What academics mostly do is spin yarns. Sometimes these develop into technical tapestries, as hard to unpick as the punchline is (we hope) world-shaking.
Much of the time, we are chipping away at the knowledge edifice, trying to make a difference. We receive no training in communicating research intelligibly outside the academy, yet making our research into stories that resonate as widely and powerfully as possible is as central to modern universities as it is to their faculty and students. Despite the rhetorics of ivory-towers and ivied quads, our world is no more (nor less) exclusive than any comparable trade. Ideas are our currency, and this means that we tend to speak to whoever will listen.
Some academics (micro-)blog, many of us teach and write books and papers, explain what we do to diverse audiences (including friends, or people at bus-stops…) and like everyone, we try to adapt our discourse appropriately to match the context. Many of us also travel nationally and internationally to explore how we fit into and can make a difference to new and bigger conversations. But these activities are all within our comfort-zones.
Donkey: legs talked right off!
The crunch comes when, as it did for me this summer, someone wants to change the medium and for instance, put academics together for live broadcast debate to an unseen audience. In my case, this was to be on the radio. You’d think that a person well-used to standing up in front of large audiences, and delighted to talk the hind legs off herds of donkeys, would still find this uncomplicatedly delightful. In fact, it quite daunted me in ways I hadn’t expected.
The “call” was in fact an email. Would I be interested in talking about reception of Alexander the Great with some fellow academics as part of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”. Of course I was interested! But the dynamics of this kind of “conversation” are inevitably very different to a chat between colleagues, or to a typical academic lecture, workshop, or seminar. This was brought home to me vividly when I had my first conversation with the production team, charming folk who quizzed me in detail (as they worked out how the episode might develop) about all sorts of aspects of Alexander’s story that I’d not considered for some time.
This build-up was exciting and perturbing in almost equal measures. Answering questions about Alexander’s extraordinary career, and reimagining my own analyses in the light of thirteen years (since first publishing a book about Roman reception of Alexander), was all rather exhilarating. But stories started to drift in from friends and colleagues about the terrible “freeze” that can overcome the most fluent of speakers when in the studio, about the unintentional gaffes that “live” recording can crystallise, and by the time I’d been warned about not “tapping on the table”, or “rustling”, or making repetitive noises, I was beginning to imagine myself as the unfortunate Lina with her pearls, in “Singing in the Rain”.
One question I asked in the build-up was “why Alexander, now?” While the BBC programme team had no particular agenda for the timing of this episode (and perhaps the “In Our Time” shtick requires a sense of timelessness in scheduling topics), nevertheless the turmoil in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, new urgency to questions of ethnicity and its relationship to selfhood, nationality, and to geopolitical ideals and realities, all seem to echo some of the radical population shifts and the fallout from grand ideological schemes that were an inevitable consequence of Alexander’s campaigns. Not to mention the vexed question of Alexander as poster-boy for a new brand of charisma-driven personality politics.
The trip to Broadcasting House was set for the Thursday of Freshers’ Week, so I hustled from the mock “graduation” ceremony and prize-giving that we staged for Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Sciences first years (celebrating their successful completion of the four-year degree in two packed days…), through Birmingham’s brand newly (re-)opened Grand Central/New Street Station, and onto the fast train to London.
We’re so close to London that I often wonder why I go so infrequently, and enjoying a quiet supper in a bar near my hotel there was a slightly naughty sense of being unexpectedly released temporarily into the wild.
I met up with my fellow guests at 10.00 the next morning at the iconic, Art Deco entrance to what I still think of as the authentic (i.e. ’30s) Broadcasting House, opposite John Nash’s exquisite All Souls Church, Langham Place. Classical academia is a small world, and I knew both the other guests (hello, Paul, Rachel), so the pre-mic green-room coffee stop (sadly, like every theatrical “green room” I’ve been in, it was not at all green) was a bit of a catchup session. Melvyn Bragg, our host, made his appearance once we had taken the correct seats (inevitably, I first of all sat in the wrong seat) in a large, evocatively old-school, recording studio.
The programme has a manner all its own, and each guest gets a chance to answer one or two questions first, setting the scene, before the conversation (though still fairly tightly structured) is opened out. We agreed to raise our hands if we wanted to interject, which did occasionally make me want to shout “Miss! me, Miss!” But I resisted. I think that if I get invited back (or ever take part in a comparable show) I’ll be a bit more forceful about waving that hand. The crux of Alexander the Great, an issue that the team were clearly aware of but couldn’t resolve, is that there is way, way too much juicy, salacious, intriguing, perplexing material to cover. My own area of specialisation really didn’t get much of a look-in because exploring even the big opening questions relating to what Alexander did and how we know about, or interpret it, could have filled a whole series.
At the BBC, ready to broadcast!
There’s a fun bit at the end of each show where guests record some more relaxed conversation on the theme, for the podcast, and I was aching to talk about the weird seepage between art and life characterising 20thC actors role-playing Alexander (it was not long after their off-kilter Alexander pilot that William Shatner would be inspiring viewers “to boldly go”…and Adam West would be saving Gotham; while Richard Burton’s personal life resounded to the issues of sex, drink, and identity-crisis that characterise hostile Roman reception of Alexander), and Alexander’s big-screen monopolisation by actors from edges of corporate states (Burton: Wales; Sean Connery: Scotland) or with postcolonial reverb (Colin Farrell: Ireland).
I’d also hoped to be able to interject a little more on how buffeted by 20thC ideologies Alexander’s afterimage became. For instance, Hitler had a series of eight Dutch tapestries depicting great episodes in Alexander’s life, based on a sequence created by Charles le Brun for Louis XIV of France) moved from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to add epic grandeur to his office in the Chancellery, Berlin.
Alexander’s emblematic potential for modelling Aryan identity and showing how to impose radical cultural shifts across diverse populations would also reverberate contrastingly through the idea of “universal brotherhood” which he supposedly took as the ideological centrepiece for his eastern empire-building. This idea of a “brotherhood of man” started to come into focus as world power dynamics shifted through the 1930s, and was given a positive, optimistic airing by William W. Tarn, in his Raleigh Lecture on History (delivered to the British Academy in 1933, and restated in an article in the American Journal of Philology, in 1939. see Ernst Badian’s 1958 restatement of the issues, and analysis). Tarn’s Alexander, like Hitler’s, was a visionary, but for Tarn, Alexander’s political dream took on a soteriological quality that his charismatic good-looks and early death helped to shore up.
If airtime had allowed, I think I’d have liked to end with an interrogation of how that “visionary”, age-defying, charismatic man-of-the-people Alexander continued to permeate western understanding of power — imperial, intellectual, scientific, sexual — right through the 20thC. To my mind, the ubiquity of tropes relating back to Roman stories of Alexander the inquisitive, boundary-pushing hero with feet of clay can help all of us to pose questions of ourselves about how exactly we understand what identity is, whether individual, collective, or comparative, and how the assumptions we make connect us to past societies and give definition to what we consider to be characteristic of humane values and aspirations.
My London day ended with a research-related trip to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA: very handy for the BBC, and like the Wellcome Collection, a wonderful resource for interdisciplinary enthusiasms), and a little Classical eye-candy appreciation (en route back to London Euston, and home).