Two specific problems, to be ingeniously linked here on Lillabullero:
How could you roast an ox over a good fire in the middle of all those buildings? Where could you sit in a circle around the embers with the soft grass beneath you and your backs to the dark and children falling asleep in their mothers’ arms, listening to the stories of your people?
Indeed. This is true Brit Tilla, bemoaning the pervasive Roman influence on the development of Verulamium aka St Albans – and the modern world in general – in Ruth Downie‘s ‘Ruso and the river of darkness‘ (Penguin 2011), the fourth in her intriguing sequence of crime novels set in Roman Britain at the time of Hadrian (of wall fame). It’s one of the many neat instances of what makes the books so fascinating, this capturing of a moment of social change with an acute awareness of what happens to a colonized people, the differing responses over time between and within the various native groups. This is the way things happen, the coming of the urb, the way empire works, with all the resonances to the present day.
The culture clash is reflected in the central characters of the series, one of the great double acts of contemporary literature, no less – Ruso, the sceptical Roman doctor who is doomed to take up the role of the reluctant investigator, and Tilla, the spirited British slave he marries, who is not going to forget where she comes from. There is a lot more than a simplistic embodiment at play here; this couple lives, loves and compromises. “I asked you to do something, Tilla, and as usual you did the opposite,” says the man to whose benefit this may well have resulted in. Indeed, Ruth (for some reason her British publishers insist on hiding her behind sexless initials – R.S. no less) is refreshingly sympathetic to husbands and generally even-handed in her handling of the gender blame games.
The prose, as ever, sparkles like a well presented decent session bitter: fruit, hops, flavoursome but not too strong, and with – to my drinking palate’s persuasion at least – a hint of ginger. It slips down easily and makes for the improvement of the day. As well, though, I feel a new intensity in ‘Ruso and the river of darkness‘. This is a tale of vicious corruption and community tensions and there are some passages of real dramatic power. The realisation for Ruso that Verulamium is Chinatown (my reference is to the Jack Nicholson film – thank you, Neil) is stunning and it’s a shame in some ways that the novel couldn’t have ended bleakly and artistically there (“Forget it Ruso, it’s Verulamium” – you must have seen the film) but I guess the genre demands a cleaning-up, and the baddies get their comeuppance on technicalities by the end (shades of Al Capone the tax evader).
I have to mention the wit that’s never far away. Traditional remedies from both traditions are detailed with a quaint touch, and as a humanist I like the gentle everyday treatment of religious affairs. Ruso is sceptical Roman, Tilla linked up with an early Christian cell in Gaul in the previous book but hasn’t exactly forgotten the old British gods. So: “Tilla clattered the shutters open and apologized to the household gods for leaving them with the smell that still lingered despite yesterday’s efforts with the scrubbing brush, and then apologized to Christos for paying attention to them,” while later “Ruso closed his eyes and wished he believed in Tilla’s Christos, the god who answered prayers anywhere and did not demand cash in return.” How nice, too, the lavish menu drawn from all corners of the Roman Empire, described for patrons in the language of an M&S food ad, while, “The origins of ‘tenderest leaves of winter vegetables’ were not stated. Presumably that was local cabbage.” A friend doubts the historical accuracy about some of the Brit tribes stuff but I guess it’s a grey area. It didn’t stop me from being well entertained and I await with relish the next one, though I hope Tilla’s broodiness doesn’t become an major part of her being.
There’s a link (and here’s the first chain in my link) on Ruth’s good looking blog to a telephone interview she did with Ian Williams for the Catskill Review of Books, available as a podcast or download from WJFF Radio (go to March 26, 2011 and click on ‘Play’ or ‘Download’; don’t bother withe The Catskill review link, you get a page of Chinese characters). In the interview she tells of the original inspiration for the series (a Eureka! moment on Hadrian’s Wall) and the interviewer comments that Milton Keynes, where Ruth was living when she started writing the books, could be described as being ‘Roman’ in idea, in as much as it’s a new town and the Romans, in colonising Britain, were essentially doing so by building a string of new towns.
I had high hopes of the new exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery, a building with very straight sides. Gareth Jones grew up in MK and the Gallery Facebook wall promised the it would be “exploring the social and cultural landscape of Milton Keynes in the 1970s“, the interesting visionary pioneer period, as the people moved into the new estates. Depends what you mean by exploring. Here’s what the Exhibition Guide says about what’s in the Long Gallery:
Twelve Men, 2011, presents a single-room installation using a series of Gitanes cigarette adverts that featured in Sunday colour supplements in the 1970s, with blue aluminium frames that suggest French cigarette packaging. Jones explores the politics of desire as suave male models pose with this classic brand, exuding the impossible glamour and decadence of the decade. Collected as he was growing up in the newly formed Milton Keynes …
Got that? It’s a set of pages cut out of the Observer colour magazine by the teenaged Jones and now displayed behind glass in frames the same colour as the cigarette packets. They are undoubtedly cool looking dudes, young Belmondos all, the whole French schtick. And yes, as a smoker then, the soft non-flip packs had a certain allure, while the cigarettes themselves were short, crumbling, burned fast and were not particularly satisfying. And Jones cut these adverts out of those colour supplements when he was a schoolboy in Milton Keynes in the late 1970s. It makes you think. And these 12 framed and fading adverts are all displayed on just the one straight wall.
So the problem with the other three straight walls in the Long Gallery – the largest in the building in this highly flexible subsidised exhibition space – is that they are blank. Nada to see. You see (to quote from the Guide again):
Jones views the Long Gallery as a kind of modern ballroom, in which the scaled-down display creates a theatrical and powerfully charged atmosphere, inviting the viewer to occupy the space and prescribe meaning to the work.
No it doesn’t. Well, it may invite it, I suppose. The other rooms weren’t much fuller or better; the ‘digital artwork’ ie. a slide show projected on a wall of black and white work from official Development Corporation photographers: there’s a pipeline, there’s a stream “dream” theme sequencing – that was the bit I stayed in the room with at least – failed to engage.
I still defend the Gallery‘s continued existence – it depends on who I’m talking to precisely how – and for sure the Council money they get goes to supporting work with young people in the community, but this show is there for nearly 3 months and it and its like provoke anger as a waste of space and resources. My wife once turned around and walked out in high dudgeon after 20 seconds – I can’t remember which show that was – and will need a lot of persuading to go back in.
She did love Marcus Coates‘ ‘Morning chorus’ video installation though, so all is not quite lost.