Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro
Senior Lecturer in Greek
The University of Edinburgh
I’m Lilah Grace Canevaro, one of the founders of the Network. I come from South Shields, an ex-mining and ex-shipbuilding town in the North East of England. The 12th most deprived area in terms of income. The 6th most deprived in terms of employment. The 13th in terms of children living in deprived households. So say the ‘indices of multiple deprivation’ for South Tyneside, where I grew up. And within South Tyneside the most deprived postcode is my own. But my town is a glass-half-full-if-you-squint-a-bit sort of a place. Resourceful, resilient, bloody-minded: we have an uncanny ability to make something out of nothing.
My interest in Classics started in my town, which boasts its very own Roman fort. It had been one of the northernmost outposts of the Roman Empire. Goodness knows what the poor benighted Romans had made of the town. The wind whistling round the hill and their knees on a nippy winter’s night – I reckon they spent a lot of time calling the emperor worse than a pickpocket. I spent a lot of time at the Fort as a kid, climbing over the ruins, trying to figure out which way the walls had been set out and where the toilets had flushed. There have been frequent attempts to uncover more of the town’s Roman heritage. They cordoned off Morrisons car park so that Time Team could dig it up – it was futile, but at least we were on the tele.
But what really drew me to Classics wasn’t the archaeology, or even the history. It was the stories. Classics is a subject built on stories. Stories of people, of places, of gods, of monsters, of battles, of adventures. Stories of other worlds and underworlds and before worlds and The World itself. Stories at once far-flung and familiar. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod might tell us about one god castrating his father god with a sickle and about hundred-handed monsters, but he also tells us to ‘wear a warm hat on your head in winter so that your ears don’t get wet’. I reckon Hesiod and my Nana would have got on like a house on fire.
I was lucky enough to go to a private school in Newcastle, where I studied both Latin and Greek. Coming from a family so far below the breadline it was crumbs, this was only made possible thanks to a scholarship and the Assisted Places Scheme. This scheme was abolished by Tony Blair’s Labour government, because it wasn’t perfect and the money was earmarked elsewhere. But nothing better or as good followed it, and the route I took to Classics is well and truly closed. I studied Classics as a first-generation working-class student at Durham University. An elite Russell Group institution that never let me forget how poorly I fit in. I stayed close to home and worked as a barmaid in South Shields to fund my studies, supplemented by maintenance grants and a bursary because of my postcode. Then followed a Masters in Ancient Epic, a PhD on Hesiod, a Post-doc in Heidelberg and another in Edinburgh – and I am now Lecturer in Greek at the University of Edinburgh. I have come a very, very long way. Despite feeling the weight of the ‘class ceiling’ every day, I know that Classics is for me. I am now committed to creating an institutional ethos that doesn’t have ‘middle class’ as its default.
Prof. Mirko Canevaro
Professor of Greek History
The University of Edinburgh
I’m Mirko Canevaro, the other founder of the Network. I’m Italian, and moved to the UK at 24, to start a PhD in Classics at Durham. So, my story combines a working-class background with the experience of academic migration. I hail from Alessandria (wrong Alexander – ours was a pope), a medium-sized (post-)industrial town in north-west Italy. Once a proud socialist stronghold, my hometown has gone the way many old industrial towns have, in Italy, the UK and beyond: with shrinking opportunities, lower salaries, and less and less stable work has also come a steady shift to the right, a fair amount of xenophobia, and the slow death of social and political ties steeped in the socialist and communist tradition. This town trajectory – from factory work and other traditionally working-class occupations to growing instability and political displacement – is matched, by and large, by that of my own family.
In Italy, Classical antiquity is everywhere, and it played a prominent role already in my early schooling. But one thing is the generic appeal of the Classical past, quite another is making the Classics your own. The route to that, in Italy, is one, and one only: the Liceo Classico – a state secondary school which offers five years of high-level Greek and Latin for free to all interested. That’s the theory, at least. The reality is that Liceo Classico is very much the remit of the professional middle classes: a tool of social reproduction for local elites as much as – in fact, more than – a democratising experiment. I was the first in my family to attend a Liceo (my dad had left school at 13), so my crash course in Classics came together with social displacement, confusion, and aspirations of social mobility. At the end of the day, it was somehow the ancient languages, the texts, the history that made me feel like I belonged despite everything – they still do.
