I got to page 236 of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings,
recently purchased on a whim from a charity shop. Like more than one Amazon reviewer who gave up the unequal struggle, I rarely give up on a book. But Norman's effort had me beaten.
It was very clever how he had thought himself into the culture and weird sexual goings on of that time, and if you are really keen on the strange and eerie world of Ancient Egyptian mythology, the first 150 or so pages will tell you all you need to know. But you can have too many weird sexual goings on after a while, especially when nothing else much happens. I have the same problem with Virginia Woolf – the plot, not the weird sexual goings on, although I dare say she knew more than I do about such matters.
But what intrigued me was whether Mailer had his inspiration from a strange poem that for some reason, even after 60-odd years, I remember perfectly. It's Birthright
by John Drinkwater, here quoted in full in case you have never come across it:
Lord Rameses of Egypt sighed
Because a summer evening passed;
And little Ariadne cried
That summer fancy fell at last
To dust; and young Verona died
When beauty's hour was overcast.
Theirs was the bitterness we know
Because the clouds of hawthorn keep
So short a state, and kisses go
To tombs unfathomably deep,
While Rameses and Romeo
And little Ariadne sleep.
I first came across this poem in a book that might seem an odd anthology for it, as it was intended for children: A Puffin Book of Verse
, compiled by one Eleanor Graham. (If it's still in print I strongly recommend it for lovers of poetry of any age). I was given the book at the age of nine, and although I had no real idea what many of the poems were about, the beauty of the language struck me even then. It was where I first came across the dark world of the Scottish ballads, with their tales of True Thomas, the murdered Earl of Moray and Sir Patrick Spens.
But the Birthright
poem held a strange fascination as I could never fathom out what it was really saying. Given his period, had Drinkwater recently read about the explorations into the Valley of the Kings in Egypt? And who were little Ariadne and Verona in this context? Is there a theme of tombs? Romeo died in one, Egyptian tomb burials were being excavated, and a classical scholar would have known about the Labyrinth that Ariadne helped Theseus to navigate and kill the Minotaur (although in Greek legend she was an adult when abandoned by Theseus and took up with Dionysus, so not 'little Ariadne'). I have never found the answer, yet I still find the poem magical. Maybe that's why it's poetry?
Games people play
It appears there is yet another stushie for unfortunate transexual women as the International Chess Federation, known as FIDE, has decided to stop allowing transgender women from participating in women's competitions until 'further analysis' can be made – which could take up to two years.
My equalities colleagues in the SNP are understandably angry about this – especially the idea that 'women are not clever enough to play chess'. Some then take the argument forward to loudly proclaim there are no differences between men's and women's brains. Well, much as I want to support minority groups who are being victimised, I have to admit that I am absolutely convinced there are differences, although they aren't set in stone.
Interestingly, I remember a few years ago a young male chess champion being interviewed for TV and being asked why there were so few girls playing chess. His response: 'Because most girls are far too sensible to waste time playing board games!' It would be nice if more commentators on gender issues were as relaxed and charming as he was.
From my non-professional observations, there certainly are differences in male and female brains, but they are less important than the similarities. From a standard distribution curve of personality factors, males are probably slightly skewed one way and females the other. In one of the major personality instruments, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the only factor which indicates a male/female difference is that involving decision making. Males tend to prefer to make decisions based on logic and reasoning, while females tend to prefer to make decisions based on empathy and emotion.
But – the operative words are 'tend to'. And there is no doubt that our cultural norms have for many years tended to reinforce these differences. It's a shame that we still tend to polarise differences – making a situation 'either/or' instead of 'both/and'.
And no, I have never played chess, but have always been intrigued by the idea of it. I suspect I would be just as useless at it as I am at sudoku, because both involve logic, which is my weakest point. This is a bit of a problem if you embark on a PhD study, as success depends on the ability to present ideas in a logical manner. However, as someone with quite a bit of imagination, my strategy was to pretend I was a logical person – how would a logical person approach this problem? I got this advice from John Buchan as usual, where in The Thirty-Nine Steps
Richard Hannay has to pretend to be a rough and ready road mender, and remembers the advice of his old chum Peter Pienaar, to think yourself into this person's life and imagine what it would be like to walk in his shoes. In other words, fake it till you make it.
Procrastination – the thief of time?
I have mentioned a few times my long standing aggravation from the HMRC who haven't got my tax right since 2011, when I rashly declared the £750 in cash received from a Kazakh student for editing their thesis – honesty isn't always the best policy! Since then, I have had to employ an accountant just to communicate with the HMRC staff, some of whom would benefit from a very long course in customer care. Now they have emailed to say: 'Your new tax calculation is ready'. So far, I have left it a week to click on the link as I know it will probably be wrong again. Now would a man be more courageous?
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant