Mary Beard Q&A: “Rome would have been ghastly for a woman without a fortune”

The classicist professor at the University of Cambridge talks Brexit, her Mastermind specialist subject and the best advice she’s ever received.

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What’s your earliest memory?

Collecting eggs from some rather frisky hens near my home in Shropshire. It gave me a lifelong fear of flapping wings.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

I had a terrible fondness for the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was a child. I haven’t really had an adult hero. The more you know, the more (delightfully) flawed any candidate seems.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale (which is, as the title puns, about bees). It managed to communicate the potential excitement of that kind of science – something I had never got before.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

In general I think political figures are best not looked up to! But I would very happily spend a long evening with Hillary Clinton.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The reign of the Emperor Nero, 54-68 CE. But I know I would be awful at it.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Most of history is so unattractive as a substitute for the 21st century, and ancient Rome would be ghastly, especially for an ordinary woman without a fortune. Can I opt for the future?

What TV show could you not live without?

I think I could live without TV much more easily than I could live without radio. Life would be pretty unimaginable without the Today programme.

Who would paint your portrait?

I would like to risk the brilliant eye of Jenny Saville (though probably with clothes on).

What’s your theme tune?

I have hundreds depending on the time of day and the mood. But I don’t think I will ever forget “The Man who Waters the Workers’ Beer”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Always say “thank you”, and I certainly try to follow it. Maybe I am just getting old, but I find it really irritating when I spend half an hour answering some random classical query sent by email, and the enquirer doesn’t even bother to acknowledge.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. Say no more.

What single thing would make your life better?

If I can’t have another couple of hours in each day, maybe I could have someone to mark exams for me. I love teaching, but examining is not a pleasant experience.

When were you happiest?

I hope I’m always happiest in the here and now. At the moment it is true that I can’t run around with the same energy that I used to, but I am doing fun things (like television) that I would never have dreamt of, even in my forties.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I did have a fantasy of becoming a judge (of the radical reforming sort), but I’m not sure I’d have been much good at the law.

Are we all doomed?

Of course we are. It’s called the “human condition”.

Mary Beard’s “Women & Power: A Manifesto” is published by Profile Books

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old