All in a Don's Day, By Mary Beard

How to bring history to life by misbehaving in the library

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The Independent Culture

The life of a classics academic is hardly an obvious route into the public arena, and Mary Beard has surprised herself as much as anyone else by becoming a household name. Her second BBC series on the ancient world began last week, and coincides with the publication of a second volume of her collected A Don's Life blog entries, originally written for the Times Literary Supplement, of which she is the classics editor.

These observational essays stretch from the politics of academia to comparisons of modern and ancient warfare and what to do with a pig that won't fit in your freezer, without apology for offence. Part of the charm of these blogs is that, in a media world dominated by bolshy commentariat, Beard manages to be controversial without the grandstanding.

A classic of the type is the piece “Bedding Down in the Library”. Writing about a debate at which she was asked to defend real libraries, as opposed to digital ones, Beard took an unexpected line. As well as a space to think, the library has another function, she posits: as a place to practise the “pleasure of transgression”; to “eat, drink, smoke substances legal and illegal, have sex”.

Beard has a loyal following of commenters on her blog and, as a nod to this community, includes the best of their remarks – either the most illuminating or the most eccentric. One of these commenters notes that smoking never started a fire in a library, though the sprinkler systems have damaged a fair few books. Another says that for having sex in a library there are rules: you may not disturb your fellow readers, damage the collections, or take your socks off.

If one were to find a theme of All in a Don's Day, it is a love of transgression. In a piece about the potential failure of UCL to punish the students who staged a sit-in over university cuts and tuition fees, Beard's argument was that, even though she broadly supported the students, such actions have to be classed as transgressions otherwise they are meaningless. And that they must therefore carry a punishment.

Beard knows a little about transgression herself. She arrived in the public arena when she wrote a response to the 9/11 attacks saying that the US had it coming. That's the crude version, and one of Beard's interests in this book is in the things that cause a big public reaction. She backs Terence Kealey, the Vice-Chanceller of Buckingham, who wrote a piece saying that sex with female students was a “perk” of the job for lecturers, something Beard argues was clearly satire in the spirit of Juvenal, and distorted by the literal media. She also stands up for David Starkey who said, in a Newsnight debate with David Lammy, the black MP for Tottenham, at the time of last summer's riots, that he sounded white. Lammy responded that Starkey should stick to Tudor history, and Beard gently points out that history and views cannot be erased.

All in a Don's Day is a real treat for those who miss their own brilliant university lecturer bringing modern relevance to dry subjects. There are two fantastic blog entries in the collection: one on how the Romans dealt with civilian casualties from warfare that also reflects on reports of deaths in Afghanistan; the second on the rise of the technocrat leader in Greece and Italy during the eurozone crisis, in which Beard points out that the Romans did the same, appointing a “dictator”, from whence the term emerged.