Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Ghosts at The Gate


AUFIDIUS: Therefore, most absolute sir, if thou wilt have
The leading of thine own revenges, take
The one half of my commission; and set down -
As best thou art experienced, since thou know'st
Thy country's strength and weakness, - thine own ways;
Whether to knock against the gates of Rome,
Or rudely visit them in parts remote,
To fright them, ere destroy. But come in.
William Shakespeare (Coriolanus IV, v)

IN AUGUST 2008, Gloster Hill overlooks fields of still-green wheat, acres of brown stubble with rolls of golden hay left randomly by some clever harvester, pastures of overgrown grass and gorse and nettles where cattle and sheep graze, and tidal marshes leading down to the mouth of the River Coquet on the North Sea. Hemmed in by the hill, the fields, the river and the sea is Amble, and this has been the home of groups of people for over 1,600 years.

According to the pamphlets at our Tourist Information Office, Amble was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, which would take us back to about 400 AD. In recent years, local farmers ploughing their land, and people digging, for whatever reason, have unearthed Roman coins, some found on Gloster Hill properties. These relics would carry us very nearly 2,000 years into the past, for the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 AD and he ordered a wall to be built across this part of the country to mark the distant limits of his Empire, the end of the civilized world. He also wanted to keep the Picts in present-day Scotland out of the Roman provinces.

Hadrian's Wall, which is 40 or so miles south of Amble (we are, therefore, that far beyond civilization, you might say) and runs the 74 miles from Wallsend on the River Tyne on this east coast to Solway Firth in Cumbria, was begun in AD 122. Obviously, Hadrian considered it a priority project as it was finished in six years.

The Wall included ditches, turf walls as much as twenty feet wide and about eleven feet high, and trimmed stone walls about eight feet thick and anything from ten to twenty feet high. There were fortlets every mile or so, and over a dozen major forts and encampments, and battlements on top of parts of the walls. The path of the Wall across Northumbria and Cumbria is a difficult walk, keeping to high, craggy, defensible ground. It is quite remarkable.

You can see a fair bit of Hadrian's Wall today, though it tends to be low enough now to clamber over with little effort. The stone has been pilfered during the many centuries since the garrisons were repatriated, and not a few grand and not-so-grand buildings have a bit of Roman Britain in them. The stone above the door may read "Erected in 1861", but in the basement is a stone with "Hadrian (heart) Antinous" scratched on it.

I recently visited an exhibition at the Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend that featured a large bronze sculpture of Emperor Hadrian's head, apparently made when he was in his prime. The bronze was discovered in the River Thames in 1834, recovered, and has remained in the British Museum except on this one special occasion. I examined the face carefully. Hadrian was, to my tastes, a most unattractive man. I can only think he was quite honest and ordered the piece to portray him as he was. I had to wonder if Antinous indeed jumped into the Nile, perhaps holding a bag full of bricks. Some say it was a benevolent suicide, but would you fancy waking up next to Hadrian when you are the most beautiful boy in the world?

The first time I saw a portion of Hadrian's Wall, I was on one of those coach trips the United Kingdom is famous for. Our driver pulled off the highway, rolled into a small town, and stopped the bus just outside a petrol station. There, at the edge of the forecourt, was a collection of dark stones, now well-worn and showing no right angles, some ten feet long and a few feet thick, one to three feet high.

"This," announced our guide, a Cockney bloke called Robert, "is Hadrian's Wall!"

My heart sank. The Americans on the tour poured down the steps with digital cameras clicking, and made a fuss of the incredible thing we had come to see, and posed sitting on it for pictures to pass out to their friends back in Arizona where they have only the Grand Canyon to impress them. I once, by the way, stood at the "Bright Angel Lookout" on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. At Hadrian's Service Station Forecourt Wall, my heart sank.


ON THE VERY top of Gloster Hill, in Amble, is "Gloster Hill Farmhouse". It must be, as there's a sign saying just that. The farmhouse is quite modern, red bricks with white trim, and has a nice gravel path, a neatly mowed lawn, flowerbeds and some mature trees. Lovely, but there is more.