Those very languages, texts and stories kept their hold on me beyond high school. I did Classics in Turin (BA and MA) in the 2000s, thanks to means-tested scholarships for lower-income students. I received a thorough philological education, and an even more thorough political one. Turin was still, at the time, a very left-wing city, with student politics enmeshed with legacy anti-fascist, socialist and post-communist organisations and labour unions. I threw myself into all that. A first-generation student, and an uncouth provincial in the big city, I had little in common with many of my university contemporaries. Yet activism, campaigning, and political organising gave political shape to my uncomfortable and inchoate class identity – they gave me the tools to counter my impostor syndrome, and convinced me that I deserved all that, and more.
Still, by the end of my MA my perception was that without relations, connections, family money to rely on for long periods of unpaid academic labour, my chances of an academic career would be non-existent. So I applied for a PhD abroad and ended up (courtesy, again, of a scholarship) in what was – unbeknownst to me – one of the most elitist institutions in the UK: Durham. I soon realised that being Italian, there, was much easier than being working-class. Sporting an Italian accent much more comfortable than betraying a local one. Edinburgh – where I’ve ended up, after postdocs in Athens and in Mannheim (Germany) – is not much different.
At various points throughout my journey as a Classicist I have felt that, to fit in, I’ve had to pretend to be something that I’m not – that there is a middle-class default to which I should try to conform. Well, it shouldn’t be like that. There can be such a thing as a working-class classicist. There are a few of us around, in fact. Time to organise ourselves, and change things.
Dr Henry Stead
Lecturer in Latin
University of St Andrews
I’m Henry Stead. I have spent the last decade or so researching the history of working-class classics in Britain. With Edith Hall I co-wrote A People’s History of Classics (2020). I continue to work on working-class and class-conscious classics, especially in Scotland, but I have since turned to an exploration of the reception of classical culture by the international Left of the 20th century (Brave New Classics).
I grew up in rural Devon and although I’m from a middle-class medical family, I was conscious of social class growing up partly because my parents seemed to differ in class terms: my mum was a nurse and my dad a doctor (both middle-class professions but socially and economically distinct). My mother’s parents were primary school teachers in Yorkshire. My paternal grandfather, on the other hand, was comparatively posh, sending his sons to public school. I later learned he was a self-made man. Born to a working-class single mother in Cheshire, he joined the Navy at 16, trained as an engineer and then worked his way up in the chemicals industry after WW2. He concealed his native class and never looked back.
I felt it was important as a signed-up member of a Network for Working-Class Classicists to make it clear that I am not one. I am a committed fellow-traveller, here because I believe in the cause and because of my defiant utopianism. On my journey to being a Lecturer in Latin I have witnessed and experienced the corrosive classism and class inequality that plagues our discipline. Working-class classicists unite!
Prof. Douglas Cairns
Professor of Classics
The University of Edinburgh
I was born in 1961 and was fortunate enough to enjoy an incredibly privileged upbringing in the East End of Glasgow. We lived in Sandyhills, a large, leafy council estate, built by the City of Glasgow Corporation in the 1930s, in which every flat had its own garden. My Dad was the local agent for the Co-operative Insurance Society and, through his weekly visits to his clients, knew just about everyone in the area. He was on the board of Sandyhills Bowling Club and of the Shettleston Co-operative Society, convenor of the board of Shettleston FC (Scottish Junior Cup finalists, 1959 – I still have the souvenir mug), and a prominent member of the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. My Mum had a job she loved with the mobile unit of the Blood Transfusion Service, which took her all over central and southwest Scotland. Pictures of Shettleston Road, the main local thoroughfare, from the 1960s show handsome red sandstone tenements, shops with awnings, trams and trolley-buses, and pavements bustling with men in suits and hats, the women in hats, smart coats, and gloves. Though things got tougher for us, financially, when my Dad died in 1970, I was still able to learn Latin for five years and Greek for four at the local school, Eastbank Academy (a former ‘senior secondary’ which had become comprehensive in 1973) and to go, with a full maintenance grant and no fees, to Glasgow University in 1979.
From my childhood, I remember a tightly interconnected, vibrant, and confident working-class community. Places like Beardmore’s Parkhead Forge and the United Glass bottleworks provided secure, well-paid employment. These are the kind of stable, deep-rooted backgrounds that all of us who move from working-class origins to middle-class professions inevitably have to leave behind. But in my case, the community I left, the community I grew up in, is no longer even there. After creating perfectly planned working-class estates such as Sandyhills, Riddrie, and Knightswood in the 1930s, from the 1960s onwards Glasgow Corporation set about destroying working-class areas such as Shettleston, Anderston (where my father’s parents first met), and Springburn (where my mother had lived, in a room and kitchen flat, with her parents and six sisters). The arrival of the Thatcher government in 1979 put paid to all the large local industries. First Shettleston, then its geographically larger successor, Glasgow East, held the title of the UK’s poorest parliamentary constituency. Heroin became a major problem from the 1980s onwards, and life-expectancy remains among the lowest in Scotland. The council flat I grew up in is now owned and let by a private landlord. Eastbank Academy held out to be one of the last state schools in Glasgow to offer Latin, but no longer does. Going to university now means incurring huge levels of debt. The entirely state-funded education I received is now at the service of a School of History, Classics, and Archaeology which admits privately educated students at a level, relative to the Scottish population, that is more than ten times higher than chance would predict.
The privileges I enjoyed were in fact rights. People from my background no longer have them. That’s why those of us who have ‘got on’ need to do something to help those who have to live with the vastly increased levels of socioeconomic inequality that prevail today.
Dr Eris Williams-Reed
Faculty Research Impact Officer
Honorary Research Fellow
University of Warwick
I’m Eris Williams Reed. I grew up in Hull when it was famous for being the UK’s ‘Crappest Town’ due to high unemployment and low educational attainment. The Hull I remember as a child was certainly ‘grim’ at times, but my childhood was also spent in the city’s many free museums, libraries, and youth theatres – something that ‘austerity’ has since gutted. When I look back on my route through higher education, I’m angered by the knowledge that the spiralling cost of living, the suppression of wages, and the extortionate rise in tuition fees would make it nearly impossible to repeat this today.
My parents were young when I was born and they both later studied at university as first-generation students whilst raising me, also for a large part as single parents. The value of education and creativity were constant throughout my childhood; economic stability less so. Did I consider myself to be working-class, both as a child and after leaving home? Yes, although more in some respects than others. But, more importantly, I feel that I can no longer disentangle this question from over a decade in which my background and life experiences are framed as disadvantageous to pursuing my interests in the ancient world. Put another way, studying classics at the highest level and working in academia has often asked me to regard my circumstances as something to overcome and address as individual.
By traditional standards, I came to classics relatively late: my (state-)school taught no classical subjects, as Hull was (and still is) located in an area of ‘classics poverty’. Instead, my first encounter with the ancient world came at 17 when researching ancient Greek theatre for a performance of Trojan Women as part of my vocational BTEC in Performing Arts. I continued to pursue performing arts for several years (supported by grants that have since been abolished); but that experience of researching the ancient world led to me studying an Open University course Exploring the Classical World – back when modules didn’t cost the earth, and you even got a small grant for course materials – and then applying to university.
Despite my BTEC introducing me to ancient Greek theatre and research skills, very few classics departments recognised it as a valid qualification. Fortunately, I was accepted to study Archaeology at Durham in 2009, which I then funded through maintenance grants (that no longer exist), bursaries (that are increasingly attached to reducing already inflated student accommodation fees), and part-time work (including a job at the same Roman fort where Lilah Grace spent her childhood, although I lost it during the public sector cuts in 2013). I went on to study for an MA in the Classics Department that, due to absence of grants or loans, I self-funded by working across multiple casual job contracts. This was only possible because postgraduate tuition fees were less than half of what they are now; but it still meant I often did my Latin homework in between pulling pints for my peers.
