An excerpt from

Second-Hand Stories

Josh Spero


It takes quite some skill to get a Third. Perhaps more even than to get a First, which simply requires preternatural brilliance firing on all cylinders, no calibration necessary. For a Third, a degree with its own peculiar glamour, you need to be just disappointing enough. Not disappointing enough and you have a respectable 2:2; too disappointing and it’s a Pass, with its strong suggestion you perhaps ought not to have come to university. The gentlemen’s Third, as it has been known, today suggests a university career spent mounting the greasy poles of the Oxford Union or treading the clammy boards of the university’s theatres, instead of burying one’s nose in a book.

You could argue, however, that a Third might in some way be a measure of unrecognised brilliance, of thoughts so unorthodox that myopic examiners feel compelled to reach for their red pens to protect their own dogmas.

You could argue this.

Emilie Vleminckx, I suspect, would not.

Emilie would most likely concede that her Third in Classics Mods at Oxford in 2002 was probably not due to her unrecognised brilliance. No, it might well have been to do with her falling asleep in her Homer paper.

“That didn’t help,” Emilie says as we talk in the Caffè Nero on the Kings Road. “We started with Vergil on the Thursday and the Homer was the Friday morning exam. I was exhausted and I thought, ‘I’m just going to think about this question’, and I fell asleep for half an hour. It was the worst result of the whole lot.”

The Third was a badge of honour – she was “excessively proud” of it – for its rarity and the skill. It was heart-breaking too, but in a Pyrrhic way it proved a point to Emilie’s classmates at Wadham College who would “pretend” to be struggling yet still got a First, which is one of Oxford’s great mind games. There is an honest victory in being the one who was actually struggling. And it turned out that even the comforting of her friends about how Mods didn’t count towards Finals and really didn’t mean anything was hollow: the summer after Mods, Emilie says, she went to Paris and was mooching round Père Lachaise cemetery when she saw Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which dutifully records his First in Mods.

In many ways, her Third was “a major relief” because it allowed Emilie to admit that she was on the wrong course, even if it did take sitting down to contemplate her next term’s workload and bursting into tears to persuade her finally to talk to her tutor. He recommended that she switch to Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, which covered material Emilie was interested in but did not require any language work. This change also meant that she was not sent down from Oxford permanently, as she had expected.

Homer is in fact what has brought us together. My paperback copy of Homer: Poet of the Iliad by Mark W Edwards, with its archaic warriors seemingly stone-printed in black on the turquoise cover, has on the first page the words “Emilie Vleminckx/Wadham College”. The “E” is really the letter “c” on top of a fatter letter “c”, and the “l” is a narrow loop. The “ck” is most striking, an elegant clover-like digraph where the “c” launches forwards and then turns straight upwards, curling backwards into a loop which thrusts through the middle of the upward stroke, before pulling back for another “c”, whose back rests on the stroke. Name aside, it is quite clearly the writing of a French person. Or indeed Belgian, it turned out, but I’ll split the orthographical difference.

Edwards’ book is one of the best modern introductions to the context, content and controversies of the Iliad. The Iliad – as anyone who has spent the eight weeks of their first term intensively reading, thinking and writing about it before putting it down and forgetting about it until their Mods term a year later will know – is the story of five days in the last year of the war at Troy, which the Greeks are waging to get Helen of Sparta back; the plot of the Iliad itself is driven by Achilles’ withdrawal from the war after Greek commander Agamemnon steals his prize concubine. His sulk allows the Trojans to thrash the Greeks, even getting as far as starting to burn their ships, and it is not until his friend (boyfriend?) Patroklos is killed in battle, wearing Achilles’ armour to fool the Trojans, that he returns, now enraged and insane for revenge.

By incorporating foreshadows and echoes of the rest of the ten years into the poem, the Iliad adds a perspicacity to the bloody moil of the battle scenes which dominate. There are thousands of lines where swords pass through mouths and out of brains and chariots stampede towards the imminently-eviscerated, but Achilles also learns of and accepts his death and wise men recall the examples of ancestors. There are panoramas of the Greek ships on the beach and shots which swoop onto Helen and the elders of Troy sitting on the battlements. There are also speeches of exhortation or anger or supplication, and all human emotions are displayed. Most notable is the humanity of the poet for the humans who are falling victims to the gods’ feuds and caprices.

But we must put the bard before the horses. The first thing one learns in this first term is that there is no such person as Homer. Or rather, there may have been a person called Homer, but he did not sit down and write the Iliad (or the nostalgic Odyssey) as a complete product of his imagination. These two poems – 27,000 lines between them – were composed orally by bards who wandered around the Greek world, singing campfire tales for their supper and adding new stories and layers to the poems as they went, expatiating on one town’s heroes as he arrived there or stressing the love or war themes as required. Although we may immediately suspect as impossible the feat of memory this would require, it is probably worth considering how many opera libretti or Beatles lyrics we have scorched on our brains. These songs would be passed from one bard to another and so through the Greek world and down the centuries. At some point – perhaps the late eighth century BC – these poems reached some sort of fixity, and by the mid-sixth century they had been written down. An aid to composition was what are called formulaic epithets, fixed phrases – most famously “rosy-fingered dawn” and “swift-footed Achilles” – which easily complete the rhythm of a line, allowing the bard to focus on the next line.

