Mary Beard: ‘I don’t think you’re right, and this is the evidence’

When her broadcasting career took off in her mid-fifties, Mary Beard became one of Britain’s best-known and most-discussed academics. Jack Grove speaks to the retiring Cambridge classicist about her eventful career, including her run-ins with sexist TV critics, Twitter trolls and Boris Johnson

January 19, 2023
Illustration of Mary Beard
Source: Alamy

Dame Mary Beard’s excuse for turning down glitzy award ceremonies and countless other invitations has always been a convincing one.

“I’m used to saying ‘I’m terribly sorry – that’s in the middle of exams. I couldn’t possibly come,’” she explains. But her autumn retirement after 38 years at the University of Cambridge, including 18 years as professor of Classics, came at the expense of this useful “protection” for her diary. “Now, I’ve lots of people saying, ‘You’ve retired, so perhaps you could come along?’” she reflects on her new predicament.

Beard, arguably the UK’s best-known academic thanks to a broadcasting career that took off over the past decade, was accordingly persuaded to pick up a lifetime achievement award at the recent Times Higher Education Awards. Her humorous but hard-edged acceptance speech in November, however, reminded us why she has been such a compelling voice within UK academia, effortlessly combining wit, warmth, erudition and authentic concern for fellow scholars. Beard urged the sector – including the numerous vice-chancellors in the audience – to resist the “bonfire of the humanities” that she had seen kindling in recent months, a reference to proposed job cuts at Birkbeck, University of London, as well as HuddersfieldRoehampton, Wolverhampton and De Montfort universities.

“The humanities are not a vanity project that we only support when the going is good. They are essential,” said Beard, who also criticised the lack of job security faced by younger staff. “Honestly, what we have today, in the shape of the precariat, is absolutely no way to construct a first step in an academic career for any young academic,” she said.

Beard has always been much more than a TV personality with sound academic credentials. Unlike other celebrity dons with relatively loose institutional ties and commitments, she has remained steeped in the nitty-gritty of university life. On this subject, she has been UK academia’s most widely read commentator, via her 320,000 Twitter followers and her twice-weekly A Don’s Life blog. Indeed, Beard’s 20 years of regular online musings for the TLS, where she is Classics editor, blazed a trail for the more informal online engagement seen in today’s academic blogs, Substack posting and social media engagement. When she was asked to write a “web-log” by TLS editor Peter Stothard in the early 2000s, Beard “was mildly curious but didn’t think I’d like it very much”, she tells THE.

“I told Peter that I didn’t think this blogging stuff would last long, but I’d give it a go,” she recalls. “I found that I liked it – it was quite a nice medium to share ideas, not utterly self-indulgently, but about things that you’ve done: say, an exhibition that was interesting. It was quite the reverse from the dumbing down I’d feared because you could talk about more difficult things than you could in print journalism, where if you wanted to write about the autobiography of the Emperor Augustus, you couldn’t really do that very easily.”

Her enthusiastic early adoption of Twitter, back in 2010, has proved testing, however. She has occasionally been targeted with violently graphic misogynistic abuse, with one disgusting episode occurring in 2013 after she appeared on BBC One’s current affairs panel discussion Question Time. The programme was recorded that week in the Lincolnshire town of Boston, whose large agricultural sector was mostly staffed at the time by workers from eastern Europe. Beard’s pre-Brexit suggestion that immigration from eastern Europe may have some positive impacts prompted one of the earliest revelations of how ghoulish some anonymous online commenting can be. The experience would have caused many academics to back off, but Beard still tweets most days.

“I used to smoke, so I use Twitter as a kind of fag break,” she says. “When I was writing my dissertation, I would think: ‘Get to the end of this paragraph; then I’ll have a cigarette.’ Now it’s: ‘I’ll just have a look what’s happening on Twitter.’”

Nor was she deterred by another barrage of abuse in 2017, when she defended the depiction of a black Roman centurion in ancient Britannia in a children’s comic book against accusations of woke historical revisionism – mostly from accounts affiliated to the US-based alt-right movement, which often champions the Classics as the epitome of what it sees as white culture.

“That one was quite important – they wanted to say that there were no people of colour in Roman Britain, which fitted a wider political agenda,” explains Beard. While she would usually ignore such controversies, “we can’t do it all the time. It’s sometimes important to engage and say ‘I don’t think you’re right, and this is the evidence for it – not to just abuse them, though sometimes it’s very hard not to resort to a bit of abuse on Twitter. But it’s very important to resist that temptation if you possibly can.”

While many have given up on Twitter as a useful forum for academia, Beard says engagement is still important. “It’s partly the job of the expert – not just to stomp people down and say ‘you know nothing, you silly alt-right person’, but to give the evidence for [them] not being right. You won’t convince the real entrenched guys that they’re wrong, but you sometimes do, and you sometimes make friends.”

