Detail from an 1800 engraving of a bust of Euripides. Photo: Getty
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Uncovering remarkable lives through my second-hand Classics books

Every life has some incident or episode that is worth telling. And so it proved as I delved into my Classics books, writes Josh Spero. 

Of all the places I’ve ever woken up, a nunnery has to be the strangest. As a gay, atheist Jew who lacks many of what you might consider the monastic virtues, this was as unlikely as it gets. But there was a good reason I had asked the nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Hyning, in the wilds north of Manchester, if I could visit and it wasn’t spiritual renewal (as necessary as that might have been): I wanted to talk to one of the nuns, whose brother I was writing about.

Sister Mary Anthony, née Gillian Levi, is the younger sister of Peter Levi, a poet, priest, archaeologist, adventurer and one of the 20th century’s great forgotten literary figures. I had come to talk to her because I was writing about Peter’s life and I was writing about Peter’s life because I was searching for the people who used to own my second-hand books.

I had the idea for Second-Hand Stories, my book about my books’ previous owners, soon after hanging out at Sotheby’s (as you do). I was reporting on the auction house’s extraordinary June sale week in 2007, when tens of millions of pounds of artworks were put under the hammer and tens of thousands of canapés were consumed by art-world hangers-on. It occurred to me, as I was leafing through the glossy catalogues piled on me by the PR team, that every painting or sculpture had a provenance: given by the painter to his dealer, sold by the dealer to Lord X and thence passed on by descent. Wasn’t the same true of old books?

Most second-hand books do not have provenances nearly as starry as a major Picasso, Bacon or Giacometti but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter. Every life has  some incident or episode that is worth telling. And so it proved as I delved into my Classics books.

I had studied Latin and Greek at school and then at Oxford and, over a decade or so, had acquired well over 100 books on classical authors from Aeschylus to Xenophon. Some were new – clean, bright and sour-smelling. But many were old, because while Classics is not dead, it’s not exactly the zippiest of disciplines. Books that were written a century ago can still be useful and, indeed, relevant. Some of these were fragile and yellow, redolent of unvisited libraries.

One afternoon, I stripped my shelves bare of all my Classics books, piled them up around myself on my bedroom floor and began to open each one. They brought back strong memories of school and college – dark November afternoons in the classroom studying the Bacchae, Euripides’s tragedy of impiety, madness and divine revenge; our callow grad-student Virgil tutor who loved the subject so much that he became a civil servant soon after teaching us; being the only student left by the final week of a lecture series on the abstruse playwright Aeschylus.

Every time one of the books had some proof of ownership in it, I set it aside to note down. Some were specific and proprietorial: “Josephine Miller, Queen Mary College, U of London”, in a book of Roman historical sources, or “Claire Fraser, Bedford High School”, in a commentary on the second book of the Aeneid, Virgil’s poem on the foundation of Rome.

Others were generic: “Ex libris Mill Hill School” in a copy of the achievements of the emperor Augustus, or “County High School for Girls, Macclesfield”, in a book on how to write in Greek. Others were entirely mysterious: “Nyx” (Greek for “night”) in a translation of the Odyssey; “7146” in a floppy picture guide to the ancient Greek town of Ephesus on the Turkish coast. I ended up with a corpus of nearly 50 books to delve into.

Tracking down the 11 people I have written about involved a combination of luck, exploitation of networks, googling and investigative skills honed by a lifetime of watching Murder, She Wrote. Oxbridge, as you might expect, values its history and posterity and so keeps careful records on its alumni – so when someone had written his or her college in a book, I could get in touch. About those who were dead, I was sent Who’s Who-style entries, listing some combination of date and place of birth, parents’ names and occupations, education before Oxford or Cambridge, course and achievements at university, war service if any, personal addresses and, where necessary, date of death. To those who were alive, letters or emails could be passed on.

Other universities had no such access to records. With schools, it was largely the same, so I went on Friends Reunited and slogged through school years to find someone who might know Claire Fraser of Bedford High or C J Cullingford of Reading School. It was largely fruitless.

Then there was serendipity. Take the book that had sent me to the nunnery, a translation of the poems of Pindar, who wrote (paid-for) tributes to winners of Greek athletic festivals such as the Olympian and Pythian games; I had studied these poems for my finals but they were rather too fellatory for my taste. In this volume was the inscription: “To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice.” Maurice was evidently Maurice Bowra, who had translated the poems. But who was Peter?

The answer came when I was having lunch with one of my old tutors, who suggested it might be Peter Levi, an Oxford habitué of the second half of the 20th century. When we turned to look at the book’s introduction, it said: “I owe a great debt to Father Peter Levi, SJ, who has read my text with generous care and made many wise suggestions.” Bingo.

Peter Levi was of Catholic-Jewish stock and had a glimpse of God when still a child. He resolved there and then to become a priest. The only problem was that he wasn’t suited for the priesthood. He was faithful and charitable and chaste; he had a strong belief in God; he wanted to help those less fortunate (he was, at one point, a prison chaplain in Brixton). But he hated rules and religion is full of them. He didn’t see the point of all these restraints on his behaviour when faith was the real matter.

And then someone else’s wife came along. Deirdre Connolly, married to the critic Cyril, was a beauty somewhat reminiscent of Peter’s mother, his sister told me. She and Peter met at a party in Oxford on All Souls’ Night in 1963. Deirdre fell instantly in love; Peter more slowly but just as surely. They weren’t alone together until 1971, after Peter had conducted Deirdre’s mother’s funeral and Cyril had left them to meet his mistress. And it wasn’t until 1973 that they revealed their love for one another – with Cyril still alive. When they eventually married, Deirdre was a widow and Peter wasn’t a priest.

But this is only part of Peter’s fascinating story. He was variously a respected poet, an archaeology correspondent for the Times, a tutor at Oxford, a book reviewer, the mistaken discoverer of what he believed was a lost poem by Shakespeare, an amateur cartoonist and a political dissident in Greece under the junta of the Colonels.

The other ten book-owners have their own fascination. Some lived on a grand, international scale: Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a commentary on Herodotus, led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete; Mark Richards, who annotated a study of Ovid’s love poetry, rowed a re-creation of the Argo along Jason’s original path; Donald Russell translated codes at Bletchley Park – but from Japanese, not German.

Some had quieter but no less interesting lives. Emilie Vleminckx, whose copy of a book on Homer I had acquired, came from a fractured home in a fractured country, fleeing Belgium’s meek artificiality for Oxford’s robust education – even if this did at first backfire disastrously. She had been at Oxford only a couple of years before me but when we met in 2008 she still seemed to be recovering from how her exams had detonated. Belinda Dennis was a Latin teacher who visited Italy under the fascists and brought back a most curious book, which I now own.

Their stories are intertwined with my own in Second-Hand Stories, which I am publishing with the website Unbound, funded by people who like the idea. Despite existing online, Unbound is responsible for some lovely physical books, including Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake and Shaun Usher’s fabulous collection Letters of Note. It produces ebooks, too, and one of the trends that emerged while I was tracing the provenance of my library was the rise of the e-reader. There is nothing wrong with e-readers. There is a problem, however, if you are interested in where your
books have been.

Is it even possible to have a second-hand copy of something that doesn’t really exist? The de-materialised text may have the same intellectual value but the book as an object – designed, bought, read, dog-eared, passed on – offers actual engagement with paper and ink, not a swipe through liquid crystals. An electronic library could not have led me to  Peter Levi, Tom Dunbabin and Belinda Dennis. Digital files have no reality – and certainly no story. 

To support Josh Spero’s “Second-Hand Stories”, visit: unbound.co.uk

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's magazine.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.