It is common knowledge that obituaries are written in advance, in case the worthy in question pops his or her clogs unexpectedly. Apropos of nothing, Think of England’s Chief Correspondent Neil Hacksworth emails me this obit he has been preparing - with an eye on the Telegraph though he'd settle for the Observer, worst case scenario - for the well-known academic Marian Beer.
The life of...Marian Beer
Marian Beer, who died this week aged 90, was Professor of Classical Greek Studies at Cambridge University and one of Britain’s best known academics. Noted for her outspoken, ‘wickedly subversive’ views on everything from Spartan culture to mass murder, she invariably delivered her unorthodox opinions with a roguish smile and a twinkle in the eye.
Esmeralda Marian Beer, an only child, was born in Shrewsbury on 2 January 1956. Her parents, both teachers, encouraged her academically but Beer’s early ambitions were thespian in nature. She often took the ‘male’ lead in productions at her all-female school and even penned her own plays, which she later described as “wild romances, lots of singing, very bloody.” It was while playing the title role in Aeschylus' Agamemnon that Beer discovered the interest in Ancient Greek culture that was to determine the course of her life.
She read Classics at Newnham College, receiving an MA, and remained at Cambridge for her PHD. While an undergraduate, Beer retained an extra-curricular interest in drama; writing and producing several experimental plays including Groper Train, Hooray for The Cornet Player! and Cnut’s End. Some of these productions attracted wider attention in the theatre world, with one in particular – a dystopian piece imagining a future in which the working classes are ‘harvested’ for fertility clinics – being adapted for the West End by Trevor Nunn. Sadly, Sperm, Egg and Chips was a critical and commercial failure, and a disillusioned Beer threw herself full-time into the academic life.
From 1980 to 1984 Beer lectured in Classics at Durham. She returned to Cambridge in 1985 as only the second female lecturer in the Classics faculty and her seminal work, The Decline, Fall, Slight Recovery and Fall Again, This Time Decisive, of Sparta was published the same year. Beer made her mark on Cambridge life with a radical, iconoclastic approach to the Classics but increasingly it was her political activism that was putting her in the public eye. A natural protester by temperament and with a rigid moral sense, she was involved in various social and political campaigns throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Beer particularly loathed the injustice of relative poverty and was believed to be one of the instigators of the ‘mercy kidnappings’ that took place between 2004 and 2006, in which a group of masked individuals calling themselves the Relativistas assisted the relative poor of the USA by seizing wealthy Americans from their homes and smuggling them over the Mexican border, thus slightly reducing the financial gap between the top 30% of earners and the median income group.
Beer’s theory of the ‘guilty victim’ had actually been developed in the early 1980s (and was a major influence on Martin Amis’s idea of a ‘murderee’ in his 1989 novel London Fields). Initially controversial, the theory had gained widespread acceptance by the time of Beer’s death. Just three days after the 9/11 attacks Beer penned What Goes Around, a controversial article for the New Statesman which argued that the mass murders were more than justified by the history of US foreign policy. The article met with a hostile reaction, but Beer set out on an exhaustive campaign to convince dissenters of her interpretation and before long nearly everybody she knew pretty much agreed with her.
Beer was on the 7/7 Memorial Committee which commissioned a statue of the four 2005 London bombers in Tavistock Square, after it was proven that all 56 of the people killed that day had it coming to them. Her 2008 investigation into the Harold Shipman murders, meanwhile, showed that most of the 218 elderly deceased had voted Tory and that one or two were possibly even a bit racist. Tragically, Shipman’s exoneration came too late, since he had hanged himself in his cell in 2004.
Marian Beer’s frequent media appearances kept her in the public consciousness well after her retirement from academic life. She regularly took the Complication Chair on the Radio 4 discussion show You Say Potato, I Say Starchy, Tuberous Crop from the Perennial Solanum Tuberosum of the Solanaceae Family, and her musical selections in a memorable appearance on Desert Island Discs consisted of F**k tha Police by NWA and seven different live versions of the Muggsy Spanier standard Pamela’s Theme. She said of Spanier: “Muggsy was a kindred spirit, I see myself in him: a fighter, a creator, a one-off. In many ways he was the cornet player’s cornet player, and perhaps I’ll be remembered as the Cambridge academic’s Cambridge academic.”
Esmeralda Marian Beer, academic and activist, died on 3 February 2046. She leaves behind her husband Sebastian Hoare, three children, a trail of destruction and four grandchildren.