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

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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