Blasting & Blessing: a long overdue edition

Hadrian's Wall, between Milecastle and Housesteads, summer 2010

So, that’s summer 2010 done, then. And while, over the past three months, there are plenty of things I’ve done — travelled as far afield as Haltwhistle, Bedford and Bracknell; refinished precisely one third of the staircase leading down to the kitchen; bruised a toenail while walking along Hadrian’s Wall; eaten a mulberry; bought a copy of World of Interiors; read a small book by Roger Scruton; sewed name-tapes onto school uniforms while listening to William Walton’s music for Henry V; daydreamed ineffectually about planting apple trees and harbouring rescue hens; cat-napped — there are also plenty of things that I haven’t done.

This latter category is, alas, both large and highly relevant to Fugitive Ink, including as it does not only writing and large-scale reading, but also engaging in sustained mental exertion of any sort, productive or otherwise. I suspect I’ve totally forgotten how to write. How better to encourage what’s left of my blogging skills to creak back into something resembling working condition than with a brief bout of blasting & blessing?

First of all, most obviously and urgently, let’s blast this whole William Hague business. As implied in at least one previous post, our present fascination with the details of our elected representatives’ expense claims, hiring policies and overall extra-curricular deportment seems to me as radically tiresome as it is fundamentally misguided. For heaven’s sake — if we’re forced to trust these wretched men and women to make serious decisions affecting virtually every aspect of our lives, as the current version of democracy seems to suggest we must, then do we really need to micro-manage every nuance of their public and private behaviour as well? Might it not be a better idea just to give them each a set sum of money — possibly a bit less for backbench MPs, a bit more for ministers — and then just let them get on with it, judging them ultimately not on the process of governing itself, but rather on results? For whether they choose to spend the money on duck houses or moats, expertise or companionship, baseball caps or worse, it’s still the same money being spent — and still the same irrelevance to the basic question of whether or not they deserve our confidence or, as far as that goes, our electoral support.

Finally, sentimentally fond though I am of Guido Fawkes, surely he shouldn’t be wasting his malice on obscurely under-qualified special advisors when real trophy targets like Andy Coulson are there for the taking? You know, Guido, the sort of targets who commit actual crime, not mere silliness? Just a thought …

On a related note, though, we should also pause to bless Roger Scruton for that slim volume mentioned in passing supra, not least because of its absolute relevance to the whole problem of MPs’ probity. The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope may sound, on the face of it, rather gloomy summer reading. This, however, could hardly be further from the truth. By way of the odd philosophy tutorial, assorted historical examples and some enjoyably spiky asides, this is a book that radiates the sort of unapologetic human decency one encounters all too rarely these days, in public discourse at any rate — an elegant hymn in praise of irony, modesty of aspiration and forgiveness. Is it just me, or is Professor Scruton not only admirable, as he has been for some time — e.g. in his support for Czech dissidents from the late 1970s onwards, as well as his ability to ruffle precisely those academic feathers most in need of disturbance — but now increasingly likeable, too? Here’s a good interview, by the way, adduced in support of this admittedly controversial contention. Not least, it would be pleasant to think that advancing age might work such wonders on us all.

Next, blast me for not getting around to praising Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-62) at Gagosian’s Britannia Street outpost until after the exhibition had finished, at least in its UK iteration. (Meanwhile I’ll get on with blasting myself for not seeing it until after the catalogue had sold out, although at least it looks as if it’s still available here.) This, at any rate, was Picasso as one rarely sees him — not the driven enfant terrible modernist of the early years, nor the grossly over-hyped Grand Old Man of the all-too-comfortable masterpieces, but almost in holiday mode — a man in his prime enjoying the timeless consolations of grownup love, happy children, the seasons, gardens, antiquity — experimental less out of ambition than playfulness, relaxed and relatively content. And because the exhibition didn’t go out of its way to assert Picasso’s significance any more than the works went out of their way to assert anything much other than pleasure as an end in itself, it left me warming to Picasso’s art more than I sometimes do. Unsurprisingly, under the circumstances — summer still in full swing, free admission, a luxuriously beautiful hang — the rooms were absolutely thronged with visitors, including plenty of children, at least one of whom went home very excited about the possibility of making masks out of scraps of folded paper. So it was fortunate that, returning home, we were also able to turn to a delightful new book, The Boy Who Bit Picasso, in which Anthony Penrose describes, in a manner at once elegiac and infinitely sweet-natured, one of the more obvious benefits of growing up as the child of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller — consider this volume highly recommended.

How to conclude? For our final project today, let’s bless two sites on Hadrian’s Wall, as much for the contrast between them as for their individual merits.

Housesteads, arguably the most complete legionary fort surviving from the Roman Empire, is by any standard truly spectacular. Perched alongside the Wall itself, set amidst a magnificently wild, unpeopled landscape — although in point of fact there’s a shop, small museum, cafe and car-park tucked away tactfully behind some trees — the ruins are at once so stunningly situated, and so nearly intact, that even the laziest imagination ends up in some danger of running away in the hope of following the Eagles. The site is well managed by English Heritage working in tandem with the National Trust. The presentation of historical facts is serious, sensible and informative. In short, it’s like the best sort of Roman history textbook brought to life, but with a sharp wind whistling across the stones and the clouds rearranging themselves with infinite ingenuity everywhere overhead. One feels very near to the ancient world here. And what could be better than that?

Meanwhile, down in the valley, only a short distance away, lies Vindolanda, another Roman fort and settlement site, this one managed and indeed excavated by a private trust. Here, although the remaining stonework is both handsomely sited and richly suggestive, the real impact lies in what those excavations — still ongoing, by the way, the jovial working archaeologists remaining very much part of the display strategy — have uncovered. Not least, this includes the Vindolanda tablets themselves — a discovery that brings us so close to the Roman inhabitants of the site that we can tell whom they wished to invite to dinner, what they ate, how and when they fell ill, even what long-suffering legionaries received by way of care-packages from home. And while some of Vindolanda’s greatest treasures are now consigned to the British Museum, there are still more than enough to fill an excellent museum, Chesterholm, once the home of the site’s nineteenth century owners.

Best of all, though, alongside the first-rate scholarship and up-to-date excavation practice evident at Vindolanda, a pleasant air of individual quirkiness hangs over the whole enterprise. Down by the museum, a little way distant from the actual excavation site, a little replica temple has been constructed, dedicated to the local nymphs — and while it’s certainly a clever way of showing how a smallish Roman shrine might have looked, as well as a charming addition to an early 20th century garden of almost heart-rending prettiness, there’s at the same time something intriguingly non-ironic about it, as there also is about the memorial, constructed within living memory, to the once-resident Roman legions. Again, one feels very near to the ancient inhabitants — but also to the disparate individuals who, for more than a hundred years now, have wondered about the ancient Romans who had also lived by that burbling stream, sought to learn more about them, perhaps even sought to be Roman, or at any rate to be something other than what they actually were. That’s interesting, too.

In any event, long may these contrasting styles of presentation be allowed to coexist in a thoroughly Roman mood of mutual tolerance, as there is much to be learned, and indeed enjoyed, from each of them.

Right, that’s quite enough of a warm-up for today. Happy autumn to all people of good will — you can expect some real writing here soon.

Not-very-ancient Temple of the Nymphs, Vindolanda, summer 2010

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