This was all to come when I picked up the book in the Oxfam on Broad Street and – sad to say – has mostly all gone since then. There are, however, many things which have stuck with me since I first read it, especially Iliad XXIV: in this final chapter, Priam sneaks into Achilles’ tent in the Greek camp and begs him to hand over the body of his son Hector. For the first and only time in the Iliad, after countless battlefield pleas for mercy have been met with a pointed response, the supplication is granted, for Achilles thinks of his own father and understands how Priam feels. It is this empathy which is so striking and is one of the most humane moments in western literature.

What struck Emilie most were the nipples: “Somehow the nipples come up. They come up the whole time. Homer has a massive nipple thing. The first time I read it, it went ‘nipple, nipple, another nipple’. I’m sure other people have much more highbrow things to say.” Nipples do come up, although in the context of spear-thrusts piercing chests between the nipples through to the heart rather than anything exceptionally homoerotic. Once, the still-pulsing heart makes the spear vibrate. More to the point, Homer almost never offers this sort of autopsy without an obituary and a eulogy. Part of the poet’s humanity is that even minor characters are furnished with a back-story in the very moment of their death, often mentioning still-living parents and their homelands never to be revisited: each victim is a person.

All of these themes and concepts (with the exception of an emphasis on nipples) are introduced in Homer: Poet of the Iliad. “I got it in my first week [October 2000] when I’d been told what I needed to do for Mods, so I went to Blackwell’s. I read it and re-read it, then I lost it – it vanished. I remember, a term before Mods, going, ‘Where’s my Homer?’ and going to buy another. Then, when I was moving out at the end of my second year I ended up with two copies – I found the first in a drawer.” Emilie took the first copy – the un-annotated, lost one – to Oxfam, the regular, ungracious receivers of her pint glasses filled with pennies, which is where I found it. You might think that rediscovering the first copy would have evoked an angry relief, but not at this point: “It was just a bitter little reminder.”

Emilie’s problem with Homer was something more fundamental than exhaustion or a nipple-fixation: it had never engaged her in the first place. Her course – Moderations IB, for those without Greek A-Level – meant she only had to read four chapters in the original Greek and the rest in translation, rather than it all in Greek, as for Moderations IA and IC (those with Greek A-Level). Reading all of it in Greek cannot help but engage you on the panicked level of a flailing translator and then, once you gain some speed and fluency, because you get carried away by the story. Unfortunately, the Greek Emilie was beginning to learn at Oxford prevented that, and a dull version in English failed to provide the excitement and narrative drive of the poem. Underlying it was the question of why she should be studying it: “Reading something for work you should be reading for fun changes how you read it. We wonder if what we say should be better.”

The disastrous Homer paper was, if anything, the insult to add to all the academic injuries Emilie had already sustained. The underlying problem was that doing the European Baccalaureate (not the International Baccalaureate) at the European School in Brussels, a school for the children of diplomats and bureaucrats, had not prepared her for Classics at Oxford, where most people have an A-Level in Latin and/or Greek and are primed to attack the shelves of text they have to read in the original. Emilie points out that in her junior exam she was allowed to use a dictionary, and that her four periods of Latin a week for two years were clearly inadequate: “For some reason, people thought that we would be ready for [Mods] IB, which was a big shock.” In contrast, most English students will have had eight periods a week for two years, and probably at least three years of fewer classes before that. Nevertheless, an inspirational teacher (how often are they to blame?) encouraged her ambition to go to Oxford.

It was an ambition Emilie had already been nurturing for years, but not one her parents approved of, and even when talking about her gratitude towards her parents, there is a frustrated edge, frustration at their lack of ambition for her. “In their mind, I was going to be a translator in the EU or fulfilling some weird gender role as a personal assistant to someone important or a translator to someone important. Why couldn’t I be that someone important?” Not that they had let her education slip, “pulling quite a lot of strings to get me into the European School, because it’s a school for people who work in the EU. They used friends or nepotism. I ignore the details as much as I can.” Emilie’s father was a street artist, her mother an office clerk, and so their lives were Brussels-bound. Even though they would have preferred her to stay in Belgium, they supported her, and Emilie says – baldly, but faux-baldly, I feel – that her father worked himself into an early grave to pay for her education.

But they made a “crucial mistake”, Emilie says, employing the analytical tone of a detective explaining how they foiled a bank robbery. By having her visit a translator at the Berlaymont, the monstrously-large Brussels office block which is the European Commission’s headquarters, with floor space four times that of the Louvre’s galleries, when she was eight, her parents gave her an insight into “the booth [the translator] spent her life in and all the people wasting their lives translating drivel. From that moment on, I rebelled against it.” At the same age, a television programme introduced Emilie to Oxford.