Towards the east side of the level garden at the farmhouse is a gate. The gate is inside the property, not on the roadside, and in a somewhat overgrown area. And it is a Roman gate. Two columns, dirty grey stone, square, carved, with capitals, rising up at alarming angles to the ground, perhaps ten feet high.


STANDS A SENTRY outside a gate on a hilltop overlooking fields and forests and swampy meadows and the cold sea. An icy wind roars in from the northeast, clipping the tops of the near-black waves and arriving unbroken on the hill a half-mile inland. The wind goes straight up the fellow's leather skirt, raises goose-flesh on his arms, makes his eyes water. He's all of seventeen.

His mates call him Janus, for a lark, though his name is Gaius, and he comes from Gaul. He doesn't mind being called Janus. His mother called him Gai, and that's why he ran away from home. That, and to see the known world.

"Frankly," thought Gaius, as his genitals contracted a step further than he'd ever thought possible, and frankly is how he thinks, even though a Frenchman, "I'd give my left nut, if I could find it, to transfer to the Riviera right now. So much for August in Britain! It must be Global Warming. Those dolphin- and tree-hugging folks back in Rome say it's from burning so many Christians back in the day."

So as to take his mind off the extraordinary discomfort he was feeling from his neck down, Gaius got to thinking about his origins. He travelled back in time, and came up short.

The lad knew his parents well enough, and his two obnoxious sisters. He could just remember his grandparents, smelly people - for they were getting on when he was young and farted a good deal. The Romans introduced many people to cabbages and peas, and, of course, the Emperor Claudius had encouraged flatulence; Constantine tried to outlaw the practice, but he was just whistling in the wind trying to do it.

And that was that. Gaius had no books, no personal oral history, no brass plates or clay tablets, Papyrus Post-its had not been invented, not even a tattoo. His history began with passing wind, and his present involved standing out in a surpassing cold, stiff breeze. What would he tell his children? Look at my family nose and lips, and sniff the air. When I am grown old, there is our story.


TWO BOYS ARE chasing each other about a bramble-covered hilltop. They have come from the four farms on the east side of the River Coquet. With only 152 people living in Amble in 1801, a census year, it is remarkable that boys aged fifteen or sixteen should have the time off to run about and play, much less the desire. Perhaps it was a Sunday and God wasn't looking? At least they weren't wasting the day badger-baiting behind a hedgerow.

There are two monoliths near the boys, and the game revolves around them for a time. One of the posts, which towers overhead, is tilted somewhat, the other is upright; the ground is a bit spongy from the English rain. There are no trees about, though the rotting sawn-off stumps of some remain. There are wooden buildings down the hill a short way. Because the sun can shine directly onto the Roman gate in 1801, it has bleached white. It is not marble, but it is impressive none the less.

"Antony," said Adrian, stopping suddenly, "do you know anything about this gate we've been dodging around?"
"Not really. My father says that the Romans built it thousands of years ago. My mother thinks it was a decorative structure put up only fifty years ago."
"Do you think an imitation gate would have been built with one post looking as if it might topple over?"
"I believe that might be the hallmark of a good impostor: a flaw, some ugliness, a defect in character." Antony reads books, a dangerous hobby and a hindrance to obtaining basic knowledge.
"So real things would be beautiful and unblemished?"
"At least on the outside. Like actors."
"Aren't actors impostors, then, by their very calling?"
"Not at all. Not if they are playing men. If they are playing gods, of course they could not possibly be treated seriously."
"So, men are not gods?" Adrian is thinking of something that he once read, for he takes chances with books too.
"Neither are gods; not even kings and emperors…"
"And impostors, cracked and with chinks, seem most believable!"
"Adrian, you're catching on!"


I SPEND SEVERAL hours a week hunting down my ancestors. My father's people lived in and around London, at least as far back as 1740 when Thomas and Hannah Eldridge began married life together. Before that, we trace back to Battle in East Sussex. Battle is near Hastings, which is how it got its name. 1066 and all that. My mother's family are from Lancashire, and I've got some of those members of my family detailed going back about two hundred years.