One “kind of good encounter” is a case in point. Beard recalls reaching out to a critic who had tweeted “something pretty awful” after misunderstanding one of her tweets. “I tweeted back and he responded, saying, ‘God, I never thought you'd reply.’ He explained he had just come out of hospital after a heart bypass operation and was “not feeling great but was really keen on history,” she said.

“He explained how he met with friends in his local pub in Glasgow every Tuesday to talk about history and he invited me to come along,” she said. “This was a guy who is typical of a lot of people who get very angry on Twitter – he’s a bit alone, feeling a bit down, probably consumed a little bit more alcohol than he should. He felt that people like me never notice – well, actually, we do.”

Beard’s most notorious encounter with sexist trolling took place offline. In 2012, the Sunday Times television critic, the late A. A. Gill, insisted that Beard was too ugly to front the BBC Two series Meet the Romans – her second major BBC show.

Those words from the famously sharp-tongued journalist (who was 57 at the time) might have previously been excused as par for the course, but they touched a nerve regarding the pervasive ageism faced by women – who, after the age of 50, seemed almost entirely absent from TV. Gill’s abhorrence for Beard’s greying hair (“a disaster”) or face (“she’s 16 from behind, from the front 60”) represented its most clear manifestation. “What was amazing was the reaction to Gill,” reflects Beard on the national conversation around older women prompted by his remarks. “There were clearly some people who agreed with him, but the zeitgeist had turned by that point – most people, even rather socially conservative types, thought he was wrong.”

Having previously written that it was “fine to be a wrinkly old man on telly, but not a wrinkly old woman”, Beard was typically at the centre of the debate. “I wrote something for the Daily Mail about it – not The Guardian, because I thought there’s no point writing about this for readers who will all agree with me – and it basically said people should realise what a mid-fifties woman looks like. She looks like me – I’m not particularly ghastly or brilliant-looking, I’m just an ordinary woman in my mid-fifties.”

Beard was surprised that Mail readers agreed with her. “The below-the-line comments were full of people saying I was absolutely right. I’d inadvertently spoken for all the fiftysomething women who read the Mail,” she reflects. While she believes there is “still stuff to do” about equal pay and on-screen representation, it was a “sign that the debate had turned”.

That Gill met his match in Beard was unsurprising given her lifelong feminism, which began, she says, with her “old-fashioned feminist” mother, a primary school headteacher in Shrewsbury. Having been an only child who excelled at an all-girls school, however, Beard only started to experience sexism when she arrived at Cambridge in the early 1970s.

“I’d read feminism, I read Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, and these ideas felt really important, but I presumed it was kind of theoretical – feminism was an intellectual and political position. I’d never met, to my knowledge, anyone who thought there were some things women couldn’t do. When I got to Cambridge, I did meet people like that,” explains Beard, who attended the all-women Newnham College.

In seminars, male undergraduates would be asked “tough questions”, while women were asked to cover basic “housekeeping” topics, such as how to clean a Roman ornament so an inscription could be read. Even fellow male students would regard their female counterparts as intellectually inferior, adds Beard. She recalls a male friend beginning to read an essay of hers that he found on the floor of her “very messy room”: “It said, on the bottom, ‘This is very good – clearly first class’, which he found very odd. He knew absolutely nothing about what happened in my supervisions, but just thought it was strange I would get a first – presumably because I was a woman. Actually, I remember thinking then, ‘Yeah, I will get a first’” in her finals, she reflects.

That defiant attitude was encouraged by her supervisor at Newnham, Joyce Reynolds, who died in September at the age of 103. “There was a sense that there were men out there who thought that they were smarter than us, but she wanted us to show them they weren’t,” Beard says. “She pushed us – she wanted us all to do really well, do better than we expected,” recalls Beard, who endowed a scholarship with an £80,000 gift in Reynolds’ name last year. “That was important, but uncomfortable sometimes. But, God, I’m grateful for it.”

Beyond a “conscious desire to do well as a woman” at Cambridge, where just 12 per cent of undergraduates were female at the time, Beard’s early research on Rome also had a “feminist backbone”, she reflects. That consistent theme has run throughout her career – from an influential reconsideration of the Vestal Virgins in Rome in 1980 to her contribution to landmark BBC documentaries such as 2018’s Civilisations, co-presented by fellow academics Simon Schama and David Olusoga, or interviewing Hillary Clinton and Emma Thompson for BBC Two’s review show Inside Culture.

Beard’s own significance for feminism – as a celebrated Cambridge professor, a fearless and gifted commentator and a rare older woman on TV – has arguably been more important than any of her reflections on women’s liberation, or even Classics, however insightful they may have been. And her most important academic legacy may be her inspirational example to other female academics – although fans of her best-selling 2015 book on Rome, SPQR, may disagree.

Even when her utterances have enraged academics – such as when, in 2006, she mentioned her “wistful nostalgia” for the days of “pawing” of female students by male professors (she later clarified that she did not condone sexual harassment), or when she tweeted about her 100-hour working week –the ensuing debates, led and encouraged by Beard, have been constructive.

