Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sunday Salon: Interview with Natalie Haynes

Good morning Sunday Salonists. This week has been a good one. I read Zillah Bethell's 'Les Temps des Cerises' for a library event in Skewen (report forthcoming), finished Haruki Murakami's 'Dance, Dance, Dance' (and now have to wait until mid-November until I get its prequel on audiobook) and reviewed Natalie Hayne's The Ancient Guide to Modern Life.

Natalie has kindly agreed to an interview and it is posted it below. It is guaranteed to brighten your day - if not, your money back.

Photo by James Betts.


Natalie Haynes specialised early, taking triple Classics at A-level. She graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge in 1996. She is an award-winning comedian, journalist, and broadcaster. She is a regular panellist on BBC2's The Review Show, Radio 4's Saturday Review, and the long-running arts show, Front Row. She wrote and presented Classical Comedy and OedipusEnders for Radio 4. She has been a guest columnist for The Times since 2006.


CD: Obviously you loved the classics at school, and there is a movement to bring it back into schools. I think the way you compared aspects of modern-day culture like Buffy with Greek epics and tragedies would make it very enticing to teenagers - and made me see the programmes in a new light! What would you say is the most important reason children should learn about the classics?

NH:For their own sake. I think learning Classics is useful for all sorts of purposes – you spell well when you did Latin and Greek, you are good at crosswords etc etc – but they aren’t a stepping stone to anything but themselves, Classics are their own reward. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun being able to watch Buffy or the Wire and spot the Classics within… But mostly you should read the Aeneid because it’s awesome. The Buffy stuff is a bonus.

CD: If you hadn't fallen in love with the Classics at school what would have been your second choice?
NH: Heck, I don’t know. They got me so young. Maths, maybe. I liked maths a lot.

CD: How has your knowledge of the classics helped you in your career (or life)?
NH: I think it gave me an unusual edge in the arts journalism/broadcasting world. People saw me (quite understandably) as a comedian, when I first turned up on things like Front Row and Newsnight Review. But when they discovered that I had the whole Classics thing going on, I think it moved me out of one box and into a lot more. The downside to telly and radio is that everyone is trying to make programmes quickly and cheaply. If they know you bring more than one thing to the mix, they’re delighted. If you bring something which a lot of people don’t – whether it’s Classics or Physics or whatever – you are a useful commodity. Not that that is something to aim for, but it is handy.

The Roman amphitheatre below the acropolis in Athens.

CD: Why did you decided to write about both the ancient Greeks and Romans (rather than just the Greeks or just the Romans)?

NH: I would have got terrible guilt leaving either of them out. Even now, I feel bad that there’s not very much on the Carthaginians. But if I’d just done the Greeks, Catullus or someone would surely have come to haunt me. And if I’d just done the Romans, I think Aristophanes would have mocked me in my sleep. Frightening thought. Also, I guess it means the book covers over a thousand years of history and an awful lot (don’t ask me how many…) of square miles, which makes it – I hope – a more satisfying, solid read.

Socrates' Cave, Athens.

CD: Reading this book has made me really want to read some of the classics. How do you advise a beginner like me to start?
NH: Hooray. Victory to my team. Well, I think it depends what your tastes are, but since I have the impression you’re a Buffy fan… Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a great werewolf story in it, among other excellent things. Are you very passionate? Catullus’ love poems. Do you like a courtroom drama? Cicero is the man for you. Do you want to do some proper thinking? I say to you, Plato’s Symposium – love and thought all in one go. And, obviously – Euripides and Sophocles are the business. Medea is my favourite play. Oedipus is something everyone should probably read once. Tragedies are quite short and very punchy, so the perfect beginning. Most Penguin Classics are really readable…

CD: I hadn't realised we owed so much to the Greeks and Romans. What would you say was the most important thing they each gave us?
NH: Lawks, that’s a tough one. I think, for me, the most important thing is the tendency to ask questions about big stuff – how to be happy, how to live well, how to govern, how to legislate. There are lots of things to dislike about how the Greeks and Romans lived, but that’s something they did amazingly, and which we sometimes forget to do ourselves. Asking questions about the world shouldn’t be the preserve of children. But, obviously, my second answer is ‘loads of cool stuff to read’.

