What crisis?

Geoffrey Eatough

The CUCD committee is approaching its one hundredth meeting and I was asked to provide a historical perspective. My instinct was to say that there were others better qualified than myself to conduct an investigation or lead a celebration. R.W. Sharples, Fitzwilliam, was at the Cambridge meeting in 1973, later to become secretary and now chairman of CUCD. Malcolm Schofield was on the standing committee of 1975-6; he too returned to the committee. Peter Walcot, a raconteur, was on that same earlier committee, as was Niall Rudd, and indeed Tony Long. My talents have been of a more adversarial kind, better at dispensing information than receiving it, strange confession for a CUCD statistics officer. The committee of CUCD increasingly deals with the fall out from changing government policies. I am awestruck by the capacity of successive chairpersons to digest the resulting documents. Chris Rowe seemed to grow on this diet. Unfortunately, and wrongly, I belong to the tendency which thinks that official documents are simply games that governments play with us, despite the devastating effects these pieces of paper have had on people's lives and could have had on mine. I have since learned that Eric Handley, chairman of that same 1975-6 committee, has agreed to take us back to early days and perhaps offer us a historical appraisal. I am told that I am free to follow a more personal course.

I have debts to pay to CUCD. My academic life, both at an institutional level and at a personal level, has been a progression from misery to happiness. In the Sixties I was a member of a department which at its nadir had about two students for every member of staff, if we except the large general class of Part One students. We had a close view of the collapse of traditional Classics. We survived because of the humanity of our administration and something called tenure. In the early seventies we experienced peripeteia, for two and half decades we have been successful, even tempted into hybris when declared one of the four departments which are the key to our institution's future. Other classics departments may have had similar experiences. I doubt whether other classical departments have been vital to their town economy. The confidence and knowledge to introduce the subjects, which have been the basis of this success, was gained in part from the kind of fora provided, especially in the early days, by CUCD.

My personal debt to CUCD is more unusual. There was in some institutions no great pressure to publish. I had been in my job for thirty years before I looked at my contract and discovered that research had indeed been part of my conditions of appointment. My first head of department H.A. Harris was scornful of those who rushed to publish. You published towards the end of your career when you were mature. He practised what he preached; in his late fifties, sixties and seventies he published prolifically and became widely known as the expert on ancient Greek athletics. At the end of the Sixties, looking for some Latin which would be profitable, enjoyable and offer scope to do something new, I had worked my way into the Rolls series. Despite my college's reputation as a centre of excellence in history, and of being, if we may ignore the Scots, one of the oldest British university institutions after Oxford and Cambridge, no one in Lampeter had ever read much of this series. Entrance to the text was gained with a paper knife. I spent at least one long vacation, and the vacations were long, reading among other things the history of my country. A medieval Latin course based on this reading was well received by the small number students with advanced Latin. It was for me a confidence building exercise. Consequently when I attended that conference at which R.W. Sharples, Fitzwilliam, was present, I was able to contribute to the discussion which followed R.R. Bolgar's paper, 'Classics and European Studies,' CUCD Second Bulletin: 1973 p.4. It was for me the best of papers because Bolgar said what I wanted to hear. His paper did not change the world, and certainly not British Classics, and the proposal to publish a series of Medieval and Renaissance Texts under Keith Bate did not progress very far, but it gave me a legitimacy to read whatever Latin I wanted. Four years later in the Rylands Library (Deansgate), Manchester, myself apparently the sole reader that day, I came across Girolamo Fracastoro's Syphilis, the result of reading an Italian work written by a Russian on Virgil's Georgics. Fracastoro's work, interesting in itself, opened the door to the Italian renaissance and much more.