On the latter episode, which occurred in November 2019, Beard reflects it was “one of my worst experiences on Twitter”. She was, however, glad that the ensuing social media storm highlighted the “ridiculously workaholic culture” encouraged within academia at all levels. She wanted to make clear, she says, that even those at the top do not have an easy ride, describing herself in her tweet as “a mug” and asking "What is the norm in real life?". 

“It is quite easy to look at people like me and think that we’ve just glided our way to success,” she says. “I have been lucky, but if you want to continue an academic career in the fullest sense, and a journalistic career, and a television career, it takes a bucketload of work. Academics should be honest about what we are doing.”

That said, posting the tweet was “a silly thing to do,” she now believes. “I mindlessly tweeted ‘I’ve just realised I’ve worked 100 hours, I’m knackered’, but it was treated as if I was somehow bragging.”

Beard’s workload was certainly heavy, given her prodigious output of books, TV shows, radio appearances and guest lectures, as well as advocacy – helping, for instance, to secure £4 million for Classics teaching in state schools last year. And for her fans, her unfiltered way of speaking, even her sense of mischief, have made her the relatable and natural communicator that the nation has come to love.

In some eyes, Beard’s finest moment took place in December 2015, when she took on the ardent classicist Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, in a “Greece v Rome” debate – with the future prime minister arguing for Greece and Beard stating the case for Rome.

Beard’s witty but ruthless dismantling of Johnson’s arguments – exposing his apparently impressive grasp of the ancient world as shallow and facile – resulted in a knock-out win for the Cambridge don, as voted for by the audience. The face-off has acquired an important political significance over the years, particularly post-Brexit – a rare moment when deep subject expertise and thoughtful arguments would prevail over soundbites and bluster, or when truth and reason triumphed over half-truths and distortions.

For her part, Beard puts her thumping victory down to sound preparation; she used YouTube to find Johnson’s talks on Classics, where the same predictable lines were often recycled. “When I look back on it, I feel slightly embarrassed that I was so determined to win – it wasn’t about playing a game,” she says.  

“I thought, ‘I can’t be as funny as him – I’m not in his league for jokes’, but I presumed he wouldn't have done any work.” With Johnson’s speech so thoroughly anticipated, Beard was ready to pounce on the errors or false claims he would make. “In the debate, he came up with the same errors, which enabled me to go for them,” she recalls.

“I didn’t realise at the time quite how far it was a microcosm of his political approach in general. It’s not that he’s a liar,” she continues, “he just doesn't really understand the truth in the way that you and I probably do.” However, while Beard is no fan of Johnson as a politician, she respects him. “I think he has many qualities – he is funny, a great public speaker. He was just a terrible prime minister. That event showed his talents at winning over an audience, but, happily, the crowd that evening was much more concerned with the truth and the facts than just with being funny.”

While her expertise and charisma will no doubt be greatly missed at Cambridge, Beard is happy to be slashing her working hours and making space for younger academics. “When the more junior levels of the academic profession are being so squeezed, going from one temporary job to another, it’s important for us oldies to move over,” she says. But she will remain around for some time yet. “I’m hoping that we’re going to do some more Roman television programmes,” she says.

She hopes that those programmes will further shore up support for Classics, which is doing well in the UK even if wider threats to the humanities remain.

“I feel guardedly optimistic,” says Beard. “Classicists always think that they’re about to expire, that the subject is on the way out. And in some ways it is, but that’s a provocation and makes people like me determined that it doesn’t fail.”

Accordingly, her recent work has included getting high-flyers from medicine, law, business and the media to speak about their love of Classics. “They spoke much more powerfully than I could speak about what Classics gives you – and the same would go for other humanities subjects. The idea that pure maths would get you somewhere quicker than Classics is barking,” she says on the current trend towards STEM subjects. 

Yet banging the drum for Classics will remain important long after Beard disappears from TV screens, she says. “Classics has such a depth of interest and utility – it’s a safe space to reflect on where we‘re at politically, as it was a very long time ago. But we should all have the right to study and speak about the ancient world.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: It’s important to engage and say ‘I don’t think you’re right, and this is the evidence’

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Reader's comments (3)

There is a seat in the House of Lords with Mary Beard's name on it.
Also blessed with a head of long grey hair and attendance at an all-girls school, possibly one of the most memorable classes I took at school was "Classical Literature in Translation" - attending the lessons was mandatory in lower sixth, although taking the associated O-level was not (I did and passed with no more effort than having paid attention in class!) - even though I was a scientist through and through, and went off to read botany at university before a dramatic change that's ended up with me teaching Computer Science... but I still enjoy the classics, and have taught myself Latin (from textbooks thrown out by a school that had dropped Latin from the curriculum, I literally retrieved them from a skip) and picked up Greek (a mix of a class in New Testament Greek run by a university chaplain who was a classicist and learning the modern language over several holidays) along the way. The Classics enrich all of us whatever it is we want to do for a living!
I understand Boris Johnson read classics (and Michael Gove English Literature). Humanities might not be cut across the board, only made less accessible for many.

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