A Showman’s Odyssey

Milly Ayers

Opening my inbox in January, I was shocked to be greeted with an offer email from St John’s College in Oxford. This had seemed to me an improbable outcome. In truth, I had applied mostly on a whim, after some pushing from my sister. 

Coming from a travelling Showman[1] family (or, in other words, “from the fairground”), where my father – like a lot of Showman boys – had left school at the age of eleven, I was one of only a few in my family to stay in school beyond sixteen, to study for A Levels, and to get an offer from a university. And as for Oxford: only a handful of Showmen have attended this prestigious university in its entire history. Indeed, it seems that I am probably the first Showman to be offered a place there to study Classics.

Like most people, I think, from a working class, state-educated background, I had no clear and direct path into studying Classics. If you’ll forgive the cliche, I have always been interested in the ancient world – but in a different part of it. As a child, I had delighted in my grandmother’s accounts of her trip to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. There was a day out in a little spotted boat along the Thames, up to the O2 Centre to see the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb back in 2007. And, of course, one of my childhood favourites: Emily Sands’s infamous gold Egyptology book, which was simply too shiny to resist.

Anubis arrives in London (Nov. 2007 – Aug. 2008)

But Classics, and the Ancient Greeks and Romans as we tend to think of them, was not a subject I really came into contact with much until sixth-form at college. Sure, like most kids my age, I had read the Percy Jackson series and somehow knew a handful of the Greek myths, but this was the full extent of my engagement. In fact, I really fell into the subject by accident.

My mother is a great believer in fate, especially the idea that “what’s meant to happen will always find a way”. When I had completed my GCSEs (after not being in education for some years), I had gone to college to do my A Levels. I had already made up my mind about studying English Literature and History, but was stuck on my third choice. In the end, the Admissions Officer suggested Sociology, so, not knowing too well what it was, I agreed. That was a mistake. I didn’t really enjoy it, and I wasn’t too good at it either. But I suppose, as a blessing in disguise, I fell ill around Christmas time with a chest infection, which turned into pneumonia, which turned into weeks of missed college. When I had finally recovered, there was too much to catch up on, so it was suggested I drop out and start back again in the autumn.

I was happy to do this and it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Scrolling through the options, I almost scrolled past Classical Civilisation. But as I read the course description, I realised how perfect the subject sounded.

I had never studied Latin or Greek, and at first, the prospect of studying texts like Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid seemed daunting. But as I started to read them, I fell in love with these poems. In particular, I found great enjoyment in delving into the different interpretations of these ancient stories which meant so much to so many people. In my university application form, I wrote about how Plato called Homer “the one who taught Greece” and how much of an understatement this was. How could he have ever known just how much his words would in fact go on to shape the world over thousands of years?

Athena appears to Penelope as her sister Iphthime (É.A. Reveil, after J. Flaxman, 1833)

The classical reception of Homer in antiquity, then, is a great source of fascination to me. Visiting the British Museum in London for the first time, I was able to go to the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition in 2019 and see the Siren Vase (illustrated at the top of this article). This led me down a rabbit hole of research, looking into how depictions of sirens were made in Greek and Roman culture (and in doing so I was very much reminded of the Freudian concept of Das Unheimliche, or “The Uncanny“). I looked at how Euripides presented the sirens as ‘winged maidens’, which in turn led me to discover a little temple in Italy dedicated to their worship, alongside one dedicated to another fierce fighting maiden, the goddess Athena. This reminded me of something Professor Edith Hall had said to me when I had the chance to meet her in the winter of 2019, about how Athena shows the limitations of women in epic: in order to have these masculine qualities, female characters had to sacrifice something of their femininity. I hope to look into all this further at Oxford.

Another interest of mine arose through my participation with Zero Gravity, an online mentoring organisation which pairs hopeful state-school kids with mentors at top universities. I was paired with the lovely Elsie Linley, a current Classics PhD student at Cambridge. While these discussions helped me to prepare for admissions tests and interviews, with Elsie I was also able to further my research into other areas of Classics through simple conversation. We spent some time discussing the Second Sophistic period, and Elsie introduced me to the satirist Lucian. From there, I also looked into Quintus of Smyrna’s poem Posthomerica and became interested in how the writers of this time were able to adapt Homer to their own identities and times. There was, I thought, very much a sense on their part that the Homeric epics were incomplete. And while Quintus chose to continue the story, Lucian instead decided to dig out Homer on the Isle of the Blessed and have a nice chat with him. While we shall probably never know who Homer was, it is clear that author identity was of huge importance to these comparatively ‘modern’ ancient writers.

“Lucian was hereis cheekily carved into a column on the Isle of the Blessed (True Histories 1.14.28; ill. J. B. Clark, 1894); Quintus picks up where Homer left off (Posthomerica 1.1-22; 15th cent. manuscript, Vatican Library).

To be entirely honest, I don’t know why I love studying Classics as I do. I could say something generic, boring, and frankly untrue, such as how I like looking at the ancient world as a mirror to our own, but I think the opposite is probably more accurate. I like seeing the differences in the ancient world, in every area I can find. Take Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan War with Cassandra as his captive. The ancients were quick to condemn her for her actions; as a modern feminist, I am more sympathetic. I relish the challenge of confronting and understanding ancient interpretations.

To try to piece together the minds of those who lived in such distant times is like an impossible puzzle with millions of pieces scattered about and many millions more missing. But having the opportunity even to look at those puzzle pieces and to try and piece together something real and true nevertheless – that to me is what I love best of all about Classics, and what led me to decide to study it at university.


Millie Ayers is currently completing her A Levels in Surrey.

Notes

Notes
1 Travelling Showman is a term which refers to members of the fairground community. Being Showman is an identity you inherit at birth: just as there are Showmen who do not work at fairgrounds, there are fairground workers who are not Showmen. However, we are not just a culture, community and family; we are primarily businesspeople, and travel for work, moving with the fairgrounds around the country. Though I don’t stay away for months on end as my parents did, I instead stick to local fairs, fetes and paid events, which has made studying a lot easier and more accessible for me.