The Iliad, by Homer, Translated by E.V. Rieu

A century ago this review would have been unnecessary. As a civilised, educated person you would already have been more than familiar with Homer’s Iliad – probably in the original Greek. Perhaps, like the doomed poet Rupert Brooke, you would have declaimed it across the Aegean on your way to Gallipoli; or carried the copy you won as a school prize to the trenches, as both consolation and inspiration. It is, after all, the first and arguably greatest work in Western literature about men and war.

So why is it so relatively little-read today? One reason, perhaps, is that it has become a victim of its own near-legendary status. It has a reputation so dauntingly huge that few dare broach it for fear of being either tragically disappointed or bored rigid by its epic worthiness.


But The Iliad, which I read only in full (and in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin translation) myself the other day, is not remotely disappointing, boring or worthy. For lovers of literature it’s a thrilling opportunity to witness the birth of the canon, for movie buffs it’s a chance to meet those Greek gods and heroes in their original incarnations, for war enthusiasts it has violence that makes Saving Private Ryan look like Mary Poppins, and for drugs connoisseurs it’s quite possibly the trippiest thing you’ll experience outside the influence of LSD.

It’s a strange, fragmentary work which begins ­in ­medias res. The Trojan wars have been raging for years in virtual stalemate, with the Greeks still camped by their ships on the beach, and the Trojans still secure in their city of Ilium.

At this point the Greeks are in trouble. Though fate has decided they’re eventually going to win, they’ve just lost their best fighter – the arrogant, petulant, angry, fickle, cruel and deeply unlikeable Achilles – who has downed tools and retired to his tent in an epic sulk, ­having ­been slighted by King Agamemnon, who has stolen his mistress.

We have entered a world whose values and outlook predate almost all the cultural influences that have shaped the way we think. Written sometime between 760 and 710 BC, and originally designed, of course, to be recited rather than read, The Iliad came before the main Greek philosophers, the Roman Empire, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is Western civilisation in its rawest, wildest, most untutored state.

What, then, are its priorities? One, definitely, is piety. Neglect the gods, who control everything, and you are doomed. Show them real devotion, on the other hand, and they’ll see you right, as for example Zeus does to his beloved Achilles. (Well, until Achilles’s luck runs out – as the Fates have decreed it must, for not even gods can overrule the Fates). There’s a delightful moment in Book One, where Homer describes in loving detail how an ox is ritually slaughtered and its choicest bits are cooked over an open fire, put on skewers and offered to gods. “Wow,” you think. “This is literature’s first kebab barbecue.”

Equally important is personal courage. This, remember, is the Age of Heroes and wars appear to be won not by massed troops in disciplined formation, but rather by the extraordinary prowess of mighty individuals. They operate according to a pagan rule book rather shocking till you get used to it. For example, having killed their enemy in single combat their aim is to strip him of his valuable armour and then mutilate his body. In order to avoid this collective dishonour, those on the opposing side will resist with equal ferocity. “But he’s dead, it’s over!” you want to protest. No one’s listening to you, though. Their world, their weird code.

Read the rest at the Conservative.

What Will I Do with a Second Chance at Life? Play More Video Games

After my pulmonary embolism I’m watching trash TV with my son, spending hours on the Xbox… and reading The Iliad.

Does a near-death experience make you a better person? This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off since my pulmonary embolism. Initially, it hadn’t occurred to me that a PE was a big deal. But the research that I’ve done since suggests that these things aren’t unserious. My seen-it-all ex-army GP, for example, was properly impressed. As too have been the various people I know whose friends and relatives have died of them, one a 23-year-old girl who succumbed after breaking her ankle while walking on the moors. So yes, as my fellow ‘survivors’ keep telling me, I should be grateful for my lucky escape — and perhaps see it as a heaven-sent opportunity to put my life into perspective.

What I can’t work out at this stage, though, is whether the experience has really changed me — or whether I’m just inventing it because I feel it’s what I ought to do and I’m a bit of a drama queen.

One effect is that I’ve been dedicating a lot more time to playing Call of Duty, Saints Row 2 and Medal of Honor on the Xbox. The Afghanistan sequences in the latter are just amazing, especially when you’re in a US infantry unit moving up a valley swarming with Taleban, and you cover one another, keeping the enemy pinned down, being careful to conserve ammo because if you don’t you’re stuffed a bit later when you have to hold out in a crumbling outpost against hordes of RPG-toting al-Qaeda.

In the past I would have felt guilty about this spectacular waste of life. Now it causes me no qualms whatsoever because a) I’ve decided that it’s an important form of therapy, and b) I’ve remembered how very much I enjoy playing video games and, now I realise how precarious existence is, it seems quite wrong to deny myself so vital a pleasure.

Same goes with the kids; just simple stuff like making sure I spend more time slobbing with Boy in front of whatever crap TV he’s watching when he’s home on school leave. Previously I scarcely dared do this, for fear of being accused by the Fawn of being a lazy bastard. Actually, though, if you want to commune with teenage children, this is pretty much the only way. It’s not like they’re going to say: ‘Yes, please Dad!’ when you say: ‘Fancy coming to walk the dog?’ And though you don’t say much to one another while watching TV, you do definitely bond in that companionable near-silence. So not only do you get to catch up with funny old stuff you might otherwise never have watched, such as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle, both of which I highly recommend. But you also get to be a really good dad: the kind I now wish I’d been to the Rat when he was growing up, because then I’d have got to play a lot more video games and watch a lot more trash TV in my mid-thirties, rather than just in my early fifties.

Work: this is another thing I’m feeling healthily ambivalent about. Though I’m still perfectly happy being a journalist, blogger, gun-for-hire, I no longer think it would be the end of the world if it all went tits up and I had to do something else. Podcasting on a more regular, professional level, say: I’d probably be quite a good shock jock. Or teaching: my brief stints at Malvern and Radley were among the most satisfying things I’ve ever tried. Or just writing more books, which is, after all, what I most wanted to do in life before I got distracted by the adrenaline-buzz immediacy and regular-ish income of hackery.

If you don’t want to die young — and I really don’t — I think this ambivalence is important. Anxiety, fear about your job, about where your next work is coming from, is an absolute killer. It can be so all-consuming you might as well not exist, because it ruins even those moments when you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself. It makes you desperate, needy and afraid to say no, which isn’t exactly conducive to great self-esteem. ‘He ate shit because once you hit 50 what other option do you have?’ I’m not necessarily sure it’s what I want as my epitaph.

Read the rest at the Spectator.