My favourite classical place

I first went to Rome in my teens, and that wasn’t deliberate: it was one of the venues visited when I won three weeks in mainland Europe as part of a competition run by Barclays Bank. But I didn’t go to Athens until my forties. It wasn’t fifth-century Athens, so why would I want to go there? It was funny when people found out what I did, as many would comment ‘I suppose you spend your summers in Greece, then’. No. I’ve always worked on texts, and only recently came to objects. The texts I need are now in my library or online. Before computers, they were in libraries. So my favourite classical place, measured in hours spent there over my career, would have to be the Institute of Classical Studies in London. Now in the rather hideous Senate House – a location which tends to play the role of ‘HQ of the Evil Fascist Leader’ in movies – it used to occupy the top floors of a building on the corner of Gordon Square.

As an undergraduate and then postgraduate student at UCL, I was a member of the UCL library and the Senate House library as well as – eventually – the Wellcome Library, the Warburg Library, the SOAS Library, and the British Library, but I naturally gravitated towards the ICS. I am mildly library-phobic because the presence of all those people intensely focusing on their books and clearly knowing exactly what they are doing tends to send me into a burst of impostor-syndrome. But I never had that problem in the old ICS. I came to know where every book was, almost by feel. Power cuts held no terrors for me there. I would install myself at a desk, collect the essentials (or leave them in position overnight with a note), and then walk one way to the section with the journals or the other way to check references in the Loeb Classical Library section, which was kept at one end of the librarians’ office. I’d immerse myself in words, knowing that most of the further words to which they would send me could also be found in the library.

I learned things in that library, and not just the obvious things. I remember Mary Beard – whose time at KCL overlapped with my life in the library – rapidly reading a book she was due to review by the following day. It was an important lesson in prioritizing, and in how much you can get done if you just focus and get on with it. Working hard has its place, but so does working smart.

At coffee time, I’d go up one floor to the common room, with its balcony overlooking Gordon Square. My first ever academic paper, published as ‘Bound to bleed’, was delivered in that common room because the organizers of the series on Women in Antiquity had underestimated the enthusiasm of their potential audience, and needed more space. On the balcony, I once sat for most of a summer afternoon after spilling tea over my dress and needing to dry out. People came and went – fellow students and Famous Scholars – and we chatted until I was able to leave the sanctuary of the ICS and head out into the world again. It was on that balcony that I once sat with Keith Hopkins after he had left the manuscript of his book on a bus.

The ICS also subsidized my study. The administrators, Alicia Totolos and Margaret Packer, quickly identified me as a Reliable Person, so when the regular Meetings List was about to be circulated, they would call me in and pay me to do the collating and stapling. I would run round a large table until I was mildly giddy, collecting the pages in the right order and then forcing the staples through the edges. On one occasion an important member of Council came in and saw me in action. ‘Don’t you have a machine for that?’ he asked in amazement. Alicia and Margaret simply pointed to me. As a Reliable Person I was also invited to parties at the ICS, which were always excellent.

The sheer simplicity of working all day in the fifth floor library, going up to the sixth floor for tea, and then going to the post-tea seminar, encouraged me to take the time to listen to people talking about their research in unconnected areas, broadening my knowledge of Stuff as well as helping to think about how to study that Stuff. The sense of being part of a PG community was also very important, particularly in those days when there were no sessions on Research Methods or How to Write a Thesis to attend.

And that, in short, is why the old ICS was my very favourite classical place.


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