An interview with Daisy Dunn

By Piers Pereira

Modern day Greece is in debt, polluted and swarming with tourists. Rome is a giant tourist trap with overpriced pizza and men on mopeds trying to run me down or grab my arse. Sometimes it’s hard to see what beauty there was in these places, or how they could have created some of history’s greatest thinkers and writers. Some schools believe there is little ancient Greece or Rome can teach us, Daisy Dunn respectfully disagrees.

“You begin to see things differently when you’ve studied Classics, even when you’re switched off – looking at paintings in an art gallery, going to the theatre or opera, watching an election campaign… you have a whole new, or rather, very old, dimension through which to try to make sense of the world and the behaviour of those who inhabit it, and that’s immensely important.”

Daisy Dunn is a classicist and lover of the witticisms and romances of the classical age. When she is not translating the poetry and delightful smut of the greatest writers of that age, she is digging through ancient letters and transcripts to document their lives.

“There’s something wonderfully voyeuristic about it, having access to all these personal tales of romance and the mundane.”

She was exposed to Latin and classical literature in school, something which is sadly rare in mainstream schools, places that remain fixated on standard books studied in a clinical manner. Latin and detailed studies of Greek and Roman history are becoming subjects that are painted as elitist.

“I’m very keen to dispel the idea that Classics is in any way ‘niche’. I think every child should have the chance to study Latin, but even if they decide it’s not for them, that shouldn’t be the end of it.”

It was here that Daisy started her intense love affair with the classical poets.

“A lot of the poetry is passionate and personal, you are looking into the private lives of these people; their passions and scandals.”

Today a child is more likely to learn about George Orwell, or even Hunter S. Thompson before Plato or Ovid.

“I honestly don’t think you’re getting the most out of life if you haven’t got at least some grounding in ancient history, politics, literature and philosophy. You may decide at the age of 16 that you want to go on and read English, but if you’re reading Shakespeare with no familiarity with the ancient world then you’re not reading Shakespeare.”

It was this passion that lead to the publication of her latest work Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, an amazing biography of Rome’s kinkiest writer and naughtiest citizen, Gaius Valerius Catullus.

“He could be absolutely lavatorial. He was a romantic and a gossip.”

The book has found praise around the world, including from Mayor of London Boris Johnson. It has also led to some fantastic tabloid headlines: Sex-mad mistress who drove Rome’s erotic poet Catullus mad (Daily Mail).

For Daisy, holding her completed work, bound and in print, gave her a feeling that many new authors can empathise with.

“I was terrified, nervous that there would be a printing error. I remember thumbing through it searching for typos, but after that initial panic left, I was excited and felt quite proud.”

One of the main themes of Catullus’s work is romance, in all its many forms.

“The poets and lovers were more passionate and honest. I think we are a little too tentative or embarrassed about romance now, I think that’s something we could learn today.”

Daisy herself has seen the effectiveness of the classical romantic style.

“I received an anonymous letter on Valentine’s Day when I was studying. You see, there’s an idea of a locked out lover; the wounded lover left outside a closed door, in the rain. This letter was from a man who felt he was my locked out lover.”

As for the letter’s success?

“Well, his anonymity meant he would have remained locked out, waiting on the doorstep.”

Apart from mysterious men lingering on the porch, Daisy has a long list of writers who have captured her interest as a reader.

“It’s tempting to name friends who have honestly produced some wonderful books, but I fear the repercussions if I miss someone out! So, let’s go with authors I find exciting but have never met: Michael Holroyd, Claire Tomalin, Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, Aravind Adiga, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, J M Coetzee, Frances Wilson, Simon Schama, (the late) Umberto Eco, John Sutherland, Paul Strathern… I could probably go on for half an hour.”

While Diasy is a lover of the ancient marble-lined cities of Rome and Athens, the offer of a trip in a Tardis to visit them in their prime does not appeal.

“Being a woman in ancient Greece wasn’t a great position to be in; you were property or a bargaining chip. Rome was slightly better, and you could perhaps be involved in a plot or two, but overall I’d rather just be an observer.”

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Daisy Dunn will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival at 6pm on Saturday 9th April. The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival runs from 2–10 April 2016 in historic venues across Oxford. To book tickets visit www.oxfordliteraryfestival.org.

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