Magazine article The Spectator

Smart Arses

Magazine article The Spectator

Smart Arses

Article excerpt

IN the last few weeks, a great hue and cry has been raised among academics over the fate of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum. Hundreds of scrolls, preserved underground in the great library of Lucius Calpernius Piso since the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, are in imminent danger of destruction from flooding caused by adjacent archaeological work. Papyri already recovered have yielded up the lost works of the philosopher Philodemus, and provided better texts of the poet Lucretius. Scholars fear, however, that without the necessary support damp may ruin the many unexcavated scrolls, and the last opportunity to find the missing plays of Aeschylus and Euripides, the histories of Livy or writings of Aristotle may soon be gone for ever. However, while attention is focused on Italy, texts of perhaps equal importance are being lost daily here in Oxford through the negligence of authority: the toilet graffiti of the Bodleian Library.

In Pompeii, every phrase scratched into the ancient walls - whether it be the drunken effusion of a guest returning from a dinner party, or the plaint of a lover shut out from his mistress - is greedily catalogued. Professors rejoice when even the most opaque fragment of Greek lyric emerges from the darkness. How can we rest easy with ourselves, knowing that the most private thoughts of the nation's premier scholars are falling prey to the janitor's bucket and mop?

When historians come to record this fascinating yet depressing period of the university's history, they will doubtless ask whether there was any real change in the social composition of the student body: is this still the Oxford of Waugh, Beerbohm and the Bullingdon, or is it now the furry, Blairite, socially inclusive melange so beloved of our government? The Bodleian's lavatories would provide the best source of evidence: `In Oxford one day in a punt,/I tried a remarkable stunt./The girl was from Merton,/Of that I am certain,/Because of the size of her........ bank balance', adds a later hand. And again: `When I was just a little boy/I asked my mother what should I be./Should I be Worcester, should I be Queen's?/Here's what she said to me You're going to Brookes.'

Dr Johnson once lamented a plan to break with tradition by inscribing epitaphs at Westminster Abbey in English rather than in Latin. He was outraged that its venerable walls might be defiled with the `vulgar tongue'. It is lucky that he is not with us now; were he to take a break from his philological pursuits in Duke Humfrey's Library to powder his wig, he would now find only one Latin epigram by the urinals: 'Veritas liberabit,/Bonitas regnabit' (Truth will set free and goodness shall reign). Whether these are the millennial musings of a Christ Church canon, or the sublime prayers of a classicist stricken with constipation, we shall never know.

Matters of faith are certainly not underrepresented. The morphing of scatology into eschatology is arresting. In one place, the first line of Langland's mystical work `The Vision of Piers Plowman': `In a summer season, when soft was the sun'; in another, `It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.' In large letters below a cistern, the whole `Battle Hymn of the Republic', to which another writer appends the question, `Where have all the radical Christian bigots gone? …

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