At this time of my life my home is in the region of England where the remnants of my father's family now live. They moved north in the 1970s. On my luxury coach trip a few years ago, we drove through Northumberland, where I had not been before, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this northernmost English county. I had expected coalmines, slagheaps and dust. For good or evil, Mrs Thatcher fixed all that and the landscape has been greened over. Trees, absent for millennia, are coming back, surrounding castles, built by William and other conquerors, that have been gathering ghosts for up to nine hundred years. Flat land close to the sea, behind dykes for many years, is being allowed to flood at high tide in order to bring back wildlife that has had no easy place to live.

There are beaches ranging for dozens of miles to the north and south of Amble: soft, golden sand. The dunes are studded, in places, with tank barriers, pill-boxes and guard posts from World War Two.

The Germans were kept at bay, but Vikings invaded this part of the British Isles, starting in 789 AD and for the next 200 years, leaving traces of their language and their genes, and, unfortunately, the feeling that Viking invasions should be re-enacted yearly to amuse the tourists. Last month, when a Viking Horde came ashore at the Amble Sea Fayre Festival, a friend gave his critique, and it was brutal:

"Clearly they could find no decent actors, or people of passable Viking stock. Instead, they must have hired on a group of down-and-out old hippies and given them wooden swords to use on the locals. And the local defenders weren't local either. More poxy hippies. The actual Vikings would not have been so in need of a bath."

No matter the pitfalls, and, perhaps because there are no open-pit collieries, I love it here. While I trace my own direct family members to the south and west, I'm now looking for signs of intelligent death in the northeast.

Many of the ghosts I have heard about are quite routine. You'd expect this: people are routine in life, why not when they pop their clogs? As John Lennon could have said: Can a leper change his spots?


IT MAY BE that only truly good people look back. Dictators commission five-year plans and F├╝hrers dream of a thousand years. There may be something unavoidably evil in looking forward. "We will fight this war to the end, and win it, if it takes ten or twenty years!" is a way of not saying: "We will kill and kill and kill, even if we all must die!"

Jay's parents, more especially his mother, certainly looked back. It was not only fashionable in 1999 to delve into genealogy, but compelling and increasingly easy.

Jay, however, was not into fashion, and he cared nothing for the past. If he had known any of his personal history, he might still have ignored it.

"We have a great-great-great-many-times in the family called Adrian, lived right here in Amble two hundred years ago. Just found him on the 1801 Census." Jay's mother beamed and hoped to interest her sullen boy.
"Well, that's a naff name. Adrian."
"It's a version of Hadrian, you know. The Roman emperor."
"That's boring stuff. Did Hadrian even come here for real? Did he even exist? Does anything exist? Does anything really matter?"
"He left a wall…"
"Maybe if he'd left a ghost I could care. But I don't. I'm going out."

And Jay, in his grey sweats, grey trainers and grey baseball cap, walked across Amble and up Gloster Hill.

The country lane over Gloster Hill is narrow: an approaching vehicle would have to pull into the brush to allow your own small car to pass. The view is spectacular, there are few trees to block it, and Warkworth Castle is shining in the cold, spring sunlight, a mile or so away. The North Sea is sparkling over the low headland beyond the Coquet Estuary. There are a few geese on the river, and fewer boats. Although it is late April, the year is new.

Jay is not a stupid boy, but his attitude masks any appearance of innate wisdom. The grey baseball cap, pulled down, makes him unpleasant. No sixteen-years-old should be unpleasant, there is everything in the world to live for, isn't there?

Over the fence, through the long grass, and Jay slumps against one of the pillars of the old Roman gate. Standing by the other pillar, though Jay cannot see him, is another young man. A fellow who looks remarkably like Jay, especially his nose and mouth, and who is, as you know, dressed in odd Roman gear. Some sort of re-enactment? I see the ghost of Gaius, so do you, but Jay does not. Attitude, you know.