This was followed by a scholarship to study for a PhD, without which my path through higher education would have abruptly ended. Unfortunately, ill health delayed my progress, and I couldn’t take medical leave because doing so would halt my scholarship payments. It took me five years to finish my doctorate, the last two of which were spent working part-time across multiple ad-hoc jobs. As far as my academic CV is concerned, I then had a ‘fallow year’ with minimal research activity, when my time was actually spent earning money across several casual and temporary jobs inside, outside, and adjacent to academia. I went on to spend a much-loved two years at the University of Warwick as a Teaching Fellow, before pivoting into an academic-adjacent role for a range of reasons – including the need for more long-term stability. My personal experience of classics is far from unique, but these experiences are increasingly framed as individual deficiencies, rather than structural inequalities. I support the Network because the barriers to getting in and getting on in classics need to be dismantled at an institutional and national level.
Dr Marco Perale
Lecturer in Classics
University of Liverpool
I am Marco Perale. I grew up in a small town in the north-east of Italy playing rock music and watching football. My youth was spent in blissful unawareness of class divide — something much less pervasive, toxic, and indeed visible in Italy than in the UK. My mother stayed at home with me most of her life, while my father was a manual worker in the petrochemical sector, at close contact with deadly asbestos. Neither of them went to University; my mum actually dropped out of school at 13. At that very age, I was instead fortunate enough to attend Liceo Classico, where I was taught both Greek and Latin at a level that would be unimaginable today in any western country. I just wasn’t aware of the kind of privilege I was being granted, at virtually no cost to my family. But was that a ‘privilege’, really? To put things in perspective, I paid less than a tenth in tuition fees than current UK undergrads, also benefitting from a state-sponsored reduction in fees for families under a certain income level (and trust me, the threshold was so high that most lower-middle-class families would have qualified for the scheme. We all know that excellent education does not have to come with an extortionate price tag. In fact, it should not come with any price tag, and those who tell you otherwise are knowingly lying). Greek and Latin, with their subtle language and labyrinthine syntax, were just too fascinating to be dismissed as just a soon-to-be-forgotten requirement of bourgeois education. So I just stopped studying physics, a discipline that seemed to me to defy logic, and skipped math classes in the morning to revise for Greek. At the end of my final year, I just couldn’t let all that go and went to the University of Venice to do a Classics BA and a Masters degree, working part time as a bin worker and as an assistant pizzaiolo (ah, the stereotypes!).
The first time I really felt the innate snobbery of Classics practitioners was at Oxford, where I was a visiting PhD student in the second year of my Italian doctorate (I got in entirely by chance). The feeling of inadequacy was partly softened by the awareness of being an outsider in a world that I could never really belong to. The sense of alienation I felt in that city has never really left me; it was still there when I worked there as a research fellow four years later and it was there recently when I was interviewed for a dream job which I obviously didn’t get. Perhaps I would have tried to belong, if someone had talked to me about the kind of opportunities the world of academia had to offer. It simply never dawned on me that I could apply for, and perhaps even get, a scholarship or participate in training or an exchange programme. There is also probably an element of Italian fatalism in all this; in Italy we’re not that obsessed with this crazy anglo-american notion of social mobility, according to which you only progress as an individual by moving upwards from one social class to another. You don’t really have to go anywhere; you’re fine just as you are. It may be hard, of course, but that’s why you have to claim back the rights that have been taken away from you. I so sorely lacked the support of a mentor at a younger age, and that’s why I decided to put myself forward as a mentor for the NWCC.
After nine years of precarious employment (seven in my current institution) and countless sleepless nights worrying to death about failure and the judgement of those who know better, I finally landed a permanent job in Classics. I am one of the lucky few, just not one of those few.