The wisdom of 50 Cent

Prince Charles and rapper 50 Cent offer us valuable insights, while confused audiences spurn Sweeney

A notable controversy has emerged this week after BAFTA pulled out of a screening of a documentary about disability, financed and directed by disabled British filmmaker Richard Butchins. The film was due to be shown at BAFTA’s Piccadilly headquarters as part of a joint event with X’08, Europe’s largest disability festival. Mr Butchins shot the documentary one-handed and the film features disabled people touring the US as a carnival or burlesque. The director of X’08, Peter Kincaid, said that the film “illustrates how disabled artists are claiming their identity in a more assertive way that can be uncomfortable for some people in the nondisabled world.” BAFTA’s Head of Events, Corinna Downing, is said to have told Mr Butchins that the film was “too demanding” for audiences and “created too many questions.” As an alternative, BAFTA is said to have suggested a screening of Hollywood comedy Lars and the Real Girl, a film with an able-bodied cast about a delusional man who falls in love with a blow-up doll.

Woolworths has withdrawn its “Lolita” bed range for girls, which had been on sale through its website. The decision comes after parents expressed concern about the appropriateness of a children’s bed named after the 20th century’s most famous sexually precocious heroine. The Lolita bed was aimed at girls around 6 years old. A spokesman from Woolworths said: “What seems to have happened is the staff who run the website had never heard of Lolita, and to be honest no one else here had either. We had to look it up on Wikipedia. But we certainly know who she is now.”

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd debuted at Number 1 on its opening weekend in UK box offices, a surprising and exciting result for a musical. But how many of the punters stayed to watch the whole thing? There have been widespread reports of audience members walking out of screenings, having bought their tickets not realising that the film was, in fact, a musical.

Nearly 25 years after his famous “carbuncle” speech, Prince Charles has again decried modern skyscrapers – but this time to less seismic effect. “The general public has become far more design-savvy, which means people are better placed to judge what he is saying”, said Sundand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. “I don't think he will get the same reflexive obedience this time." The more muted reaction this time around might also be a measure of the changing status of the Royal Family, and changing tastes in architecture.

From cityscapes to soundscapes: Uncut magazine have produced a musical “map” of Britain, using music sales figures to work out who is listening to what, and where. A pdf of the map is available here. According to the study, music gets faster the further north you go; and while jazz dominates in the West Country, heavy metal rules in the North East. There were also some eclectic regional mixtures: in the South Coast, Eurodisco and world pop are combined through the influence of the area’s international residents and visitors. In Northern Ireland, in contrast, country music and handbag house are combined: no explanation was given for this.

With all these shifting cultural markers and areas of contention, it is good to know that guidance is at hand. The platinum-selling rapper Kanye West has authored a self-help book and released a preview of it on his blog. Kanye recently overtook hiphop star 50 Cent in a highly-publicised rivalry. Extracts from Kanye’s book, entitled Thank You and You’re Welcome!, include aphorisms such as: “When you’re so focussed on what you don’t have …You won’t have!” and “Get use to getting used … To use is necessary. And if you can’t be used, you’re useless.” One can only look forward to 50’s response.

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror