Desert Island Don

7 February 2010

Comments made by Cambridge professor and Times columnist Mary Beard on Desert Island Discs last Sunday have cemented the Classicist’s reputation for frankness.

While discussing her childhood, Professor Beard depicted her father Roy Whitbread Beard, as “a raffish public-schoolboy type and a complete wastrel”.

Describing herself as a “rebel and a swot”, she recalled her own “summer of love” at the age of 18: “I did more than flirt… I was sleeping with men twice my age and enjoying it.”

Controversial comments made in 2001 about the 9/11 terrorist attacks thrust the Newnham College fellow into the spotlight.

Three weeks after the attacks, she wrote in the London Review of Books that “America had it coming…world bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.”

Hate mail and threatening e-mails followed. She recalled that “there were people saying, ‘I’ll come and smash your face in.'”

Yet, nine years on, she defended the statements that have earned her such an infamous reputation. “I stand by what I meant”, she told Kirsty Young. “There was a logical consequence to unfair and unbalanced geo-politics.”

She did admit however that “thinking very carefully about how you are going to choose your words… might have been a better idea”.

Professor Beard’s publications are numerous, and include ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman’ and ‘Classics: A Very Short Introduction’.

She was also forthright about the place of academia in modern society.

“Intellectualism is about cutting through the cant”, she said.

Professor Beard has, as a result of her many article and blogs, been dubbed ‘Britain’s best known Classicist’.

She says that her love for the ancients began when she was taken to the British Museum as a 5-year old, where she could connect with artefacts thousands of years old.

“It was the sheer fact that it was real and it survived'” she said, recalling seeing a piece of Egyptian bread in a cabinet that had been opened for her at the Muesum.

However she emphasised that for her “the point of doing Classics is to speak to people in the here and now.” She has always been firm in her view that the study of Classics remains important to students in the modern world. “The classical world speaks to us” she said.

Her choice of discs on the programme reflected her love of the ancient and the modern, as her selections ranged from Bob Dylan to Tudor composer John Dowland.

On her blog, ‘A Don’s Life’, she gave her own verdict on her appearance on the programme. She stated that “All in all, I reckon I’ve come out just ahead.”