Friday 12 October 2012, 13:59
Of the first half dozen people I met in the House of Lords this afternoon, three of them said "there weren't enough elephants". I don't know whether they were referring to the lack of forces in Hannibal's army or the lack of reference to elephants. It is very strange, isn't it? That Hannibal, regarded by so many generals over the last 2,200 years as one of the - if not THE - greatest of them all, should be remembered not for his 22 battles on the Italian mainland (not one of which he lost), nor for his subduing of Spain and the Gallic tribes and restoration of the glories of Carthage, nor for attempting to take a huge army across the Alps, but for the elephants. I suppose their effect in northern Italy was shock and awe. They have certainly been a limpet to his reputation ever since.
After the programme I said that I wished we'd had time to talk about his character. But then somebody pointed out that Polybius of Megalopolis, the Greek historian, wrote "you can't know anything about his character because he was riven to do things against his character". He used to put on disguises and wander round his own camp to find out what the mood of the army was about him and about the enemy. When he returned to the Carthaginian Senate for a while, he behaved so roughly, i.e. like the soldier he was, living with armies from the age of nine, that the aristocrats of that ancient city were most disturbed. He was also very stingy, or thrifty as might be better put, which was extremely helpful for the replenishment of Carthaginian coffers, but not quite the thing when you were an aristocrat and a leader and a famous figure in the known world.
After the programme I came back to the office and talked to two ladies from Canterbury Cathedral about a conference that they are going to have next year. Nowadays you don't just turn up to give a speech, you are interviewed about it beforehand, you are filmed saying what you are going to do months before you've given the speech, and so the trick is to try to think of what you're going to say in the speech. This publicity has now become a 360 degree industry.
Off then, out into a wet Soho with glistening pavements and a little forest of umbrellas, and all the usual pavement jostling and murmurs of purpose that you get in that forever odd and vivid little square mile. I went through Chinatown and made a note of a building that I've passed many times. It is the Exchange and Bullion Office, 1798, no bigger than a small Georgian townhouse, and there it still stands, above the Nippon and Korea Centre, and also above a Chinese medicine shop.
This evening I'm off to the British Library to listen to Hunter Davies talk about John Lennon and his letters, and see some home movies, and then watch the tribute band which will bring the past into the British Library, where McCartney's lyrics are celebrated in a scholarly fashion. Who would have bet on that in the 1960s?
PS In 1978, when I began the South Bank Show, I ill-advisedly wrote a manifesto saying that I wanted to analyse and celebrate the arts across the whole waterfront, from pop music to Wagner, from television drama to classical painting. To show I was serious I began with Paul McCartney, although the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company were in the wings ready to be transmitted. A certain section of the press dumped on this, expressing the view that the Beatles could never be art, and that I was completely mistaken in this doomed venture. About 33 years later I ended the series with a programme on Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. Nothing but acclaim, rightly.
Last night at the British Library, Hunter Davies's book on John Lennon's letters was given pride of auditorium. There's an exhibition of John's letters in the library. There is close textual attention, and the Quarrymen played for us all. A week before I'd introduced Carol Ann Duffy at that same library, in the same venue, with the same measure of attendance and enthusiasm. As the poet said, "The times they are a'changin."
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