I have a file simply labelled 'Crisis' which I found at the top of my bookshelves occupied by books which will not be read again. A Prime Minister asked 'What crisis?' and lost his job. Classicists have learnt to ask 'Which crisis?' This was the 1985 crisis when the Government proposed a 2% cut in funding accumulating to 10% over five years. Universities were expected to respond quickly, and in the event rashly and irresponsibly. There was talk of the premier institution in Wales closing, a neighbouring institution finally lost an excellent Classics department, its Philosophy department and a Music department, the last the jewel in its crown. I have re-read the documents issued by the policy forming committee of my own institution. For those who could read, I was clearly a marked man, my fate unspecified. What is most interesting about these documents is the astonishingly large gulf between what was envisaged as the future and what that future is in my institution. This must be a common story. Close upon this came the rationalisation of Classics encapsulated in the document known as the Barron report. Basic to the thinking of the time was that the number of people capable of benefiting from a university education was limited and that we were near the limits, that resources also were limited and these should now be redistributed within these known limits. This meant amalgamations. People of a certain age lost their jobs, others had to move to fresh institutions. Some of the movement was successful, some clearly not. Soon after all this careful planning universities were required to expand recklessly. Students came to Lampeter to join a community of 770 students and left one which had grown to 1500 students. Afterwards universities were accredited in any urban agglomeration with ambition and finally market forces were let rip. The main sufferers in 1985 were students who lost the institution of their choice, but most of all young aspiring academics. When expansion started again the quality of the candidates, some of them about to turn their backs on the profession, was disturbingly high.

Donald Earl's 'Chairman's Review' CUCD Bulletin 15 (1986) pp. 4-7 sums up well the state of play with Classics departments facing up to what would be known as Barron. Donald was a comfortable and comforting figure, sucking on his pipe. He once told me that on actuarial reports the best time to retire was precisely at 60. At 55 and at 65 you were doomed, your expected life span savagely curtailed. Donald may have been 60 and his own department was doomed. I was then a frighteningly long way even from 55. There is a misleading calmness about the bulletin of the following year, yet CUCD was a most amazing place to be at that time as departments under threat, but, if lucky, in benevolent institutions, looked for the security of amalgamation. You entered the Tavistock Hotel for a sandwich and someone might rise from the depths of an armchair and make you an offer.

This same bulletin 16 (1987) does record what at the time was regarded as an important event, an unusual venue, Birmingham, and the Secretary of State for Higher Education, George Walden. Bob Sharples and myself had to visit the Ministry of Education to facilitate the great man's visit. We discovered incidentally that the Minister of Education preferred to get his information from brief reports with lots of highly coloured graphs. Classics received good publicity from this event in what is called the serious press. I was proud of our achievement but on re-reading I am no longer convinced by the style of George Walden's piece. Jack Straw's 'Why Classics must not wither on the vine' CUCD Bulletin 18 (1989) pp.10-11 parades more conviction. 'Withering on the vine' however, the title of the piece, must have been a fashionable phrase of the time. The principal of my institution proclaimed loudly that department X had withered on the vine. I immediately opposed his declaration, it was clear that they had not withered, they were bringing in students in amazing numbers and publishing lots of research. I could not win; it was a government exercise in department shuffling; you had to show that you could get rid of a department and bring one in from elsewhere. But fresh as they were, this thriving new department agreed that they had withered on the vine, one to be nearer his girlfriend in an English institution, another to be in an ideologically more suitable place, perhaps with a better train service to see his second division football team.

Sharp statements from that period are found in CUCD Bulletin 17 (1988) pp. 3-7 Peter Wiseman's 'Magna est veritas et praevalebit', a highly political piece and necessary reading as they say, and Patrick Edward's, restrained but bitter 'Do they really know what they are doing?' pp. 7-10. There was another hard-hitting piece from Peter in Bulletin 18 (1989), 'The way we live now.' Since political life has drained from the universities - we have all learned to turn away - the Wiseman manifestos read like documents from a bygone age. Perhaps one day historians will read Wiseman on Baker rather than Wiseman on Catullus.

I came on to the committee of CUCD in 1984. I faced a mini-crisis of my own at my first AGM. An angry Averil Cameron wanted to know why Classics, Greek and Latin had separate columns for Single Honours and Joint whereas Classical Studies, Ancient History and Archaeology had both Single and Joint lumped together in one column. She had a point and one which I had asked myself when I inherited the system, but foolishly not answered. The old format masked what was to be in their various forms the rise and rise of Classics in translation and Ancient History. I could confine my historical perspective to the subsequent seventeen years, during which I have served on CUCD committee, but this would be to ignore the real crisis in Classics, the crisis which brought CUCD into existence, the crisis of the sixties, a crisis which had its most recent origins in the fifties. I return to CUCD Second Bulletin: 1973.

