characters as Phaeton and Phoebus, Diana and Acteon, Narcissus and Echo. Remained silent through the explanatory hour and cried a bit when Niobe's fourteen children were killed by the capricious gods - for I too am a parent.

What were the odds, sixty-six years ago, that I might arrive at that period of absorbent silence? Lengthy, I'd say
A good education would have prepared me for Ovid. On the other hand my bad education left me as a tabula rasa, a blank slate waiting to be written on.

VR and I discussed which translation of Ovid to buy. Ted Hughes is presently the contender. 


  1. i seem to remember that Rudyard Kipling, during the long nights of pain with his stomach, found consolation and alleviation by reading Ovid in the original. But he had a classical education drummed into him at that austere school at Westward Ho.

    Ted Hughes translation will be easier to absorb, unless you learn fluent classical Latin at 80+! (Although I believe some have taken on that challengenge with success).

    Me - I could never really quickly grasp inflected languages, hence my limited attainment of Manadarin Chinese which has such a logical (almost non-exsistent) grammar. Even so, I read their poets in English. Waley or Pound for preference.

  2. Avus: There were two hour-long programmes on BBC4 celebrating Ovid's duo-millennium. The first, presented by an academic much given to clich├ęs, outlined Ovid's life and was illustrated by pretty pictures, humdrum quotations (albeit uttered by Simon Russell Beale) which confirmed locations, etc, plus Ovid's anger at being exiled. It was quite a disappointment.

    The second caused the earth to move. A handful of RSC actors, plus Beale and Fiona Shaw (she was bloody marvellous), acted out longish extracts from various sections of Metamorphoses. During these extracts, a few individual sentences (in English) appeared on the screen together with their Latin equivalents. An excellent idea. If you have Iplayer on your telly you will be able to see this for another 20 or so days. Well worthwhile if your knowledge is only glancing. Better still if you're an Ovid-virgin as I was.

    The disadvantage with Ted Hughes is that the translation is incomplete. However a very recent, complete, Penguin version of Metamorphoses (translator: David Raeburn) gets plaudits.

    My mother used to read Waley's translations from the Chinese.

  3. Just watched the Shakespeare lot doing the Ovid. I have always shied from fantasy fiction including and Greek myhtology (I haven’t read Lord of the Rings.) Like you Bradford Grammar School never managed to inspire me with any enthusiasm, although I was usually near the top of the form in English (and bottom in nearly everything else).

    So Ovid was a new world for me, and what better introduction could one have. Oh joy! the Guy who got eaten by his own hounds. The actress, or does one have to say actor, these days who did Narcissus was a bit over the top. Phaeton brought back vivd memories of my first adolescent ride on the 500cc motor bike I bought from you when I demolished the neighbours gates.

    So much relevance to present day day life - the human condition is timeless.

    The BBC does it again.

    Impulsive scribblings here late at night after most of a bottle of red.

  4. Sir Hugh: I think I would distinguish between myths and fantasy but it's just a technical point, not a deal-breaker. I'm delighted Ovid had the same impact on you as it did on me. Those were genuine (often rather horrid) stories, greatly enhanced - as with Shakespeare - by being in poetry. I read up a little and discovered that earlier translations were into prose, it was thought that attempting poetry was doomed to failure. But then real poets, like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (with the Aeneid), got in on the act and now the prose translations are somewhat irrelevant.

    Incidentally only Guardian readers are required to say "actor" when the performer is female. It's not a nationwide ordinance. The idea grew out of the undesirability of the word "jewess". And whereas the latter is a politically incorrect horror, "actor" can end up being a bit ambiguous.

    It was Fiona Shaw, renowned classical actor (She has appeared as Hamlet), whom you thought was OTT. But reflect on how by adapting her voice she was able to create Echo's dependent existence.

    As you say the BBC does it again. However BBC4 is under threat from the BBC itself. Viewing figures are never very high, not surprising given the subjects it tackles. The Tories regard BBC4 as elitist and for once the Tories are right.

  5. For eight long and tedious years (from age 10 to 18), I walked past a large mural of Plato's allegory of the cave every school day on my way to Latin or ancient Greek or - yawn - philosophy, before compulsory debating in endless afternoon competitions in the predictably (ill-)named agora (aka gym hall). I translated Livius and Cicero, Sappho (our teachers' idea of being with it) and of course Homer, Homer, Homer until the cows came home. We didn't do sports and leagues or houses, we played-acted Greek democracy, sang in choirs and recited odes. And look what it did to me: "I left school disadvantaged by adolescent lust, insatiable hunger, a thirst for alcohol, unfounded cynicism and unperceived selfishness." (And, I suspect, a more varied selection of illegal substances.)

    I also left school with that arrogant feeling of superiority which was whipped out of me after the first six months of real hard labour (= university).
    My education has a name, the Germans call it "humanistisch", forgetting that it barely touches science. I may be able to quote Ovid as my party piece since age 15, but haven't a clue about the Periodic Table or the laws of physics. And yet, I earn my living editing science papers. In short: My education gave me the priceless gift of BS, of pretending and getting by without being found out. I can always blame Socrates: "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing."

    Don't put yours down. You have been blessed.

  6. Sabine: It may have been unintentional on your part, but it's always flattering when a blog-commenter seems influenced by the style of the original post. "List writing", which is what I did, can seem like an easy option but it brings its own disciplines of succinctness and exactitude both of which you've effortlessly employed.

    Our lives seem to have followed parallel courses. In the sense that I had any education at all it was what I tend to call "liberal arts". Only during National Service, when the RAF forced me to take an intensive eight-month course on electronics (involving 27 exams), was I exposed to the beauties of science in general and mathematics in particular. That learning not only reversed my slant on life but also the journalistic jobs I was able to apply for. It was at the heart of my successful application to find work in the USA.

    What I hated about people who had only read certain types of books was their easy assumption of superiority. Quantum mechanics was seen as as a white-collar version of changing the oil in a car.

    You urge me to bless the haphazard way I became familiar with the world and I do. But it is clear that you had a pretty solid foundation from which to branch out; I can't help envying "sang in choirs and recited odes". At the time you may have been merely experiencing uncertainty, unaware that a principle of that name lay just around the corner. But reflect on the moment when you and it collided: Rejoice!

    And feel free to modify Socrates: "By definition, nothing can be added to."

    One other skill you developed while being force-fed Ovid - an appreciation of prose's rhythms.