E Jane Dickson: Staying Afloat

Poor old Socrates, you have my sympathy
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The Independent Online

Clara is hunched over my word processor, pecking out the names of distinguished ancient Greeks for the contents page of her Year 4 project. "Muuuuum!" she yells, from one end of the house to the other, "How d'you spell 'philosopher'?"

Clara is hunched over my word processor, pecking out the names of distinguished ancient Greeks for the contents page of her Year 4 project. "Muuuuum!" she yells, from one end of the house to the other, "How d'you spell 'philosopher'?"

"Use the spell check!" I call back, since I am trying, with a bread knife, to chip out the sweetcorn mini-cobs lurking at the back of an over-frosted freezer compartment. A newspaper article about the disgraceful amount of food we throw away has made me more than usually conscious of using up stocks. Now, as my ice-burned fingers meld to an ancient Fab lolly, I am thinking of throwing the fridge away.

"This computer is so sick!" Clara bawls. "I can't even find the spell check! Anyway," she adds, "the ancient Greeks didn't have spell check."

"No," I halloo back from the region of snow and ice, "I expect they asked their ancient mums! P, H, I, L, O...". But Clara has a better idea, and sends her brother with a pencil and paper for the correct information. "Clara says to hurry up, the project has to be in for tomorrow," says Conor, panting like the messenger of Marathon. Two minutes later, having delivered the spelling despatch, he is back.

"Clara needs to know what Socrates said," he says.

"All I know is that I know nothing," I mutter, hacking like Shackleton at the ice-face.

"But Mum," says Con. "It's her project. She's got a deadline. You've got to tell her."

"I am telling her," I tell him. "That's the answer to what Socrates said: 'All I know is ...' ". But Con is already puffing back to the study: "Sorry, Clara, Mum knows nothing."

Any minute now, I almost hope, Basil Fawlty will arrive and deal out smacks around the head. "Socrates!" I bellow, surprising Duncan the window cleaner, who has come in to change his water. "Socrates knew nothing!" But Clara has materialised at my side. "He can't have been much of a philosopher, then," she sniffs. "No wonder the rulers of Athens got so fed up with him."

I have a sudden vision of poor old Socrates draining the hemlock, throwing himself under a chariot, hitting himself on the head with a hammer... Anything to avoid the comic possibilities of his deathless phrase. And philosophy is just the first page of the Famous Greeks project. Con has a good "knock, knock" joke about Euripides ("You rippa dese trousers, I puncha your nose"), but we've got Ptolemy and the geocentric universe to crack before bedtime.

"God, Mum!" says Clara, "how can we put Plutonium or whatever he's called in under 'ancient wisdom' when it's all rubbish? Everyone knows the Sun goes round the Earth."

"Oh, give him a break," I say, "he lived 2,000 years ago. You can't expect the ancients to know everything."

"No," says Clara, patting my shoulder. "But as long as you do your best, it's all that matters."

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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