The preface of George Kerferd is precipient. George certainly could see the future. His contribution to CUCD is part of his monument: I am told that some of the bricks and mortar, or perhaps concrete and glass, of Swansea University bears witness to him as well. From his preface there is clearly a disaster occurring in the schools which must eventually affect the universities, though some might hope or pretend otherwise. He has a dignified turn of phrase: 'resulting changes in university classical studies are likely to involve drama enough, and to many not of the pleasantest kind. Sometimes these changes may be resisted with some chance of success, but in other cases it is probable that we should be trying to see that the inescapable process of change is based as far as possible on reason rather than on "rationalisation".' The dreaded word rationalisation was abroad in 1973. These cataclysmic events could occur in ten years time according to George Kerferd, close enough to Barron to be regarded as an exact prophecy. They had however, as George must have known, already started in 1964 and perhaps earlier, when large scale teaching of Classics in translation had started in Wales, and if I remember rightly, in Manchester. Brinley Rees and Alfred Moritz must have been among the wise men of that early period, and others.

I graduated in 1959, about the time that compulsory Latin was abolished in either Oxford or Cambridge, perhaps both. It was regarded by the BBC and most of the media as the signal for the end of Classics. I have a distinct memory of being seated on a number 17 bus the following year, travelling between Rochdale and Manchester, on the boundary between Rochdale and Middleton, with the bus struggling to get out of second gear, when a bright medical student from KCL, intent on doing me an injury, told me that the Classics Sixth in his old independent school within one year had collapsed from twelve to one student.

The late fifties was a period of enormous change. In my first term in London I found myself outside Waterloo station first of all collecting for refugees from the Hungarian revolution, and then in Trafalgar Square protesting against the Suez adventure. Suez effectively marked the end of empire and the beginning of Britain's search for a new role in the world, as it was said. As late as 1953 someone had come to my school recruiting for the Colonial Service. New subjects were coming into existence. Twenty people studied Latin in my Arts Sixth, one person studied Geography, another Economics. The economist felt lonely and gave up. One person was intending to study Psychology, another, under duress from his father it was thought, was proposing to study Law. We gathered round him and expressed our sympathies. Ten years later he was running a large paper mill with his legal qualifications. In 1959 I met a young lady at a party who was studying Sociology at Bedford. I think there was just one other place in London, LSE, where you could study Sociology. Six or seven years later I met a man from the LSE who said Oxford Greats people were swarming into Sociology because they knew the game was up. I was advised by well intentioned scientific friends in 1960 to move into computers. At my school not much more than half of the A stream thought of going to university; now all three streams at the grammar school, if it still existed, would be expected to go and all three streams from the technical school, and the top stream from secondary moderns. At the girls' school strategically placed four miles the other side of town it was much worse. A bright girl with three high A grades could be advised against going to university. At my school the best students made their choice between Greek and Chemistry at the age of twelve, effectively between Arts and Science, and were expected to stay with that choice the rest of their school lives. It was a world which was not to last.

There were various pretenders who fought over what was seen as the corpse of Classics. The literary heritage was to go to English; scientists, economists and, when they were ready, sociologists, were to be the new administrators. There was a great deal of talk about science in the sixties; talk does not create scientists, but it did disturb the rest of us. We should learn modern languages not dead ones. Russian had its advocates, and flourished briefly in some schools. It was, however, more difficult than ancient Greek and not so obviously useful. Enemies of Classics, some of whom have since had to learn humility in their own specialisms, could be unpleasant, but the defenders of Classics were often out of their depth. I became obsessive in my search for apologies for the Classics and despaired of what I found. I took another tack. At one point I read my way through most of Nietzsche in a gloomy flat between Pentonville and Holloway Prisons, with a gloomy landlady who could remember how as an Edwardian girl she had gone to dances in a carriage from that same perhaps not so gloomy house. It cost me dearly. I found relief by spending my meagre savings on a motorbike. For one day I disturbed the peace of King's Cross as I learned to handle the monster, the next headed across London and found an empty straight road on the Downs.

