ALTHOUGH graciously allowed to be away from work for ages during the summer, I had little holiday. I’m not complaining: visiting my mother daily in hospital after she had fractured bones in her left leg afforded me a practical focus of purpose, an opportunity to expend neglected filial emotions, and a simple routine, which were in themselves a blessing.
I was lucky, too, with my mum in Hexham General for a spell, to have an alternative to my regular route back to Carlisle (the A69) along Hadrian’s Wall. Driving the so-called Military Road, built by the Duke of Cumberland after the 1745 uprising, on some surprisingly luminous late afternoons, was sheer joy.
How was it, I asked myself, that an archaeologically enthused schoolboy, all those years ago, never managed to do this? Housesteads, Chesters, Vindolanda, and Corbridge forts were all new to me, and strangely moving. I, who have lived so long in a place where you can walk into what are entire buildings still very much in use from the Roman age, surprised myself by the strength of my reaction to what (in Eddie Izzard’s penetrating description) are essentially “a series of small walls”.
I suppose, in the Wall’s case, a small but long wall (80 Roman miles, c.74 Imperial miles). Also small are the wooden writing tablets from the fort at Vindolanda, the complete collection of which was recently voted the most loved national treasure in the British Museum’s collection. Many of them were transliterated by my Oxford Ancient History tutor, Alan Bowman.
Preserved in anaerobic conditions, as one phase of fort-building yielded to another, the tablets amplify our knowledge of the Roman army significantly: no other written source has revealed such detail about the supply and service-terms of Wall garrisons, besides giving us the oldest known example of handwriting of a Western woman: Claudia Severa’s invitation to her friend, Lepedina, the wife of the camp’s commander, to her birthday party.
I wonder what small-scale domestic pleasures were on offer here at the end of Empire.
No language barrier
WE PLAYED the game Eurobabble, to hilarious effect. I was staying the night with old schoolfriends, Pippa and Andrew Pearson, and their daughter Natasha, and her French-exchange friend, at their holiday home in Ambleside — another breakout from my concentrated hospital visiting.
This boxed parlour-game (not strictly being played on a board), designed surely with the diocese in Europe in mind, tests ability to (1) mime actions in the style of a range of European national stereotypes; (2) read English phrases in foreign accents; and (3) answer simple questions read out in foreign languages.
How gloriously unashamed were we to caricature our take on cross-country skiing in German style, or heavily aspirate our questions read in Spanish. When I was using my best and obviously authentic Italian accent to read an English phrase, my fellow contestants were unanimous in guessing that it was Swedish. Ho hum: are we ever credible witnesses of our own abilities? Or is it just that everyone else is unimaginative and ignorant? Or were they in a conspiracy?
I had forgotten just how far board- and parlour-games stretch the boundaries. Later, the oldies set out to embarrass the younger cohort further with an iPod medley of favourite hits from the ’80s, to which we jigged around à la a suburban wedding party.
My contribution was that pinnacle of Norwegian kitsch, A-ha’s “Take on Me”, a musical element I have long fantasised about announcing with an Anglican voice “For the anthem . . .” at evensong: “Music, A-ha: words, A-ha.”
This was something I didn’t share with the party, considering it untranslatable, and that it was obvious that the French-exchange friend had already designated me the most eccentric person she had ever met. Why gild the lily?
When the youth had retreated to watch the film of Les Mis on the TV (why, oh why?), Pippa, Andrew, and I got into training as a potential Only Connect team by doing examples of the connection wall online. Characteristically, I generally overrated, Andrew underrated, and Pippa rated accurately our chances to succeed. A winning team, perhaps. Watch this space.
A HOLIDAY in an afternoon? Glyndebourne hits the mark, surely. A splash-out, a bit of luxury, all refined to its very essence. I suppose it cost as much as a two-week, last-minute package to Turkey; or, to make a really meaningful comparison, the price paid to traffickers for a migrant’s passage from Turkey to a Greek Island.
But this is my abbreviated holiday, remember; so let’s not linger there just now. We Brits love doing things other than gardening, as well as gardening, in gardens, don’t we? And if there’s a marquee involved, even better. I would cite the universal popularity of The Great British Bake Off to prove my point.
So the Ravel double bill towards the close of the Glyndebourne season was just the ticket. Who would have predicted such a lovely Friday to start off the August Bank Holiday weekend? And who ever would have thought I could be satisfied with displaying myself here without full evening dress, clerical or otherwise.
Times change, and sometimes needs must.
NOW that I am back again, the weather remains surprisingly fine — at least up north. My mum is now in a cottage hospital in Alston, a town high in the East Cumbrian fells, near to the source of the South Tyne. There are seven beds, with five currently filled, and a level of personalised care which places this NHS structure on a level with, I imagine, that of a private sanatorium.
This summer, I have had plenty of opportunity to count my blessings: the countries in which I live and work are not war-torn; I need not migrate with family or friends to find joy in life, be the pleasures simple or sophisticated; I treasure a culture in which the past and its traces are not considered such a threat to the present that archaeology (and archaeologists) are to be eradicated.
Getting some perspective on thankfulness is a holiday in itself.
The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.