Born in Shropshire, classicist Mary Beard received her PhD from Cambridge University in 1982. She joined Newnham College as a fellow soon after, then the classics faculty’s only female lecturer. She has published 18 books, including The Parthenon (2002), The Roman Triumph (2007) and Women and Power (2017), and since 1992 has been classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. She recently presented Civilisations on BBC2; a companion programme, Civilisations on Your Doorstep, airs on 4 May. Mary Beard is also currently presenting Front Row Late on BBC2 at 11.05pm on Friday nights until 11 May.
I’m old enough to remember and, I confess, to slightly miss the era of “long lunches”. But when I get a chance to choose a place for a “semi-long” lunch, it would always be Moro, which does the best, most comforting Spanish/north African food I know. I am a slightly picky carnivore, but this restaurant can wood-roast anything to perfection (with some great Spanish wines to match). We nostalgic types also take a wry pleasure sitting in the window and looking out at the now rather gentrified and foodie scene, and remembering what it was like all those years ago when Exmouth Market was a “real street”.
Not far from where I live is Kettle’s Yard, the University of Cambridge’s wonderfully personal collection of modern art. Its nucleus was formed by the collector Jim Ede, and it’s still displayed in his house, where 50 years ago he’d entertain students keen to learn about contemporary art (not high on Cambridge’s academic syllabus at the time). It’s always been a great place for a lazy Sunday afternoon visit, and we’ve missed it over the last two years while it’s been closed for renovations. It’s just reopened with a new education wing, and new space, adjacent to Ede’s house, for temporary exhibitions – launching now with a great two-part show, featuring Cornelia Parker, Edmund de Waal, Caroline Walker and more. Worth the wait.
This is one of those brilliant radio ideas that is set for as long a life expectancy as Desert Island Discs. Getting people back together years after they’d been involved in a major event, trauma, celebration or argument, and having them reminisce with a few prompts from Sue MacGregor, works almost every time. You can never tell whether they’re still going to be fighting the old battles, or will have mellowed into friendship, whatever they once felt. Greenham Common was a particularly good one (with tinges of warmth between old enemies) – and a whole new series is under way which will have me hooked.
Manchester hasn’t been much on my radar until recently (coming from Shropshire, I always gravitated to Birmingham, before moving much further east). But over the last few weeks, I’ve been making an additional episode for the BBC Civilisations series, Civilisations on Your Doorstep, about the art you can see in the UK. We’ve seen some amazing things in regional museums, but if there’s been one standout city for sheer civic grandeur, it’s Manchester. The great Victorian town hall (currently being given a major makeover) has a sense of intelligent self-confidence to match most of what you’d find in Florence or Venice (including a clever series of paintings by Ford Madox Brown – celebrating, and partly inventing, the city’s history from the Romans to the Bridgewater Canal).
I’m a complete sucker for exhibition catalogues, whether as a memory of those exhibitions I have seen, or as a substitute for those I haven’t. We have shelves of them at home, carefully if slightly nerdishly arranged in chronological order. But I usually have one in residence on my desk for a while, to offer a bit of pleasure between paragraphs of writing. The current occupant is the catalogue of Damien Hirst’s show in Venice last year, which I didn’t see – but even in book form it’s not just beautiful, it’s also a brilliantly clever riff on the whole idea of art objects dragged up from the sea bed (like so many of the most spectacular recent classical finds actually have been!).
It’s probably no surprise that I don’t get to as many gigs as I once did. But a couple of years back, I did go to David Gilmour’s concert in the amphitheatre of Pompeii. It was close to heaven for a classicist who grew up as a Pink Floyd fan: to listen to Comfortably Numb on the seats where the posh people of Pompeii (yes, I was near the front) used to watch the gladiators and wild beasts was a combination of slightly unsettling and unbelievably thrilling. Happily, there’s a DVD for those who weren’t there – or for me, when I feel like recapturing the experience.