Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.
Guten morgen and welcome to Blog Five.
“Guten Morgen,” they greeted me, not quite in unison,
the husband one foot further up the steps,
reading the last bullet point, “AD 43 – the Romans invade…”
as his smiling wife/girlfriend/partner
turned to the earth-hue illustration of
Canterbury in AD 300 – Roman prime.
He arrived just in time to take proffered palm
open and waving languid behind her,
a move perfected, unconscious
after a lifetime of Mrs leads, Mr follows.
They read, peruse the start of things,
the promise of civilisation by The Stour.
She laughs, glancing past him, declaring
“It’s so funny, all this.
I mean, it wasn’t us – or our papas.
And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even our opas.
But if it wasn’t for we Germans,
this place wouldn’t be here today –
and you would be out of a job!”
Like I say, Guten Morgen one and all! That situation was part of my stint at the museum yesterday and as a result, has influenced the way I’m scribbling today. Bear with me.
Years ago I had a friend. Just to clarify, that’s not to say that I only ever had one friend. But rather, we were mates then, but we are not now. People change, so do priorities etc, etc and all that. There was no malice and if you are out there Paul, good luck to you, matey. Anyway, when my friend was young he spent many a Sunday around his grandparents’ house, sucking Bulls’ Eyes, drinking warm Lemon Barley (yuck!) and listening in on conversations that maybe he shouldn’t have. But hey, with Songs of Praise as the alternative, what would you do? His grandfather was a veteran of the War in The Far East but seldom spoke about his time in the forces – unless a particular date came round or death of a comrade appeared in the local obituaries column. One leap year Paul’s grandfather started to talk about the Fall of Singapore and from there his time as a POW. As the memories flowed, so did the tears and as the details of hardships became more gruesome, Paul’s dad turfed him out of the room as gently as possible, telling Paul to “Get your gran to stick the kettle on.” Not used to seeing his dad or grandfather cry, Paul later told me that it was a horrible, horrible moment and that soon after, much to his mum’s flummoxed annoyance, his dad went through the house throwing out anything Japanese. Like father like son, Paul loyally followed suit and at school frequently professed a hatred of all things ‘Jap’ (as he put it) – a trait which unfortunately branched illogically sideways, including when drunk, our local, Chinese chip-shop owner. Apart from this unfortunate show of familial loyalty Paul was a nice guy so whether he eventually grew out of this on his own or whether someone decided to have a strong word it was hard to say, but one day he seemed to notice and not rant when everyone else was swapping tapes for their Sony Walkmans. Maybe his tape-to-tape ghetto blaster was just getting too heavy, but I like to believe that he came to see that it wasn’t the current Japanese population who were responsible for the hurt his grandfather and others suffered and so happily allowed himself to knick a Walkman from Dixons. I know that he was aware of this being a contradiction because he told me that it didn’t mean he loved his granddad any less. Like I say, time moves on and at some point wounds, though not forgotten, have to be allowed to heal.
Which brings us back to what the German couple were saying at the start of this blog. They are right – ironically, the Roman Museum would very possibly not exist if it hadn’t been born out of an ‘island-state’, a time of suspicion and propagated hatred for other nations – World War Two. It is true that there were and always will be conscientious objectors, pacifists and people for whom force is not the answer, but in 1939 – 1945 the voice from on high was constantly schooling the British people on the threat of, well, almost everyone else. They were either out to get us or not even trying to save us. Thankfully that view wasn’t always universally held and has been rectified somewhat these days. However, then, defending Britain and other nations from the evil of fascism and dictators was seen as the only way to act and at the start of the conflict, duty, anger, fear and national pride played a big part in prompting our islanders to keep the world safe. On many occasions our press was censored so that casualty figures would not disillusion the public about the success or otherwise of our cause. As the war years continued however, memories of WW1, more knowledge about allied deaths and the relentless bombing of coastal counties, London and other major industrial cities like Coventry, Liverpool Birmingham, Plymouth took their toll and made us think even more than usual. Being an island can be a real strength but also a cause for vulnerability. And at times the people of Canterbury certainly were.
As difficult as it may be to believe now when you take a latte break or pound the heritage trail, on the 1st of June 1942 Canterbury was ferociously bombed as part of what became known as the “Baedeker Raids” – named thus because the Baedeker Tourist Guide was used to target historical and cultural sites. Carrying on from pilgrimage times, Canterbury was – as ever- a tourist hotspot and in the guide had three stars, meaning that it was deemed worthy of bombing. War tacticians and current historians believe this blitz was a retaliatory attack after the allies had bombed the cathedral city of Cologne on May 30th. Accounts vary as to how many bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on Canterbury (between 6,000 – 10, 000) but thankfully the cathedral was not turned to rubble so the intended devastating effect on British morale was reduced. This was in no small part due to the cathedral’s Dean, the Reverend Dr Hewlett-Johnson, whom, having paid close attention to why Coventry Cathedral had been so badly damaged, organised dozens of ladders to be fitted to the cathedral buttresses. This allowed the city’s fire-watchers to gain access quickly and therefore throw the vast majority of the incendiaries down into the precinct below to be extinguished before they could do more serious damage. Sadly, this didn’t stop a fifth of the city from being obliterated by explosives and fire, with the further tragic loss of 43 people and an additional 81 injured.
But from such carnage came good, as in the resultant clear-up operation of the shops and premises around Longmarket and Butchery Lane area, remains of a large Roman townhouse pavement were discovered. Here was concrete – or at the very least, tesserae (mosaic) – proof of Roman civilisation and habitation in the city, complete with wall paintings and under-floor heating. The war obviously still going strong meant that most of the public had other things to worry about, but there have long been rumours that even as the bombing continued, the city’s archaeologists were proposing an all night watch be kept on the finds as locals were supposedly climbing over the wreckage and down into the main crater to obtain their own bit of history. Details of the Blitz, the discovery of artefacts and subsequent excavations in 1945/6 and 1958 – 1961 are exhibited in the museum today and although it never ceases to amaze me how much knowledge can be deciphered from a tiny piece of stone or pottery ware, the cabinets literally hum with life and the joy and pride of the archaeologists and volunteers is still a joy to see.