The next year in a bright flat in the smart part of Notting Hill, mine for £3, I did not lose my pessimism about the Classics but it was a happier, though more firmly rooted pessimism. Indeed I was disaffected. To the north two minutes away was the Portobello market, fiftiesh in atmosphere, with Caribbean influences. Look south, as my flat window did, towards Holland Park or the Gate, use your imagination, and you could see the much advertised Sixties creeping up the Hill. There were a lot of Europeans around, a strange race, many of them young. I was subletting from a young German shipping manager. The newsagent's by the Gate was stocked by newspapers and journals in an endless variety of European languages. I based my diet on simple foods bought from Hungarian and Polish delicatessens, long since unhappily converted to antique shops. George Kerferd's preface and Robert Bolgar's rather different Europeans lay thirteen years in the future.

I had been looking for a context or contexts for Classics, and a secure future. There were unusual customs in those days: people married young, had children while young and sometimes lots of them. The main spur was however pride. I wanted intellectual self-respect. I had friends who were at what would now be called the cutting edge of science. I wanted to be in that league; constant apology and mere survival were not enough. There had to be a way through.

The names of some of the people who helped to secure the various classical disciplines can be found in CUCD bulletins. There were of course others who carried on the arguments elsewhere. There were the schoolteachers many of them now anonymous, and there was above all the unending stream of high quality publications which took us in the right directions. The third bulletin of 1974 is a good place to start browsing. There is a concise detailed article by John Davies, an exciting programme for a new kind of ancient history, and important statements by Paul Cartledge on the centrality of ancient history. He wrote: 'if ancient history is transferred to history departments, classics is doomed.' Given the way that many classics departments now survive, Paul's statement can only be described as apocalyptic. There are ground breaking articles by Keith Hopkins and Sally Humphreys, both advocating methods of studying ancient history which have proved extremely fruitful. A prefatory article by Moses Finley cuts through the cant which opposed non-linguistic ancient history. A nice memory of a CUCD conference was seeing Moses Finley at the bar, one of the boys, if I am allowed to say so; another was receiving a big welcoming smile from David West as we got out of our cars together.

I had for a brief period taken a job in a West London school, a tough school and I was given the toughest form, 4D. Your eye-balling techniques had to be first class; you had in your demeanour to suggest that you might be the holder of a Black Belt. It was nonetheless security and my desire for the Classics returned. I read the Odyssey in the original on the bus journeys, good travel literature, destined each day to meet my unruly mob without divine help or even a teaching qualification. Twice a week I found calmer waters in Wormwood Scrubs prison, usually teaching young boys, who liked me because I was young like them, and sympathetic to their predicaments. Occasionally I found myself in front of a large distinctly middle class audience introducing current affairs. They were a lively bunch, even the warders got caught up in the mood. It was the kind of experience I thought that I should have daily in a university. I had to wait about fifteen years when a friendly professor of English, a rare species, suggested that he and I taught tragedy together, ancient and modern, both of us in the room together throughout the course. Tragedy makes students talk, especially Greek tragedies; with good students classes could be successfully run as a controlled riot. Nonetheless I was amazed to see that most of the stars in a recent production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, played to large audiences in four performances held in the quad of our Old Building, were from the Classics department. Paul Turner's talk, CUCD Second Bulletin: 1973 p.8, on the relationship of English and Classics is much too tentative, though I remember being pleased to have seen and heard him.

