Philip Hensher: The classical allusion makes a comeback

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The Independent Online

"You see? You see?" Zaved said, pointing at the headline. "I warned you about your friend the Mayor. Look, he only won the election two days ago, and he's already talking about the Aryans. I told you, it was all a terrible front for –" "Never mind what it was a front for," I said. "Show me that."

For weeks now, the half of the household which is not very keen on Conservative mayoral candidates has been talking about "Your friend Boris" in cutting tones, based on the fact that I was at Oxford at the same time, write for the magazine he used to edit, and two or three times have talked to him at lunches and parties. "Not Aryan," I said, having looked at the headline. "Arian. He says there's an Arian distinction between the Old Boris and the New Boris."

"What does Arian mean, then?" Zaved said. "Er – God –" I said. "Is it a heresy? Or is it a controversy? Was it saying that Jesus was of the same flesh or of the like flesh, I mean nature, as God or was it mankind? Or it might have been something else. Something to do with early church history and nothing to do with the Aryan peoples."

"I see," Zaved said. "And what are these, then? The – Hyrcanian Tigers?" "'The media are like some ravening Hyrcanian tiger deprived of its natural prey,'" I read. " "Are they normal tigers?" he said. "No," I said. "I think they must be some sort of classical tiger. Were they one of the Labours of Hercules? God, I don't know. Anyway, why are you asking me all this – what the hell do you think Google was invented for?" "I only wondered," Zaved said smugly, "whether your friend the Mayor is going to start taking a translator round with him." "Not a translator," I said. "But perhaps a footnoter."

Actually, I rather approve of classicising politicians. These days in Parliament, the Hyrcanian beast seems to have been entirely forgotten and Aristotle is firmly the preserve of the upper house. When they say "platonic" they mean "celibate", as a quick search through Hansard shows.

Is public speech of Boris's disconcerting variety evidence of a mind profoundly out of sympathy with modern London? Or might it be that Boris took a bet with a friend that, in his first mayoral utterance, he could include the Arian controversy and some obscure classical tiger? (It's in Virgil and it came from the Caucasus, I've just looked.)

Probably neither. More than one educational project in recent years has turned back the whole tendency of modern schooling, and started to teach inner-city and deprived children Latin verbs. The startling and immediate improvement in their understanding, achievement and concentration has been consistently documented. We haven't got to the point envisaged in Anthony Burgess's 1985, where gangs of feral youth tease the trendy liberal teachers by acquiring a smatter of samizdat Latin. But the Hyrcanian Tiger is part of Mr Johnson's perceived cool among the young, and it isn't inconceivable that Latin could have a future life.

Boris is going to be a very odd mayor, no question of that, and perhaps, given the usual run of municipal politicians, that might not be a bad thing. If he can rewrite the script, and unite respect for other cultures with that characteristic immense confidence in his own, he will bring off an unusual double. In any case, I learnt two things from the Pierian spring of the London Mayor's mind this morning, which is more than I did in eight years from the last one.

Anything for a quiet life

Poor old Pete Burns is getting divorced from his husband of 10 months, Michael Simpson, and blames the infidelity and promiscuity endemic in the gay community. "One's on Hampstead Heath meeting men, the other one's hiring rent boys." I wonder, however, if Mr Burns could imagine it from Mr Simpson's point of view?

It must have been jolly hard work living with the plastic-surgery readjusted Liverpool non-transvestite loudmouth, left, going on about himself all the time. It couldn't possibly be, could it, that Mr Simpson found the easiest thing to say was "I'm just popping up to the Heath for some anonymous sex" when, in reality, he was just going round the corner for a bit of peace and quiet with the Evening Standard?

* Personally, I thought Ferdinand Mount's memoirs absolutely riveting, but not everyone feels like this. Responding to the admittedly startling parade of famous relations, school chums and friends in Cold Cream, John Carey called it "a wilderness of name-dropping".

Seventy years ago, Auden predicted that we would come to prize the memoirs of the consumptive whore who loved animals, and that has more or less come to pass. Contemporary taste likes to read the life stories of nonentities and the passive victims of minor abuse. A book like Mr Mount's, which observes decades of the famous and the brilliant with psychological acuity and immaculate wit, starts to look very outdated. I love it, and all the books of this keenly observing mind. But fashion has handed a word processor to all those mute inglorious Miltons, and prefers a life of cruelty and redemption to one of achievement and ambition.

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