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Mary Beard is a wickedly subversive commentator on both the modern and the ancient world. She is a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS.
When AA Gill died a few days ago, I felt genuinely sad. He had been absolutely horrible to me in print, but I still felt sad. That wasn’t because he was a great writer. He sometimes was that, and he sometimes he wasn’t. But anyway, I am not sure that great writing is a get out of jail free card. To use a quite different analogy, we wouldn’t let a racist off the hook because he had a clever way with words.
I felt reasonably OK about him because his attacks on me were in a way genuine criticism, in an old tradition of invective, and they were signed – there was a head above the parapet. They were also in my view wrong and nastily sexist (I hadn’t recalled that he compared me to an aborted egg, but maybe he did). And in truth Gill got told he was a nasty sexist by very many people, and his wiki entry was ransacked. It was, and I suspect he would have agreed, all fair game: give as good as you get is one of the oldest answers to invective, and probably what the deliverer of invective would expect.
I didn’t end up holding any particular personal animus against Gill. I was really cross and a bit hurt at the time, and rather shocked that someone would think (as presumably he did) that that kind of talk would find a ready audience. But in the end I suspect he had a harder time than I did out of his attack and I would have liked to shake hands and discussed what he said. A nd for me – who knows full well what the nastiness of anonymous Twitter attacks can be (where you have no one to hold to account) – there was someone to fight back against (which I did).
But it does raise the question of what standards we expect in public disagreement.
His commentary on television could be brutal, sometimes insensibly so. Rather than scrutinising Mary Beard’s intellectual content in Meet the Romans, he was far more interested in keeping her “away from the cameras altogether”. It was not so much her immaculate classics pedigree as the fact that she was “this far away from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary.” She resembled an “aborted egg,” no less. Commentary about what is on the idiot box can often veer into the terrain of idiocy itself.
Beard’s counter to Gill (he was “afraid of intelligent women”) provided a logical corrective, though it was, in many ways, beside the point. Hatchet jobs are not necessarily delivered with cerebral, archive governed precision, cutting through with a venal spread. Perhaps, suggested Beard, an absence of university education on Gill’s part might have explained why “he never quite learned the rigour of intellectual argument and he thinks he can pass off insults as wit.”
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