In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Straight TalkMary Beard

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Marginal Comment 
by Kenneth Dover.
Duckworth, 271 pp., £20, November 1994, 0 7156 2630 2
Show More
Show More

‘All you need to do, if you want the nation’s press camped on your doorstep, is to say that you once had a wank in 1947.’ Alan Bennett’s remark is quoted with obvious feeling by Kenneth Dover in a late-inserted footnote to his autobiography, Marginal Comment. Someone, he explains, had leaked part of the typescript of his book to the Evening Standard, who, on the scent of celebrity masturbation, had splashed (under the headline ‘Oxford Don Takes Memoirs In Hand’) his account of a ‘strange occasion’ in 1944 in the Italian hills. The beauty of the day, the blue sky and the snow ‘struck directly at my penis, so I sat down on a log and masturbated; it seemed the appropriate response.’

Dover has since discovered, of course, that if you want not just the British press, but the New York Times, Washington Post and a selection of the world’s radio stations camped on your doorstep, all you need do is publicly admit to a strong sense of relief at the suicide of a troublesome academic colleague – as well as to a definite reluctance to rescue that colleague from his projected self-destruction. The story of murder in the quad – did Dover (then President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford) drive the vulnerable historian Trevor Aston to his grave? – has already become part of this book’s mythology. But, as far as I can see, Dover admits to little more than an unwillingness to strive officiously to keep the man alive – whatever has since been said. His much-quoted question (‘how to kill him without getting into trouble?’) is misleading: all he does is wonder whether he would be morally or legally obliged to take any action if Aston rang him to say that he had just taken an overdose. He would have been tempted to hang up: his lawyers advised otherwise.

Discussion of ‘the Aston affair’ has polarised opinion for and against (mostly against) Dover. The story has been told as a clash between the cold, calculating utilitarian (Dover) and the drunken, wayward, but ultimately well-meaning genius (Aston). If an excuse has been found for Dover (one of this century’s most distinguished Classical scholars), it has been in the overdeveloped rationality that Classicists are always liable to catch from their study of the Greek city state and its philosophy. But the sensationalism, and the strident defences of Aston, have tended to obscure the literary context of these ‘murderous revelations’. Almost all the discussion has neglected the extraordinary and puzzling nature of the autobiography of which ‘the Aston affair’ is only one small part.

On the other hand, the two stories (of masturbation and ‘murder’) are typical of the book as a whole. It is loaded with opinions and confessions that would be newsworthy on any account, but particularly when written by a man so influential in the British academic establishment: not only head of an Oxford college, but President of the British Academy, one time professor of Greek at St Andrews and could-have-been Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford (he was offered the post, but turned it down – leaving the job, as he tells us, to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, as second choice). A slightly maverick socialist most of his life, opponent to Thatcher (the only head of an Oxford college actually to sign the fly-sheet against her honorary degree), he nevertheless presents himself as an outspoken advocate of two unlikely political causes: the Falklands War and its conduct (‘the direction in which the bows of an enemy warship happen to be pointing at the moment of encounter cannot justify letting it go’) and capital punishment, which he would ‘be quite happy to see extended to the perpetrators of any long-planned and well-organised crime, including fraud’. (‘Hang Fraudsters, Says Top Don’ might just as well have been the headline.) He is equally outspoken in his support of ECT as treatment for depression, largely on the basis of its apparent success with his old undergraduate tutor, Russell Meiggs (‘a couple of days after each treatment he would suddenly resume a vigorous, cheerful personality, effervescing with good ideas’) and with his wife (‘ECT had a marvellous effect’), whose depressive illness he chronicles through the book.

Discussion of his own sexuality does not stop with long-ago stories of youthful masturbation in the Italian hills, nor with his even earlier attempts to learn the technique from an older boy at school, Alec, ‘a cheerful, tireless wanker’ who ‘evidently had a tough core because he won a DFC in the war’. One of the strangest passages, towards the end of the book, concerns his recent periods of impotence. Its occurrence is documented with scholarly precision, as are his reactions to what he sees as the withdrawal of his humanity along with his potency. He laments the insult apparently cast at his wife (‘Gandhi did not mind insulting his wife in that way, but I do’) and dwells on his plans for committing suicide. It all culminates in a bizarre day at the British Academy, hosting a lunch for the Minister of Higher Education: ‘I think I was pretty lively company ... but all the time I was on my own I was rehearsing in my mind a jump out of the train on the way back to Oxford.’ Actually he went to the doctor instead, and was reassured that the problem was likely to be intermittent. ‘No one, it seems ... can ever say with assurance, “That was my last fuck” ’; and, as if to prove the point, he comes out with the dates and places of recent successful erections – ‘Fresno 1990, Genoa 1993’.