Their ambition for Emilie to be a translator was not an unachievable one. Indeed, Emilie says she was bilingual, thanks to her Flemish father and French mother, by the age of eight. (“Vleminckx” is a dialectal rendering of “Fleming/Flemish”.) At school she was “the girl who spoke lots of languages”, another one of which was Dutch as her classes were taught in this. Age ten, she took up English, then German, as well as Italian, Latin and eventually Greek, and when we meet she is learning Scottish Gaelic and has ambitions to start on Swahili. Spanish doesn’t figure: “People have always told me I ought to learn it but it’s too obvious and that’s why I don’t want to. I can get round the world with what I have got, and gestures, and tough luck if I can’t!”

But this choice of Latin and Greek at an English university is more significant that a simple desire to be a polyglot or even having a natural facility (which Emilie clearly does): it reflects her youthful rebelliousness both against her parents’ expectations and against Belgium as a country. Emilie still seems to powerfully dislike Belgium for its meek nature, an artificial state which allows two languages to co-exist with the pretence of equality. She must have been headstrong as a teenager. “That’s an understatement!” And apparently as a child too: when her parents tried to make her decide what her mother tongue was by her first word, it turned out that it was the universal “papa”, thus foiling them again.

Since Oxford, Emilie has been exercising her desire to remain in England, although initially without a grand plan. Her first job, while living with her boyfriend in Glasspool, Hampshire, was selling boric acid to the German market, “which sounds more exciting than it was”, so Emilie did a course to become a teaching assistant in 2004-5. She was the only one under 40 and who wasn’t a mother. When her boyfriend decided to move to Sherborne, Emilie realised that she would rather not be “boring myself alive in the middle of Dorset” and came to London. After a year of being a French assistant teacher at Colet Court prep school in West London, Emilie did a full teacher training course – back at Wadham, her Oxford college, which certainly adds a different flavour to that from her first time there. Now Emilie is teaching French at another West London prep school, Ravenscourt Park, but she manages to slip in Latin lessons too, and ended the year with four devotees. The children suddenly get Latin, she says, when you explain that the clothes store Urban Outfitters’ name derives from the Latin urbs, urbis.

However, her life over here has not meant that Belgium has ceased to exert its pull, both maternal and practical, which continues to frustrate Emilie. Her parents wished she had stayed in Belgium, and now her mother pressures her with helpful suggestions about being able to baby-sit for Emilie’s (as yet unconceived) children. Emilie says she is torn by this, and the advantages of living in Belgium, such as easily affordable housing, are attractive. But getting a job in Belgium would mean choosing French or Dutch, and this has been a firm thread in Emilie’s life, refusing to be pulled in one direction or the other by a decisive linguistic choice in an indecisive country. Instead, she has made a real linguistic choice by opting out entirely.

Seeing an article in the paper recently mentioning a vacancy for a headteacher on one of the most remote Shetland Islands, Emilie’s interest was captured. The thought of teaching four children on an island with a total population of 22 and to which a ferry only came every six weeks appealed, a compromise between her love of English and her desire for quiet, not easily accessible in London.

There are, however, two big things anchoring Emilie in London. The first is her fiancé, who is a music teacher at Emilie’s school. The second is perhaps better defined not as one big thing but as two thousand small ones: her library, currently in desperate need of pruning. Although she has four thousand books in Belgium, Emilie has amassed two thousand over here. Judging by some of her favourite authors and books – John Irving, Lord of the Rings, Gone with the Wind, the time-slip novels of Diana Grabaldon which move between the Second World War and the Jacobite Rebellion – we are not talking about two thousand slim, light volumes either. She says there are books in every room, in piles around the bed and in the bathroom, one row sitting behind another on her bookshelves, simultaneously a guilty denial of her librovorism and a secret pleasure, never removing one book but discovering another, or making the front row foreplay for a desired book in the second row.

Emilie could no doubt be more precise than “two thousand” if she wanted to be, at least in how many she has gone through, because she keeps a notebook of what she has read. In the two years before we meet, Emilie has read 135 books, and she has recorded of each the title, author, publisher, date bought, amount paid and date finished. At school, reading 18 books in a term would bring full marks in part of the English course; Emilie read 130. One of the most depressing things about her time at Oxford, she says, is that she did not read as avidly. This is a common complaint for arts students: after an entire day wading through treacly analysis of Athenian population figures or another one of Cicero’s bombastic speeches, the last thing one wants is more black-on-white.

“A lot of people assume I don’t read them very well, but I actually get really wrapped up in them. They’re intense bursts of light. It’s escapism and something completely different. I love it when I think, ‘That’s true’ or ‘I never thought about that’ or ‘That’s something that I went through.’ They can teach me something about my own life too.”

If anything, Emilie has been teaching the books about her life, her contented existence in linguistic exile. Her ex libris plate, gummed in to identify her ownership, bears the legend ubi bene, ibi patria: wherever I’m happy, that’s my home.