The Scrubs had converted me to the academic life and I went to Wales. Lampeter was precisely the place I wanted to be. Wales inevitably introduces the language question, and I must tread carefully here because I have a Welsh editress. We discussed language incessantly at early CUCD meetings until we were utterly exhausted. This and the cold rooms at one notorious January meeting of CUCD in Oxford, offending college unnamed, may be the reason why the great annual congregation of CUCD members came to an end. We were constantly looking for the quick fix to language learning. I was misled by a lift I once had between London and Manchester with a young Guardian journalist called Michael Frayn. He talked about his days as a Cambridge philosophical student, bought me a cup of tea in Towcester and somewhere along the road speaking with face averted towards a half open window, with a shy manner of speech, he seemed to say he had learned Russian in three weeks. He was of course to become a great comic writer. I did not learn Russian in three weeks. I did learn a number of modern languages as we all have to do, and out of interest looked at one or two more other than those strictly required for a classicist. I went to a demonstration of a new Latin course where we were told encouragingly that this course was based on Chomskian principles. Maurice Balme was diplomatically critical of this course in his talk 'Beginning Greek' CUCD Third Bulletin: 1974 p. 14. The JACT Greek Committee had a proposal for a new Greek course to be written by two good Greek scholars. I assume that Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell are the twinkle that was in Maurice Balme's eye.

During the course of a marvellous joint meeting between the Classical Association and the Byzantinists, at which R.R. Bolgar gave a perfect paper, I waited for him to collect his coat, expecting him to be surrounded by an adulatory crowd. He was on his own. Like a good hit man I discretely moved out behind him into the Birmingham dark, pulled alongside him twenty yards from the building and told him that I had almost finished my edition of Fracastoro and asked how would I know what to do next. He said 'When you have finished this work, you will know what to do next.' The oracle had spoken with conviction and leaning forward he disappeared into the dark. I had known what I had to do. For two years I tried to avoid my fate, then faced the fact that I should have to read a lot of Spanish and learn about Amerindians, if I wanted to read the Latin I wanted to read. Latin can take you into dangerous territory. I found myself reading in the Radcliffe Science library for Fracastoro. Recently I gave a paper on Matthias Miechow's De duabus Sarmatiis in its day (published 1518) a famous work which attempted to explain the violence erupting mainly from Central Asia which had brought down the Roman Empire and much later had led to three centuries of Mongol devastation. He manages to slip the Goths in among these Asiatic destroyers, since Goths were Swedes whom he wanted to put in their place, and he identifies the Poles with Vandals and makes the Suebi Polish speaking. He was making sure that his readers would be able to distinguish Polish from German territory. The British Library is full of this kind of important material waiting for readers.

I have started to meet annually with contemporaries from the Classics department at KCL. It is something that I never imagined that I should do. My friends at university had been mainly physicists, on the whole northerners like myself, members of the chosen race. I am very fond of my new friends from the old days. They include many of the people who started the tradition of Greek plays at King's. They seem to have been well-educated, their minds remain in good working order. They have had useful lives and continue to have useful lives. One had a highly successful career in an advanced electronics company, and has now eagerly returned to his Greek and Latin proses, others held senior administrative posts in industry or the public services. A number of the women became Classics schoolteachers. One had four or five children, and frequent career interruptions, but can still quote large chunks of the Oresteia, Aeschylus' version not Fagles'. Another, whom I remember and shall always remember as a passionate Electra in Euripides Orestes, has just embarked on an MA in Russian. A Tecmessa, with whom we members of the chorus were eager to sympathise, easily changed to drama when her Classics post disappeared, but Classics is what she loved.

I have lived in West Wales for forty years, for thirty of these on a smallholding which my wife has run. Our farming neighbours are entirely Welsh speaking but we have to a certain extent shared their way of life, though cushioned by the enormous salaries university teachers earn. Farming has crises like Classics and we have lived through the latest with them. I have carried coffins at Welsh funerals, the ultimate acceptance. There's a phrase they use perhaps in an emotional moment, 'You're family.' Clearly we are not Jones or Davies, but the meaning is that we and they will be the kind of people who help one another.

It will serve as a rough metaphor for my experiences with CUCD.

Geoffrey Eatough

University of Wales, Lampeter

CUCD Bulletin 30 (2001)
© Geoffrey Eatough 2001

Bulletin ContentsCUCD HomeRoyal Holloway Classics Dept