In documenting these experiences Dover thinks he knows what he is doing: he is writing an explicitly experimental autobiography. In particular, he claims to be trying to explore ‘the interaction of the personal and the professional’ and to speak of those private areas (sex being only one) that are usually omitted, or glossed over, in academic autobiographies. He is laying down a direct challenge to the reader. If we are shocked or embarrassed by what we read, if we think that we would rather not know what he has to tell us, then we have already exposed the limitations of our own readiness to understand the different elements that together constitute a life such as his (or, by implication, our own). Dover’s position, in those terms, is irrefutable. Few people, after all, would deny that who you choose to go to bed with (or not) makes some difference to almost everything you think, do and write. The question is whether in Marginal Comment Dover actually manages to deliver the kind of analysis he promises.

The answer is probably not. One obvious problem is the sheer exhibitionism of the book, and the sense that even the displays of public humiliation (in the discussions of his impotence, for example) have been turned into a refined kind of boasting. Not that boasting on its own would matter too much, if it were part of an interesting analysis. But it simply is not. We never get any hint of how his feelings of sexual failure interacted with his academic projects and his wider working life (apart from being at the back of his mind during lunch with a minister). If he felt his humanity threatened, as he claims, what did that do to his writing, to his relations with his colleagues, or to his sense of the importance of his work? It is this sort of interaction that his opening chapter promises to explore. But by the end it is still disappointingly unclear how to relate most of these private revelations to any part of his academic or professional life.

This feeling of disappointment is heightened by two extraordinary omissions. First, there is almost nothing in the book about his daily working and writing practice (just a few sentences about overwork and exhaustion, and reference to a schedule for writing one book in 90 days – and actually finishing in something like half that time). Yet this is a man who has written a dozen major books, in a more than full-time teaching and administrative career, with what appears to have been only two terms of sabbatical leave. His personal and domestic life must have been centred on that time and space, hidden from the reader (and maybe, on some principle of self-censorship, from himself as well), in which he did his writing. Second, there is almost no sense of any feedback from his academic work into his private world. Dover’s career has been marked by a highly loaded choice of subjects (including major studies of Greek ethics and morality, and of Greek homosexuality), and occasionally he gives some hint as to why he chose the subjects he did. But he appears to have very little interest in the personal consequences of working for years on, say, Greek homoerotic practice, or in how any scholar might find themselves defined and changed by the subjects of their choice. It is as if, despite all the claims to a personal/professional perspective, he sees the end product of research not as a personal one at all, but as an academic job well done – whether it is on Greek sex or (as in an earlier Dover enterprise) the technicalities of Greek word order.

The real puzzle of Marginal Comment, though, lies in its rhetorical style. Dover is well known for his work on the fourth-century Greek orator Lysias, the plainest proponent of the plain style of speaking that there ever was; and it is very much a Lysian style that he adopts in this autobiography – apparently simple, clear, no nonsense (call a fuck a fuck), the straight talk of the common man. But the problem of the plain style (from Lysias on) has always been the degree of artfulness that it apparently artlessly conceals. Is it really clear and simple? Or is it using the rhetoric of simplicity to seduce, or tease, the reader yet more effectively than the flowery artifice of the high style? In this case, is the joke on the reader who takes Dover’s carefully crafted simplicity entirely without irony? Or on Dover, whose overwhelming commitment to plain, commonsensical prose turns out to be little short of crashing naivety, obscuring rather than explaining the difficult issues? Dover’s undoubted intelligence, as well as his training in Greek rhetoric, would suggest the former. The occasional trace of rigid literal-mindedness (would many people contemplating hanging up on a suicide call actually phone up their solicitor to check the legal position?) might suggest the latter.

