Iris chat with Charlotte Higgins

Charlotte HigginsIn my wilder moments I like to think that I am rather like Odysseus: a man of wide-ranging spirit, cunning, and able to navigate the storms of life. Of course, like all heroes I am brave. But as I come into port to interview my next subject I am nervous. It is not that my interviewee is any Cyclops (far from it) but that her particular cave is one of the coolest places in London, The Guardian offices in trendy King’s Cross, a building so refined that it would make Agamemnon blush.

As I wait in the reception I begin to wish that I had combed my hair or least worn matching socks. My fear is compounded by the fact that my subject is The Guardian’s chief arts writer, Classicist and all-round good egg, Charlotte Higgins.
I need not have worried as Higgins is above all polite and friendly. When we meet she immediately takes me to the canteen and we grab our teas and coffees (She pays for I have no shame and insists on mugs) before we settle down for the interview.
Higgins and I have been trying to meet for an age as she is incredibly busy. Alongside her day job writing and blogging, she sits on the Council of the Roman Society, has written two books, and is currently working on another about Roman Britain. I am not incredibly busy but like to pretend I am.
Two things distinguish Higgins from other prominent Classicists. The first is that her job brings her into her specialist area – alongside those books, she regularly writes about Classics – and the fact that unlike many, she learned Latin and Greek despite not going to a prestigious school.
It is here that our interview starts. “My school wasn’t posh at all. It was a former, not very distinguished grammar school in Stoke-On-Trent, which because of Thatcher’s education reforms become independent the year I went there. But we had to do Latin which was compulsory for three years and it wasn’t that I was especially good at it but I was enchanted by the Classical world and that was to do with stories.”

Like many, it was myths which formed part of her youthful enthusiasm for the ancient world and she particularly remembers a book of myths by Kenneth Macleish and Frederick Raphael (a gift from one of her brothers who was at medical school) as well as illustrated editions of tales from the Iliad and Odyssey which were on the family bookshelves at home. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a doctor; her brothers were not particularly arts-oriented (“There wasn’t a humanities vibe at home”) but it was obviously a house which appreciated education.
From there she was fortunate that a family holiday took her to Crete, where a lady took her around the archaeological site at Knossos and was incredibly nice to the young Higgins, buying her two postcards of artefacts, which she kept and treasured for ages. There is something interesting about the story, the fact that it has stuck in her mind; it is perhaps the acknowledgment that her initial interest was not just intellectual it was also personal.
A particular teacher was influential too. In this case it was Miss Smart. “Miss Smart was a phenomenal enthusiast; she taught me Latin and later she taught me Greek. She was my form tutor in fifth form so my entire existence revolved around Miss Smart. ” The relationship, obviously close for they still correspond, is one that probably many people can remember. Although Higgins claims not to have been a particularly good at Latin or Greek, she was good enough to win a place at Oxford where she read Classics. Why?
“Unlike other languages, what happens in Latin and Greek is, because you don’t have to learn how to order a coffee or what to do if your car breaks down or in a medical emergency, pretty soon you go on to study hardcore literature; so within a couple of years you are reading some of Catullus’ shorter poems.” It is this literature, which she describes as a blast of excitement and fresh air, which spoke to Higgins. After Catullus she moved on to The Aeneid, which became a source of intellectual conflict between her and her teacher as the each held differing interpretations on the character of Aeneas. The ongoing dispute formed an obvious impression on Higgins: that it was possible for two people to hold divergent views and for both to be correct in different ways. Perhaps it was here that the future arts writer was born. “I knew I was right. But I knew she was right in her own terms. There is something really exciting her e - that we could approach this text really differently.”
What I like about Higgins is this ability to see other points of view, an acceptance of difference and fault which is fundamentally Classical: “There are no unbesmirched characters in Herodotus.”

I begin to think that she sees in Classical literature something almost sacred and enriching because of its scarcity. Yet for a while after she left Oxford, Classics was neglected as she worked at Vogue before moving to The Guardian. “What happened was that, after university, I went into journalism and forgot about the Classics really. I was just too busy trying to earn a living, although occasionally I would dip and it was a thing that was in the background as something I knew was important to me and an important part of my life.” But fate had other ideas. “At The Guardian I was the ‘go-to person’ on things related to Latin, which wasn’t very often.” She laughs, “But then I was asked to write a book after Harry Mount’s book Amo Amas Amat, which for some reason I thought was about Latin love poetry, probably because of the title. But when I realised it wasn’t, I thought that I could write a book about love poetry, a very silly book, a sort of skit on the self-help book. It would help your love life through Latin love poetry, which has a huge amount to say about how to run your love life.”

A fun idea. From there her first book Latin Love Lessons: Put A Little Ovid in Your Life was born. She describes it as a flippant book but also a distillation of her education and love of Catullus, Vergil, Ovid and Horace. Alongside the book’s alleged flippancy is the book’s subversion on several fronts – after all this is a book written by a modern woman about love poetry written by ancient men. “A lot of these poem were first read when I was fifteen and impressionable,” She counters at the suggestion, “When you first read Catullus you don’t think that this is a patriarchal view, you just think ‘This is what it is like’” She was also trying to rescue Latin poetry from academia, trying to express her love for the poetry as a reader. So part tribute to her education but also an attempt to re-engage with the poetry as a person, a reader not Classicist, responding to her first academic loves afresh as an adult.

She found after the gap that she was still a huge fan of Catullus – “I’m naturally a Catullus person” -and that her original appreciation had not with time and experience dimmed. “Except in my thirties I recognised some of the emotions being described more than when I was twenty. Very grown up emotions like regret.”
Her love of poetry goes beyond Ovid and Catullus. Her second book is It’s All Greek, a book which is all about Homer and Herodotus (she says); the former whom she didn’t get when at university and read “imperfectly” but whom over one summer with her partner she read in translation and suddenly understood. “What got to me was the scale and architecture of it which is impossible to get if it takes you five minutes to read a single line. The majesty, the heft: I finally realised something which people have known for centuries: that all human life is in Homer. The nature of life and death, the nature of love, what it is to lose a child, what the moment of death means, this cavalcade of death after death after death.”

Even now she cannot read Iliad Book 6 without crying, a fact which I described as sweet but perhaps more importantly speaks of Higgins humanity, as she explored the heightened sense of human drama captured inside the walls of Troy. “It is the sheer aloneness of Andromache. They both talk about the fears of the future, which you know are going to be realised. Hector cannot take Andromache’s advice.”
Classics seems to have played such a big part in her life that I wonder how it affects her day job as a critic and arts writer. “There is direct way and indirect way,” She explains, “I am fortunate in that I have a reasonable degree of freedom in what I write about and that means that I am able to tackle subject which have a direct Classical bearing and that gives me great pleasure. I wrote about Homer for our review section which was great. And there are news stories which have a Classical twist. So there is that direct way, which is infrequent but fun when it comes around. And then there is the indirect way, which is that I think it gives me a cultural hinterland in that I am dealing with painting, culture and theatre which at some stage has been influenced by the Classical world which stands behind the Western world. And then the other indirect way which it helps me in my work is that being a journalist is in some ways rather like being a historian. The skills of a historian, weighing evidence, come into play every day.”

She defends fervently the study of Classics and Classical Studies in the modern world, believing Classics strong suit lies in its breadth. And also that Classics does not belong to one political party or belief structure, praising the Coalition, about whom she has a low opinion, for reintroducing Latin as a language, prompting cries of elitism from opposition politicians. “It really bugs me that that Latin is a stick with which to attack the Conservatives. Latin belongs to nobody and is not in itself an elitist subject. I loathe the way Latin is used as a political football. I loathe the way that when Labour politicians want to attack the EBacc they say that it has got Latin in it! Latin does not belong to the right or the left.”

I have greatly enjoyed my time with Higgins. She is sincere in her belief that Classics should be for everyone and that young minds can be receptive to the challenges that the ancient world offers. There is also something passionate about her which is infectious and attractive; her seeming belief that complexity is not a vice and her willing to take on points, think about them and discuss them thoughtfully, is encouraging and perhaps unfortunately rare. However nothing lasts forever. Alas, our drinks are long finished and she has to return to work and I have to return home through storm and tempest to change my socks.