In the midst of the apocalyptic storms that March had sent to whirl around the streets of London, I emerged, cold and windswept, out of Tottenham Court Road Station. I was on a mission to find the offices of Private Eye, the famed political satire magazine edited by Ian Hislop, and interrogate him on his views of all things Classical.
Incredibly, I didn’t get lost, and turning a few corners was surprised to find a barren looking door down a dead-end street off the main thoroughfare. I was initially unsure this was the right place.
Because of the fame and popularity of Private Eye, with its wry view on modern political life, I had been expecting something sleeker and grander. After being buzzed in, to my delight, I found myself in a dark, shady, poky corridor, lined with newspaper clippings and old covers of the magazine. The place had the kind of independent marginal atmosphere you would hope for from a place where life was cynically and sharply observed, but in this day of glassy offices and brightly-lit atriums, you tend not to expect it any more.
I was whisked up to Ian Hislop’s office, where I found him standing at his door. Like many people, I’m familiar with Ian from the BBC's satirical news show, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and he looked exactly the same in the flesh. He was immediately warm and friendly, and didn’t seem to mind me scribbling notes, that later turned out to be incomprehensible even to me, into the back of my diary as he spoke.
So, I said, a little nervously, to start things off, you’re a patron of the charity‘Friends of Classics’.Tell me a bit about that.
He smiled a little cheekily and said “mainly because Peter Jones grabbed me and forced me to do it! But what happened was that I was doing a BBC documentary on Juvenal, which managed to get itself onto prime time with the help of Stephen Fry wearing a toga, and Peter got in touch after that. But I was very happy to do it, being a supporter of Classics, although not a Classicist myself.’
Yes, I read that you studied English at... Somerville, Oxford, was it? He furrowed his forehead, looking as if he had genuinely forgotten, before saying ‘Magdalen, I think.’ Did you learn Latin at school?
‘Yes, I was fortunate enough to learn Latin and also a bit of Greek at school. We had a wonderful teacher when I was eight who used to read us bits from the Odyssey, which I thought were just great.’
So you started learning quite early. What are your views on learning Latin at primary? I’m sure I read some comments of yours in The Independent’ on this issue.
‘Oh yes... I think it’s fantastically useful. It helps with learning lots of other languages, and also of course it helps with English. It really gives you an idea of where things came from, and why
our society is as it is today. I think it’s a hugely important subject to have in primary schools.’
I told him a bit about the things I was getting up to in Hackney primary schools, and asked what he thought about the idea of making Classics more accessible and popular.
‘I think it’s a great thing to get these things into the mainstream. Even BBC’s Rome series was good in the way that it really captured interest, and using sex and violence to do so is all the more Roman, isn’t it?’
‘You’re most well-known for your political satire, and you mentioned you had done a programme on Juvenal. How do you think ancient satire compares to that of today?’
‘Oooh it’s just the same!’ he said, with obvious passion for the topic. ‘If you read Juvenal and the kinds of things he writes about - complaining about jockeys getting paid ten times that of teachers, of overpaid useless barristers’ (‘I wondered whether there was personal distaste coming out here, his libel cases being so infamously numerous), ‘I read it and find myself thinking ‘didn’t I read about that in the papers yesterday?’. It’s so similar.’
I nodded, and smiled as he quoted a couple of Juvenal’s acerbic satires. I find it both comforting and a little depressing that human nature hasn’t changed, I said to him.
‘Yes, it hasn’t changed a bit!’ he said. ‘ The way Juvenal talks about the decline of public morality and that one where he has to go to dinner at his patrons - it’s just brilliant and timeless!’
I got the impression that he could have talked a long while on this topic, and much as I would have loved to listen, since his quotes and insights were pertinent and amusing, I could feel the clock ticking on our short allotted time, so I steered him in a different direction. What’s your favourite piece of literature?
‘Obviously I think Juvenal’s great, but I also love the Aristophanes’ comedies - especially Frogs, Birds and Lysistrata. I think they’re still very funny, and their humour, and lampooning of
politicians, again, it’s so similar to our comedy today. I also really like the Odyssey. I prefer it from the Iliad, which is a bit of a boys’ book - there’s only so much of war you can take. The Odyssey had other elements to it, and was a great story.’
So if somehow I could re-animate a figure from the Classical world so you could have a chat with him or her, who would it be?
‘It would have to be Augustus, I think. I’m fascinated by that transition from republic to empire, and I think it’s so very clever, the way he took control and changed
things so covertly, without making a big noise about it. That’s how change has to come about,
I think. If it’s too brutal, then there are all kinds of problems.
I’d also like to have met Mark Antony and Cleopatra. And Juvenal, but’, and here he smiled cheekily again, ‘I have a feeling I would be disappointed since he’d probably hate me. He’d maybe think I was overrated and useless like the people in his satires!’
Sounds like you’re more fascinated with the Romans than the Greeks?
‘Yes, I think I am. It comes back to Robert Harris’ book, ‘Pompeii’, that tells the story of a Roman engineer. My father was a civic engineer, in charge of building big bridges and government structures. I admire their organisation and their technology.’
It’s interesting that you choose the Romans. A lot of people I ask this say the Greeks, since they find the Romans a bit ... austere, I said.
‘I think when people say they prefer the Greeks, they’re referring to quite a specific time and place - fifth century B.C. Athens - since the Spartans for example were a pretty austere race!’
Aware now that there was a lawyer waiting just downstairs to see Ian, I finished up with a couple of questions. What would you say to someone who was thinking of learning Latin at school, but not sure whether to take it up?
‘I would say that it opens doors to you that you had no idea were there. I just think it’s a fantastic subject - it challenges and stretches you, and also tells you so much about language and culture. And it’s fun!’
Finally, do you think that Classics should be put back on the national curriculum?
‘Absolutely! Definitely. I would wholly support this for all the reasons I’ve given - it helps with grammar and English vocabulary, it helps with other languages, it gives an insight into culture.’
And with that, my time was up, I shook Ian’s hand, and fled from the path of the approaching lawyer, but not before asking ‘don’t sue me if I misquote you, will you?’
‘Don’t worry about that’, he replied with a smile.
Back out into the chilly, windy Soho morning, I found my mind buzzing as I revisited the interview and thought about Ian’s answers. I had really enjoyed the interview - he was warm, charming and intelligent, and with each question, it felt like he was bursting with knowledge and interesting detail, that my humble pen and paper barely had time to catch. Maybe I need to upgrade to that dictophone one day...