A good test case is the opening to the chapter that deals with the faint traces of student unrest felt in Britain in 1968. It runs: ‘What with Humanae Vitae and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968 was not a good year for the world in general. For me, it was ameliorated by the publication of my commentary on Aristophanes’ Clouds and my book on Lysias, but aggravated by wear and tear on a vertebra.’ I find myself quite unable to decide whether this is a classic example of the kind of blind academic self-aggrandisement that is quite happy to put the outbreak of war into pretty much the same sentence as a bad back and a couple of new publications or an ironic parody of precisely such self-aggrandisement. I hope (though sadly doubt whether) it is the latter; and, if it is, that might encourage us to look more carefully for the irony in the story of the Aston affair, rather than take its plain-style murder narrative, unreflectively, at face value. But time and again the impossibility of ‘fixing’ the level of irony in Dover’s stories frustrates the reader, while at the same time engaging her in reflecting on the nature of his autobiographic enterprise.

Marginal Comment will almost certainly become a major source for the history of Classics, and of university life in general, in the second half of the 20th century. Dover himself recognises that role for the book, if only incidentally, and the title itself pushes us in that direction. As a comment on Dover’s own marginality it is preposterous (whatever he claims to feel, Dover has not been marginal in anything since 1932, his first term at St Paul’s, when he had to go into the class for boys with no Greek). But it inevitably evokes the title of Maurice Bowra’s On Greek Margins. Bowra, half a generation earlier than Dover (he was still around to want the Oxford chair that Dover was offered), also head of a college (Wadham), also the writer of autobiography (essentially a collection of names and conversations dropped), was a Classicist of a very different type from Dover, still in the pre-war, laid-back, Oxbridge mould. The title’s implied reference to Bowra is also an implied reference to the history of a subject whose aims, and practitioners, have changed beyond recognition over the last fifty years.

Dover makes it clear that his model for university teaching comes, in several important respects, from his wartime experience as a young officer in the artillery. It was here that he learnt (sometimes in spite of his seniors) the virtues of comradeship and co-operation across the ranks, which have in many ways been his trademark even at the very top of the academic profession: he has always been ‘one of the lads’, well (and deservedly) liked, ready to fill a gap in the teaching, go on the counselling course, help out students, teachers and college staff alike. It was also here, he suggests, that he learnt what good teaching was, and how to enjoy it. The standards of instruction in the gunnery schools were high and he found that he had the talent to explain ‘ballistics, explosives and anti-aircraft predictors to NCOs who had left school at 14 with no more than a basic knowledge of arithmetic’. By the end of the war he knew that he could explain anything to anyone who was prepared to listen.

This, of course, is Dover’s weakest spot: the confusion of university teaching and gunnery instruction. Drilling the principles of Greek grammar may be appropriate to the methods of the army classroom. But to help young people explore for themselves the strange, foreign cultures of Greece and Rome is an activity which ought to bear as little resemblance as possible to explanations of the workings of a gun. Dover’s mechanistic model (which he never stops to query) may help to account for another striking omission in the autobiography. We hardly ever hear of any pupils, beyond one or two notable undergraduates, including Bernard Williams, to whom he taught prose composition (translation from English into Greek). There is no sense whatever, in the book at least, of an intellectual descent group, of graduate students and younger colleagues, whose ways of understanding the Ancient World were owed to their interaction and debate with him. The gunnery school may have a lot to answer for.

For all Dover’s evident commitment to promoting Classics, Marginal Comment may well come to be seen as the book that finally marked their departure from the centre of the cultural stage in this country. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn not only with Bowra (whose memoirs are almost offensively scattered with the names of the poets, writers and artists of his generation), but also with E.R. Dodds (Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford between 1936 and 1960) whose autobiography Missing Persons rather outclasses Dover in subtlety, style and reticence. Dodds was a much nicer person than Bowra, but (with as little name-dropping as is feasible in an autobiography) he writes extensively of his relations with Auden, Eliot, MacNeice (whom he appointed to a lectureship in Classics at Birmingham) and Yeats. Dover, by contrast, appears to know no one outside academic life, with the exception of his own family and the odd Presbyterian minister. This may be just a personal difference; Dover may simply not have the same interests as Bowra and Dodds. But it is more likely that there is a wide change here; that the growing professionalisation of Classics has removed it decisively from its place in the wider, non-university, intellectual culture of Britain.

The clearest sign of this comes in another of Dover’s footnotes. He quotes with some disapproval a ‘scholar’ who described Greek civilisation as ‘unimaginably alien’. (Dover’s own view is that it is quite ‘similar enough to ours to be intelligible’.) He seems, significantly, to have forgotten that the person he is (slightly mis-)quoting is Dodds’s friend, Louis MacNeice:

It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.