CD: One of my favourite chapters was the one on performance and literature 'There's no business like show business'. I had no idea that the Greeks gave us many literary forms, and yet the Romans just one: satire. What is your favourite Greek literary form, and who is your favourite classic author?
NH: Tragedy, and Euripides. Easy. Actually, difficult – I love Aristophanes’ comedy, I love Thucydides’ history (though that wasn’t true when I was trying to plough through my translation homework at school), I love Plato like you wouldn’t believe (though not in a weird way. I’m very chaste in my literary crushes), and I adore Juvenal, even though his attitudes are indefensible. But Euripides wrote the most amazing women – Medea, Hecabe, Phaedra. He wrote female heroes (who have the lead roles, behave in shocking ways and generally thrill an audience today, perhaps more so even that they did 2500 years ago). He wrote tight, angry speeches that are impossible to forget – who wouldn’t remember Medea declaring that she would rather stand three times in the front line of battle than give birth to one child? What an extraordinary thing for a writer to do – at almost any time in history – explicitly compare the heroism of childbirth with the heroism of facing death in war. Astonishing.

The Greek amphitheatre at Delphi

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
NH: I am afraid of invertebrates in any form. Snails I’m probably less afraid of, because a) they are rarely in houses, and b) they are quite slow-moving. But afraid I remain.

CD: What is your proudest moment?

NH: Sadly, my memory is the kind which sort of levels things out – mainly so I can stop grinding my teeth at all the people who left me furious years ago. Now I often find I can’t even remember their names, which is clearly preferable to still being consumed with rage. But the downside is, it does the same thing with the good stuff, and I forget it. Getting the first copy of AGTML was pretty great (and only happened a month ago, so I haven’t had time to forget yet…). I once played a comedy show for three nights at a theatre in SoHo in New York, and then three nights at the Soho Theatre in London in the same week – that felt good. And it was nice to get Perrier nominated, even if that was a long time ago.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
NH: The death of my grandmother in 2004. I wrote about it, thought about it, cried about it, for months, maybe years. It was a dark time. And it’s especially annoying that she didn’t live to see me become a published author, as she worked in a bookshop.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
NH: Oh dear, I am chronically, dreadfully sentimental. I once cried at a picture of a sad horse whose hooves hadn’t been trimmed for ages. I am pathetic. But generally, anyone being brave makes me cry. Anyone being old and brave makes me cry (see previous answer). Anyone being self-sacrificing makes me cry. Don’t tell me a sad story, will you? I’m not up to it.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?

NH: Maybe less crying?

CD: What is happiness?
NH: It’s an ongoing process, like Aristotle says, not a state. You have to work at being happy sometimes – not just sit there being not-very-happy. It also requires a little self-analysis, I think – people are very quick to say what they don’t like. Not as quick to work out that if, say, walks on bright autumn days make you happy (as they do me), it’s worth taking them even if it takes you longer to get home and you get tired feet. They’re only feet. They’ll recover.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

NH: Juice. Email. That is really lame, actually.


Blogger Sue Guiney said...

Great interview, and that's from me - a former classicist. I always love to see classicists showing people how useful and wonderful they are - and pertinent to present life. Plus, it sounds like a great book. Thanks to you both.

Sun Nov 07, 03:05:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Sue - I had no idea you were a classicist!

Sun Nov 07, 03:57:00 pm  
Anonymous Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I love author interviews...this one was great! I could see the comic elements in her answers.

I like her morning routine...same as mine, except for coffee instead of juice.

My Sunday Salon is here:

Click on my name...

Sun Nov 07, 05:24:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

Agree with all the above - great interview!

I was dead keen on the classical Greeks in my youth and read (in English) Plato and the great dramatists. I even independently did a year of Greek history, being taught by mail by an old lady. Alas it wasn't enough, as I think I failed the subject.

I do rememeber that the Greek history course came in handy when I had to write an essay on Oedipus Rex (I think) for English Lit and related the play to the Peloponnesian war and the politics of the time, for which I got an A.

And I agree knowing the classics gives you an edge on the rest of the society in many ways.

Mon Nov 08, 10:10:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I am seriously impressed, Anne! Seems like my excuse that my school didn't teach the classics is no excuse after all. I want that edge too!

Mon Nov 08, 10:19:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And Laurel-Rain - thanks, and yes, pretty much like my morning routine too.

Mon Nov 08, 10:21:00 am  
Anonymous Debra Hamel said...

Don't speak Latin in front of the books!

But you're not a Buffy fan (yet), are you, Clare?

Tue Nov 09, 05:32:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Nope! I was thinking of you when I asked that one, Debra. It made me wonder if all classicists like Buffy.

Tue Nov 09, 05:41:00 pm  
Anonymous Debra Hamel said...

You haven't watched it at all yet?

Tue Nov 09, 05:46:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Nah. I can't stand the sight of blood, although I do rather like the thought of plunging wooden stakes into people. Also I like wearing black.

Tue Nov 09, 05:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Debra Hamel said...

Oh, there's no blood. The vampires turn to dust upon staking.

Tue Nov 09, 05:54:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

These are more my sort of vampires.

Tue Nov 09, 05:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Debra Hamel said...

Those new-school vampires just don't have good taste in capes!

Tue Nov 09, 06:02:00 pm  

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