Written by Joanne Lau

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Awesome Old Lady of the Week: Pat Easterling

This week’s awesome old lady Pat Easterling, the first – and so far only – woman to hold the post of Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge. The 80-year-old is a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College. Interview by Joanne Lau.

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Professor Mary Beard with Joyce Reynolds, Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, and Professor Pat Easterling (far right), Honorary Fellow of Newnham College.

What is your name?
Patricia Elizabeth Easterling, or Pat for short.

Where were you born? Where do you currently live?
Blackburn, Lancashire. I grew up there with my parents and grandmother and stayed ’til I was 18. Blackburn was an old established mill town. The main industry during the 19th and early 20th Century was cotton and many people worked at the mills, including my grandmother. Blackburn also has a strong tradition in education. There was a boy’s grammar school there founded in the 16th Century. I attended Blackburn High School for Girls and really enjoyed it. I currently reside in Cambridgeshire.

What is/was your profession?
My subject is in Classics, especially Greek. I was a Professor of Greek at University College London and then Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge. I guess you could say my job has always been as a teacher. My mother said that as a child, I’d set my dolls in a row and teach them. It’s something deeply instinctual for me, I suppose. I just think teaching really matters!
It’s also very rewarding when old pupils keep in touch and you can see what they’re up to now. I’d always been interested in languages and while Latin was compulsory, I was also very interested in Greek. I was the only pupil to take Greek at our school and was taught on my own – something that would never happen with schools now. I then went on to study Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge.
I’ve always enjoyed Greek literature, particularly the tragedies. They have a powerful range of ideas and feelings that are still relevant to this day. There is a current revival of Greek tragedies with modern interpretations, which is very interesting to see.

What are you most proud of?
Keeping going! I feel very lucky to do in retirement the things I’ve gotten most satisfaction out of in my professional life.
I’m also proud of being the first female Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge.

What is your secret talent?
Listening. Listening is vital to teaching. I also think it’s very important in any negotiation or meeting. You have to hear what the other person is arguing.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
Most people don’t realise I’m a North Country woman. I think the context in which you’re brought up in is important. Up in the North, we don’t really approve of being too fancy or a show-off. We’re down-to-earth, plain-thinking people with our feet on the ground.

Do you have a daily beauty regime?
I don’t really put any time or effort into it. I suppose moisturisers are the most useful to me. I’ll occasionally splurge, but really, any moisturiser is fine.

What is your favourite indulgence?
When we were more active, it was mountain walking with my husband. There are some beautiful places in the UK like the Lake District and Scotland among many others. We’ve also done some fantastic mountain trails in Greece. Nowadays we like to go for little trips around the UK – nothing that’s too long of a drive. We’ll go stay at a nice hotel somewhere in Norfolk or Suffolk and it’s a pleasant little break.

What is your favourite hobby or pastime?
I find gardening very relaxing. There’s always something to tug up or do. I enjoy cooking very much, though I don’t do the elaborate recipes I used to try. Now I enjoy making simple things – like a good soup.
I had promised myself that I would take up botanical drawing in my retirement, but I just haven’t had time! I still do a lot of references, reports and reviews. It’s a nice way to be busy as it’s very gratifying to see former pupils or colleagues take up appointments and go all over the world.

Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?
I’d say yes and no. Yes, in that there are a lot more openings for women now and that’s very exciting. I would have to say no because I don’t think I would have enjoyed the school programme now in comparison to what it was like in the ‘40s. We were given a lot more scope to develop our own lines of interest. It seems the syllabus now is more narrow, which is a pity. Interviewing candidates at Cambridge, I have to say it’s not necessarily the students with the string of A*s who are the best students. There’s more to learning than that. Students should have more room to explore and dig into areas that interest them.

What advice would you give your 30 year old self?
Being 30 is stressful. There are commitments, responsibilities, and pressures. When I was 30, I had a one-year-old son and we didn’t get maternity leave. One was expected to cope. My husband and colleagues helped me through it. Looking back, I’d say the one piece of advice I’d give myself would be: worry less.

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Written by Joanne Lau

Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.