"I have to do something about those bastards at the high school," Jay is thinking. "They keep saying I'm gay. Teasing me. And I don't think I am."
"I don't much care for being called Gai myself," offers Gaius, but he's not heard this time. "Janus is kind of cool, though. God of the Gate."
"Dylan and Eric got it right."
"Bob and Clapton!" Gaius reads minds—ghosts can, you know—and is a pretty with-it ghost.
"Columbine! Da Bomb!" And Jay pulls his cap down a little further, and thinks of the future.

Not every ghost story need be creepy, but it does help to have a certain frisson.


GHOSTS CANNOT HURT us. Remember that Hamlet felt awfully sorry for his father's spirit: "Alas, poor ghost!" If there are ghosts, they may be busy haunting each other. Those risen from the gulags may be worrying Stalin, and millions might be bugging Hitler. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are ineffective ghosts now. On a simpler level, Catherine Howard's spectre is said to run screaming after Henry VIII in a corridor—quaintly renamed "The Haunted Gallery"—in Hampton Court Palace. In November 1541, Henry lost his rag; in February 1542, Catherine lost her head; in 2008, Catherine's ghost is a popular tourist draw at Hampton Court. Nothing more.

We cannot change the past, and I believe we cannot plan to change or create the distant future from the present. For the future, we can only do the immediate with any certainty, and we should get on with that.

Should we live, as a song goes, for absolute pleasure? According to the Bible: "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour." (Ecclesiastes 2:24). This suggests that we should have some fun, get on with life, not dwell on death, and that it is the best thing we can do for ourselves.
Let go of the ghosts. Let ghosts be dead. Live!


I OWE HADRIAN a debt. It may be that I am descended from one of his legionaries: something about the nose, the mouth. I suppose that as DNA research gets deeper and deeper into who exactly we are, a computer somewhere might flag me, along with others in, perhaps, modern Europe, and place us all originally in a forest clearing outside the British Isles. We might have been quite happy somewhere long before Romulus and Remus bade farewell to the she-wolf and went on to fight to the death—the death of Remus, at least—over the founding of a city. Some considerable time after that, a direct ancestor of mine may have joined the Roman army—perhaps just for the uniform, shiny sword, and bubble-and-squeak—and ended up on a boat for Britain. The rest is history. I am history. And, perhaps I'm not.

If I am pure Anglo-Saxon or, gods forbid, a Pictish person, deep down, and not at all European, I still owe Hadrian and the Romans for glass and double-glazing, aqueducts, baths, flush-toilets, home heating, racecourses and concrete. And extraordinary war machines.

I also owe Hadrian for a walk that I enjoy, over Gloster Hill in Amble, made special because on the top of the hill there is a gate: a Roman gate. I don't suppose Hadrian personally ordered it to be built, and it may have been constructed centuries after that Emperor walked and rode in the Northumbrian countryside, but he set things in motion.

Hadrian, bless him, is responsible for this story.


suz said...

let's see if blogspot will let me leave a comment. it tends not to like me.
LOVED this bit of writing, dear bolphie. you are so very, very gifted. you make me long for the north of england which is so weird because i'm completely allergic to cold and dark.
i have to take issue with your friend's assessment of vikings. if there was any people that avoided baths more than hippies, it was my dear norse ancestors. and considering where they lived in the days prior to heated indoor plumbing, one can see why.
here's my blog should you be interested in checking it out. it mostly deals with things that annoy me or dull complaints about how my garden or latest baking attempt has failed miserably. but since few blogs will be as lyrical as yours, you just have to deal.
:) khaire

Ruth L.~ said...

This is "Classic Ross." I'm looking forward to more of this ramble through Amble, and all the side trips you'll take us on.

Funny (not funny ha ha, but human nature funny) how tourists pose all over history. Leaving their mark, I suppose. Saying "I was here." I often watch people pose in "special" places and wonder how many of them bother to download the pix (or develop the film) and how often they look at those pix after that. But later those who study family genealogy will find them and be glad to see their ancestors engaged in life.