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Harry Mount’s diary: Class war with classicists and wisdom from Brian Sewell

Plus: A trick for lighter packing

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

I never knew classicists could be so scary! Last week I wrote a Telegraph article saying classics exams had been dumbed down. It followed the news that Camden School for Girls — the last comprehensive in the country to teach Greek A-level — is planning to drop the subject in September. Soon after, the classics trolls came a-calling, on Facebook’s Classics International forum. The insults were impressively high-minded. A classics student at King’s College London called me an ‘antediluvian ape’. A classics teacher at Durham Sixth Form Centre predicted my next book would be ‘bowel-achingly derivative’.

My kind former tutor, Professor Greg Woolf, disagreed with my argument but flatteringly suggested I should become president of the Classical Association. That incensed Richard Wallace, a former classics lecturer at Keele. He compared the idea to the time he stopped Enoch Powell becoming the association’s president. I’m not remotely as well-qualified for the job as Powell. After a double, starred first at Cambridge, he became Professor of Greek at Sydney University at 25. In 1938, aged only 26, he published an edition of Thucydides’s Historiae and the lexicon to Herodotus. But this row wasn’t about qualifications. The classics trolls instantly associate any dumbing down suggestions with far-right fogeyish snobbishness. One classics teacher said, ‘Before we all panic too much, this was in the aspirational Telegraph, a paper marketed to people who would like to be thought of as posh.’ Meanwhile, comprehensives are deprived of the wonders of Greek for ever. And posh apes with expensive educations — like me — go on benefiting from the dumbing down of non-selective, state education.

To the West London Synagogue near Marble Arch for its 175th anniversary. Two hundred descendants of the synagogue’s founders gathered for a service. One founder was an ancestor of mine, Sir Francis Goldsmid: the first Jewish QC, in 1858, and the third Jewish MP, in 1860, two years after Lionel Rothschild became the first. Many of the people at the service had ancestors who came over here in the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to the country. It was sad, but understandable, that security men had to be stationed outside the synagogue. Still, Benjamin Netanyahu’s alarmist call last month that European Jews should migrate to Israel because of terrorism had never seemed so ludicrous. The descendants at Friday’s service varied in their degrees of Judaism — from the fully observant to unobservant Christians like me, with a single Jewish grandfather. But they couldn’t have been more British.

I worship Brian Sewell just this side of idolatry; not least because, when I interviewed him, he was funny, friendly and kind. He fits the rule that outspoken, supposedly reactionary writers are charming in the flesh. Auberon Waugh, Christopher Hitchens, A.N. Wilson, Kingsley Amis… all utter pussycats. In an interview at the weekend, Sewell was spot on about the correct use of money: ‘I have no jewellery, my watch is wholly undistinguished and I despise all who play the label game… Money should be used to improve a situation — to buy a better house, but not a better car.’ That used to be a classic definition of class: the more you spent on your house, and the less you spent on your car, the grander you were.

My father’s rule for betting on elections has come true again. The rule holds that there will always be at least two separate occasions between elections when the two leading parties are at more than evens to win or get most seats. Bet half your savings on each of those two occasions and you can’t fail to profit. In January 2013, I bet on the Tories to get most seats, at 34/25. They’re now at 4/9 and Labour are at 13/8. I should now stick a fortune on Labour. But I’m convinced the bookies have called it right. Betfair have the probability of a Conservative coalition at 67 per cent. They got the American election right, 30 months before it happened; and the Scottish referendum right, 13 months before. No need for David Cameron to book the removal van yet.

Ben Elton once said how difficult it was to come up with new observational comedy — would anyone in the audience share your odd habits? Would anyone laugh? I’m off this week on a ‘working trip’ to Antigua, where I will enact one of my own odd routines. I’m taking four ancient linen shirts — which I’ll dump in the bin on leaving. Hey presto! Practically no luggage on my return. The only time my obsessive light packing let me down was at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv a few years ago. Security were so astonished by my lack of luggage that they were convinced I was a suicide bomber.

Harry Mount’s Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus is out in July.

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