Saturday 25 December 2010

Year Zero

Early this morning I have been revisiting a guide to relationships whose moral compass seems to place it around 1975 - after the sexual revolution but before the "New Morality". Among a mixture of commonsense and mildly reprehensible advice for men and women I read...

• Ensure scrupulous personal hygiene (daily bathing, clipped nails, etc) but (men) stop short of bouffant hair or visible cosmetics.

• Keep your clothing simple, well-cut, and in good taste - stripes okay but avoid spots.

• Brush your teeth regularly.

• Use alcohol as an effective remover of inhibitions but drink moderately if you have love in mind and beware potential disappointment when you see your conquest in the cold light of day.

(for men) Be nice to your girl-friends' husbands (!)

• Sending a short text stating your interest politely but unambiguously is a good opening gambit.

• Be on time for assignations.

• Don't use the same meeting place for different boy/girl friends

(for women) Always apply make-up in private but doing your hair sensuously in your boy-friend's presence may work for you...

"Enough!" I hear you say, "It's Christmas and you should be contemplating the birth of Our Saviour 2010 years ago!"

Well, I am (sort of) because in fact this guide was the publishing sensation of the year in which Jesus was born (1 BC - there wasn't a "Year Zero" but don't ask me to explain why), namely Ovid's Ars Amatoria. This is actually much better than my free translation above might suggest being beautifully written in elegiac verse and largely tongue-in-cheek unlike the leaden and unselfcritical guides on this kind of thing which are published today. And, contrary to popular belief and the disappointment of many schoolboys reaching eagerly for the Loeb translation, it's not pornographic or smutty (try Catullus for that) though it is certainly candid when the advice moves beyond the chat-up stage.

Of course I've been selective. There are bits which have little application today including a long discourse on the dual challenge of pursuing both a lady and her slave-girl (in case any gentleman reader thinks he might encounter this situation the poet's advice is to go after the mistress first and pick up the maid later - and don't expect to get away with it for very long).

Some might argue that Christ was born not least to clean up the easy morality of Ovid and his friends. But there was no need to wait for that kind of Christianity because poor old Ovid fell victim to the Mary Whitehouse of those times - that equally puritanical scourge the Emperor Augustus who was very hot on sexual morality and so exiled the poet to a distant gulag for the rest of his days where he hankered for the Roman party scene and wrote a lot of glum stuff accurately called the Tristia.

I was led back to Ovid by a passing reference to him in cerebral stand-up comedienne, Footlights veteran, and classicist Natalie Haynes' The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, a welcome present from Mrs B which I recommend.

In case you were wondering the "text" referred to above was best written, says Ovid, on an apple (he must mean the fruit, not the trendy PC beloved of public relations spivs).