Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

Our Scottish visitors, man and wife, came bearing lavish gifts: a beribboned fruit cake in a Union Jack cake tin; a bottle of Bollinger; a bottle of Bailie Nicol Jarvie old Scotch Whisky (their favourite tipple); a bottle of nubile white Burgundy; four 'Katie Morag' children's books; The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which made them both laugh in bed;

a heavy, 19in high relief sculpture of Eos, Titan goddess of the dawn (she of the rosy fingers);

a circular plaster plaque featuring a bust, in relief, of their jaw-droppingly beautiful middle daughter Sophie, clad in a toga, her head informally decorated with thistles, olives and olive leaves.

And for me a T-shirt. White cotton. He designed it himself, said the man. On the front, a black line drawing of a leafy shrub, possibly marijuana. And underneath this shrub, the words 'Legalise it'.

I pulled off the shirt I was wearing and put it on immediately. The leaves were acanthus leaves, the man explained. The sculpted leaves one sees on capitals, urns and friezes of classical antiquity are usually acanthus leaves. The Romans loved them. Today, the classical tradition of sculpture and architecture attracts from modernists that blind hatred peculiar to all leftists. And because the leftists are winning, or have already won, the ideological battle in this field, as in every other field, with the possible exception of natural human relations, the prestige of the acanthus leaf has been downgraded to the level of, say, the Nazi oak leaf. His T-shirt design is therefore a gentle, humorous plea for sanity, proportion and a little respect for the ancients.

'I see, ' I said.

Then the three of us went out for a long walk along the coast path. Early on, I was able to point to the mouth of the estuary and inform them it was Tennyson's inspiration for his famous poem 'Crossing the Bar'. Tennyson's reputation has been scotched by the same kind of ideologues who hate the acanthus leaf, he said. Then we Googled 'Crossing the Bar' on his wife's BlackBerry, and he read it out, there on the cliff above that same bar. It's not an easy poem to read aloud, and he was squinting at the phone's screen with his glasses off and beads of sweat standing out on his brow, but he captured the sense, rhythm and meaning perfectly, and afterwards all three of us were momentarily a little stunned by it. …

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