Tip of the Tail

The thoroughly wonderful avant-pop-electro-folk duo Trwbador have just released their second album, Several Wolves (which you should all rush off and buy*), and I was struck by a remark from guitarist and producer Owain Gwilym: “I know this album has done way better than the last because it was pirated within 24 hours and is now on about 300 pirate websites“. And that’s good? I asked him. Apparently yes: unless you’re a really successful mega-band, record sales are basically a loss leader: the real sources of income come either from things that can’t easily be copied (live performance) or from people who can’t get away with not paying (national media, advertisers). The record is now a means of advertising the product rather than the product itself.

Partly because I’m in the final throes of getting a book ready for publication (the 600-page Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), this led me to reflect on parallels and comparisons with academic publishing. One obvious conclusion is that we academics were well ahead of the game; while there are still plenty of musicians complaining loudly that music piracy is robbing them of a living, I doubt if we academics have ever thought that royalties on academic publications would give us a steady income, or recompense us for even a modicum of the time and labour invested in writing and editing them. Continue Reading »

I’ve been contemplating possible historical analogies for the role of Head of Department (or Head of Subject or Subject Lead, the titles now in use in my own faculty) in a context where all the control of financial matters, and a lot of control of everything else, resides at a higher level of the organisation. The position is temporary, a matter of a couple of years (even fewer, if I can provoke my colleagues into launching a coup), rather than permanent; it is supposedly meritocratic, but more likely depends on a mixture of seniority, status and vulnerability to moral pressure (there may be people who really want this sort of job, but mostly it appears to get assigned to those who accept that they have some sort of duty and/or haven’t come up with a good enough excuse to avoid it). More or less no power that I’ve been able to identify, but not purely ceremonial; on the contrary, a fair amount of responsibility: to represent the department to higher authority, to defend it against wacky schemes and exciting initiatives, and at the same time to try to cajole colleagues into obeying the dictats that can’t simply be ignored, sometimes trying to translate them into a language that’s more acceptable or accessible to academics… Continue Reading »

A couple of weeks ago I was in Trier on the invitation of Prof. Christoph Schaefer to give a paper in a series on ‘Connecting the Ancient World: Mediterranean shipping, maritime networks and their impact’ – a series that I really wish I’d heard the rest of, but will just have to wait for the publication. The real pleasure of the trip, besides the excellent hospitality and the fact that Trier is a wonderful city for all lovers of Roman stuff – I’m already thinking about organising a student trip, to give me an excuse to go back – was the opportunity of hearing about the work of the ancient history team there, and questioning a few of my own preconceptions about methodology.

Experimental archaeology, for example; there’s something about building replica ballistas in order to fire iron bolts at dummies wearing replica armour that seems too much like fun to be proper academic research. Continue Reading »

The appalling events in Gaza over the last couple of weeks have brought to the fore a long-standing debate about the proper place of emotion and subjective judgement in journalism. Those reporting on such topics as war, famine, the death of children and so forth are constantly faced with difficult moral questions about their own conduct, their role in packaging horror for a mass audience, and the expectation of neutrality in all their accounts. The decisions of Jon Snow and Channel 4 that he should to express his personal view in a YouTube video while maintaining the normal appearance of objectivity and aloofness on air has been widely discussed, including a passionate but problematic article by Giles Fraser in yesterday’s Grauniad: How Can Journalists Be Objective When Writing About Dead Children? Continue Reading »

Catching up on last week’s edition of Die Zeit – a hectic trip to Trier, of which more shortly, followed by desperate efforts to catch up with the overgrown garden and the burgeoning pile of emails – I find further evidence that the idea of Thucydides as all-purpose authority on international relations and global politics is infiltrating German discourse on these topics – or at any rate the pages of Die Zeit, whose Radakteur, Josef Joffe, has some form in this regard: see comments below this blog. In an article entitled ‘Kann man Kriege verhindern?’, which also draws in Ian Morris’ claims for the useful and productive nature of war, Andrea Boehm and Gero von Randow offer a conventional reading of Thucydides’ account of the causes of and motives for conflict:

The face of war has changed over the centuries, but the motives for war have stayed the same. What the ancient historian Thucydides described in his work The Peloponnesian War is still valid today. For example, that the causes of and reasons for [Anlass and Ursache] a war must be differentiated. Whatever form the trigger may take – a box on the ear, a fall through a window, an assassination, a law related to language as occurred not long ago in the Crimea or a murderous kidnapping as that of the three Israeli students recently – the central motives remain those which Thucydides established over 2000 years ago: fear, honour and interest.

Continue Reading »

A couple of weeks ago, at a drinks party, a friend casually asked whether it was the end of term yet – and was clearly surprised that I then spent five minutes explaining how, rather than the traditional binary term/not-term distinction, British universities now operate on the principle of a spectrum of termliness, in which the level of demands on academic time imposed by the university gradually diminishes from the time when we finish marking exams – but never entirely disappears. On the online calendar system, Monday June 16th is when “Students summer vacation starts” – no suggestion that such a thing applies to academics any more. Indeed, the effect of the online calendar system is to imply that we are available throughout the summer, to be scheduled into meetings at any point unless we expressly block out time for research, writing or – heaven forbid – actual holiday. It’s not that we ever had months of vacation, but there used to be an expectation that we would be able to shift our focus from teaching and admin to research for at least a month or so, and it’s not as if they’re stopped expecting us to produce the same level of outputs as when we had some time to write them… At this point my friend offered to find some more drinks, and for some reason never returned.

The main reason for writing this post is just to say that there probably won’t be many, or perhaps any, for a couple of months; I’m going to be off for an actual holiday for ten days, and have to write a couple of lectures for the end of the month. Maybe August, though I’m supposed to be writing a grant application, if I’ve managed to recharge the batteries by then. In the meantime, a bit of music from the utterly wonderful Viv Albertine. Having just finished her magnificent autobiography Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys I feel inspired to make some changes – as soon as I have a bit more energy. This may be no more than getting some singing lessons…

Addendum: If you haven’t yet read Clothes Clothes Clothes… – and you really should, if you have any interest in music, feminism, creativity, British social history or human beings – then that last comment might seem a little cryptic. Quick summary: having been at the heart of the whole punk movement, including playing in the Slits (not only the first female punk band, but one of the best bands of that entire era), Viv Albertine then went off to be a housewife and (after terrible problems) mother in Hastings, survived cancer, and then suddenly decided to take up the guitar again and have singing lessons, leading to whole new life, new album, autobiography etc. Now, my plan emphatically does not involve separating from spouse along the way, but either I’m going to start writing songs again, or something a bit more dramatic; whatever happens, getting to the end of the year feeling quite this exhausted is not so good.

“We always base our preparations against an opponent on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.” (1.84)

One of the most interesting aspects of Thucydides’ account in respect to football is the way that he depicts different styles of play and management, in both their strengths and weaknesses. The Spartans, for example, represent the application of a system, in which individual players – however talented – are subordinated to the discipline and needs of the whole. The system is not necessarily rigid, but it is flexible only in its own terms, rather than being adapted to respond to a particular opponent. In such a system there is little inclination to worry endlessly about the threat posed by individual opposition players (will Suarez play? is Ronaldo still carrying an injury?), but simply the confidence that training, discipline and preparation will win out over erratic genius on most days. Such a philosophy does not necessarily imply a defensive approach; the Spartans build slowly from the back and absorb pressure before launching devastating counter-attacks. It’s Germany, isn’t it?



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