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Friday, 18 October 2013

Margaret Mountford on Life after The Apprentice.

I'm delighted to welcome Margaret Mountford. Most people know her from the TV as Alan Sugar's formidable right-hand woman in the UK version of The Apprentice but today we'll be talking more about other things, in particular her interest in ancient history and the study of papyri. 
Margaret, thank you so much for accepting my invitation.
MM - Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

HS - You had a very successful career as a high-flying corporate lawyer. What decided you to give it up and return to academic study? 

MM - I decided to give up the law because I felt I’d done it for long enough (25 years!) and didn’t want or need to go on for another fifteen years or so. The buzz had decreased and the hours weren’t getting any shorter. I knew I wanted to do something different and for a while I considered going into business in some way but then I decided that what I’d really like would be to go back to being a student. I studied Classics, ultimately completing a PhD in the study of papyri.

HS - Like many people, I associate papyri with ancient Egypt, but I believe the ones you chose to study are rather different?

 MM -  Yes, if by ancient Egypt you mean Pharaohs and tombs. The papyri happen to have been preserved in Egypt because of the dry climate but they’re actually Roman and Byzantine and written in Greek. They date from between the first and the sixth centuries AD and reflect life in Egypt when it was part of the Roman Empire in the East. The Romans took Egypt over from the Greek Ptolemy dynasty after Augustus defeated Queen Cleopatra. When the Roman Empire in the West failed, Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire.

HS - Do the papyri you research deal with any particular aspect of Egyptian life at the time? What was the attraction to that?

MM - I’m not really interested in ancient literature, so the papyri I study are what we call documentary, and are largely the legal and administrative ones, including court documents, contracts and documents recording transactions involving land, but also include anything else which was written down, like private letters and accounts, even laundry lists and lost donkey notices.. There were many wealthy estates in Egypt by the fifth and sixth centuries, all generating an enormous number of business letters, orders, invoices and property documents. I find it fascinating to build up a picture of everyday life from them. There are also theological documents which are important for the study of early Christianity.
HS - How were these papyri found?

MM - Papyri have been found in all sorts of places including rubbish tips. Old, unneeded papyri were often pulped up to make the papier maché known as cartonage which was used to make mummy cases – a rather grim example of recycling! Most of the ones I’ve studied were dug up at the beginning of the twentieth century by two Oxford scholars working on ancient rubbish tips around what was then a sleepy little village on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf River. It was once a prosperous city called Oxyrhynchus, ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’.
HS - Is your work done in libraries or have there been times when you’ve got your hands dirty?

MM - The papyri that I study are kept in the Sackler Library in Oxford. I do need to look at the originals, but they’re mostly scanned and digitised to make sure they aren’t put at risk, so no, I don’t get my hands dirty (and I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to touch the papyri if I did!). I have been on one archaeological surface survey, spending 3 weeks in the Fayum (the area where the famous mummy portraits were found). It was intriguing to see how these once flourishing towns had been abandoned when the canals silted up and then been buried by the desert. There’s not a great deal left as most of the houses were built of mud brick, sometimes coated with lime, and all of that has been carted away over the centuries, mainly to use on fields. I don’t think I have the patience to be an archaeologist.


HS - As well as doing demanding academic work, you’ve forged a career on TV and become a household name in the UK version of The Apprentice. Has it been hard at times to combine the two?

MM - There is a time limit for completing a PhD and I don’t think I would have been able to comply with it if I’d continued with the show. Filming was full time for the couple of months or so every year it took to make a series

 HS - Subsequent to leaving the show after five series, you’ve appeared in various other programmes with sociological or historical themes. Is TV an avenue you’d like to continue to pursue?

MM - Not particularly, but if I was offered something really interesting I’d seriously consider it.

 HS - Do you have plans to write? If so, would it be fact or fiction?

 MM - I enjoyed the writing I had to do for my PhD but otherwise my years as a lawyer drafting corporate documents have cured me of writing.

HS - When you have time to read for pleasure, what kind of books do you choose?

MM - Whatever catches my eye in the bookshop – novels mainly and I’m partial to a bit of fantasy. I really enjoyed Game of Thrones. The TV version was fun. It was filmed in Northern Ireland where I grew up and on Gozo where I have a holiday home so it was nice to recognise familiar places, but the books are much better.

 HS - What kind of music do you listen to and who are your favourite composers?

MM - Opera, piano music and lieder – my favourite composers are Verdi, Wagner, Schubert and Liszt.

 HS - Finally, a loaded question – Strictly Come Dancing – could you be persuaded to put the go in the tango?

 MM - Certainly not. I was asked a long time ago but the training looks far too much like hard work.





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