Gordon Brown, classicist

Did the Prime Minister bungle the classical allusion at the end of his Citizens UK speech?

I blogged on The Staggers on Monday about Gordon Brown's remarkable speech, which ended with an allusion to Cicero and Demosthenes:

When Cicero spoke to the crowds in ancient Rome, people turned to each other when he had finished and said: "Great speech." But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece, people turned to each other and said: "Let's march!"

Someone called Jack Cunningham (not that Jack Cunningham, surely?) left a comment on the blog suggesting that Brown had in fact bungled the classical allusion, and that the correct comparison was not between Cicero and Demosthenes but between Aeschines and Demosthenes. It turns out there's been quite a bit of discussion among classicists in the blogosphere about this. There's a detailed exploration of the provenance of the story over at the blog Heresy Corner, where someone luxuriating in the title "The Heresiarch" starts by noting (and this is something I'd forgotten) that Brown has invoked Cicero and Demosthenes before: "at Michael Foot's funeral, in a Time magazine article about Barack Obama, at the 2008 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, even at a gay/transgender rights conference at Downing Street two years ago." He goes on to suggest that the anecdote continues to circulate in several distinct versions:

Demosthenes led the Athenian opposition to the rise of Macedonia under Philip and then Alexander, a policy that, given the reality of power in the second half of the fourth century BC was almost suicidal to his native city. Suicidal it would probably have been had his fellow citizens done as Gordon Brown asserted they did. On those occasions when the Athenians did march with Demosthenes they usually suffered catastrophic defeats. More often, though, they listened, cheered, and then paid heed to more cautious voices.

But where does the story come from? It's unclear. The version quoted by Brown has been sourced to a 1906 book about rhetoric William Jennings Bryan, where it is attributed to "someone". Bryan adds, "the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them." But the anecdote exists in several other versions, too. Sometimes Demosthenes is replaced by Caesar - which makes more sense, given that Cicero and Caesar were contemporaries. But that would change the meaning to a contrast between the man of action and the man of words.

Alternatively, a version attributed to advertising mogul David Ogilvy contrasts Demosthenes with his greatest rival Aeschines, who may not have been as memorable a speechmaker but who proposed a more subtle accommodation with Philip's expansionism. The story may in any case be a modern summation. A favourite among business gurus, it's most often attributed to the advertising mogul David Ogilvy. And it ignores the fact that the Athenian citizenry often sided with Aeschines. In 343 BC Demosthenes accused his rival of taking bribes from the Macedonians and at the subsequent trial made one of his greatest speeches, which Bury described as "a triumph in the art of sophistry". Aeschines was acquitted.

Passing classicists are invited to leave their views on the question in the comments below.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear