- Category: Interviews
- Written by Graham Kirby
Although similar in many ways; unlike Bustopher Jones, this particular cat is rarely seen in such distinguished places as Mayfair but today, when there is spring in Pall Mall, we are off to the Royal Academy to meet Joan Smith, feminist, writer, activist and Classicist. She is busy and I am, of course, late. But nonetheless she greets me enthusiastically and quickly we move somewhere quiet for a chat. Smith has just come from a meeting with shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis in her capacity as President of Creators’ Rights Alliance and after tea she has to rush off some else. I feel guilty as the reason I was late was that I was window-shopping along Charing Cross Road. Next time I will pretend there was an emergency at home or I saved a golden-haired child from a disastrous fate.
Classics is often seen as a male-dominated arena and it is true that Boris Johnson is a man; but Mary Beard, Ruth Padel and Smith herself are not. Also Smith is perhaps the most prominent person I have met to have learned Latin at a state school and to come from a solid working-class background, growing up in a council house. She here, as well as elsewhere, defies convention. She describes her childhood as “rather dull”: reading gave her access to a whole new and exciting world, a new culture in which she could immerse herself. It is this engagement with fresh ideas and cultures that, I suspect, is key to her as a student and as a writer: a willingness to take on board ideas and to look at things from a different perspective. It also suggests an originality of thought and indeed a determination that she was able to find something new for her world from the ancient world. But it was not an interest in Classics because of the might of Rome and her armies or victories lost and won; it is an interest sparked by difference. Throughout our time she keeps on coming back to a central idea that engagement with different ideas as perhaps a key to understanding our own.
I speculate that it must have been unusual for someone from her background not only to learn Latin at school but also to go on to study it at university. Yes and no is the answer but she describes the reaction she got from some as “total incomprehension“. “I remember coming home from university and translating Book 4 of the Aeneid, with my mother banging the hoover against the chair I was sitting in, saying: ‘Why don’t you do some proper work?’” Her father, a park attendant who rose to become superintendent, was an autodidact and introduced her first The Communist Manifesto and then Mao’s Little Red Book to read - even though he didn’t agree with them. And here is Smith’s other love: politics. “Classics and politics are so linked. I always say that Tacitus is a great guide to modern politics.“ Her own politics are reflected in how she views the Classical world: “It is extraordinary - a tragedy even - that Julius Caesar, who was in many ways an urbane man, overthrew the Republic. For all of its faults, the Republic was better than what was to come with its petty fiefdoms and corruption.”
She is a fervent republican - she was awarded and refused an M.B.E - and member of Republic, which campaigns for an elected head of state. For her, the Roman Republic had a sense of ‘common good’ which was lacking in the post-Augustan settlement. “In the Republic there was this idea that public life was about more than one family - there is a public good. It amazes me that in the 21st century we have this,” She says, referring to the royal family. She tells of an article she wrote recently for the Independent on Sunday about her attendance at a Christmas party at Buckingham Palace with her partner - “I pay my taxes so I thought I’d go” - where putting aside protocol she spoke to the queen before she was spoken to. Shock. The queen said nothing and moved on: Smith is informal perhaps even impulsive but, if anything, she is polite. If she cared about “the snub” I think I would too. For her it is very clear: “She was trapped by protocol.” A small story that brings home a big point.
It is an extraordinary and counterintuitive idea that, in fact, we have gone backwards rather than progressed in the last two thousand years but Smith sees the Roman Republic as a radical if flawed form of government and Roman society as far more innovative than is often give credit or than our own in some ways: “The Romans had more than one form of marriage, yet it has taken us to the 21st century to get civil partnerships.”
Did she ever think about a career in politics? “Yes,” She hesitates, “But I think I am too outspoken.” (She probably is) “To be a politician you have to be a diplomat. You are also constrained by the whips which I would have found difficult.” Instead, she found a life both around and at the heart of politics as a campaigning journalist - she writes for many national newspapers as well as blogging as ‘Political Blonde’ on a wide-range of issues. She is also a novelist, probably being best known for her Loretta Lawson series of crime books. She cites Apuleius’ Asinus Aureus as an ancient novel she finds quite extraordinary and her first influences as a writer as Cicero and Tacitus. In fact, when she told this to people after her first book was published, she describes their reaction as aghast.
Despite not being a politician, she remains fascinated by the idea of rhetoric as a discipline - the first text she read for A Level Latin was Cicero’s Pro Caelio - and talks about an incident back when Robin Cook, whom she clearly admires, was Foreign Secretary. Cook was to make a speech about his ethical foreign and Smith introduced him. She later explained to Robin Cook that she learned how to speak from reading Cicero. “When you stand up in the House of Commons, you have to decide tone, order, speed of argument. You are using Classical rules of rhetoric. He didn’t seem to understand this.” There is a hint, left unsaid, that she is surprised that a man as widely-read and refined as the former foreign secretary could take such an attitude. Smith, a Labour Party supporter since she was young, has written about re-introducing Classics into state schools and has described Labour’s lack of action in this regard as hardly their finest hour.
As we speak of Cicero and Pro Caelio, a text she used later in her highly-regarded non-fiction book Misogynies, I quote “o mulier immoderata”. It is in fact the one of only two bits I can remember from the speech, but it brings home the point about how misogynist the text is, there is real vitriol there. A thought occurs to me: is there a conflict between her feminism - she is definitely a feminist - and her background as a Classicist? “I think if you dismiss a culture because you don’t like everything about it then you are in dangerous territory. All cultures are misogynistic but Juvenal‘s tirade against women in his Satires tell you about the real importance of women in Roman society.” And what about modern day prejudice? What was it like to be a journalist in the 1970s? Yes, it was hard to be surrounded by bunch of public school boys but “I could quote Vergil straight back at them.”
I remember reading a passionate article by Smith about MPs’ expenses. Unlike many others, she was prepared to stand up for our elected representatives as hard-working and fundamentally decent people - albeit an elite but an elite that is formed by the strange world of politics and the pressures of the world they live in - who work until late on constituency business. It was a brave and unexpected article when at the time the country was going through a bout of (hypocritical?) moralising for which she probably received a lot of vitriol. We talk about how politics has not changed; Aristophanes’ Knights shows how we would rather blame others rather than look at ourselves. She agrees: “Our leaders today are in the tradition of the republic rather than the empire. I know a lot of MPs and they care about things, especially Labour MPs, about people living on housing benefits, their constituents - that’s why they went into politics." She points at the real scandal of council Chief Executives' pay which is only now coming to light. "There is an ideal of public service. Of course, there is always a suspicion towards MPs but it is bad for a country to bring the political class into disrepute.”
So we come full circle from the Roman Republic to the modern day politics and back again.
I think that we often use labels as a substitute for really understanding people. Instead we like to box people by putting a word beneath their name by which we can categorise them and “understand“ them. It is easy to see how this is done to someone like Smith - a woman in a man’s world, etc - but it is profoundly unClassical. She points out there was a fluidity between roles in the Roman world; that Cicero himself was a also a poet as well as an orator and politician - “Albeit a pretty lousy one.” It is not arrogance that draws the indirect comparison, I feel, and not even admiration but that sense that life is a constant and exciting engagement and re-engagement with fresh concepts that are there to be explored. That perhaps instead of looking for life’s meaning, we should instead look for its significance.
She discreetly looks at her watch and I realise that - eheu - our time is up. We re-emerge into the bright sunlight, sunglasses are put on and no sooner have we shaken hands and said our farewells than Smith rushes off to her next meeting. She is gone and I have to go back to window-shopping or saving that child.