Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.
Ciao a tutti (when in Rome, as they say) and welcome to Blog Ten.
It’s not a sixth sense or anything as dramatic, but if you thought about it, I bet you could tell if a visitor is into something or not – whether it be a guest attending one of those overcast barbeques at your house, or in this case someone viewing a tourist site. It’s not rocket science is it? Usually there’s something in the way they drag their heels getting over the threshold or in contrast, if they go speeding on, almost willing their partners to get a move on. If you are close enough to see in person, there’s also the tautness of the face, glaze of eyes or sag of the lips – not sulking exactly, but not really taking part. And if we’re honest, we’ve all had a christening, work-place training or a party we’ve been dragged to reluctantly. We’ve all been there and done that. It happens.
Yesterday was roasting hot. So hot it felt like all the accidental sweat and vapour had been sucked right up through the ozone and away. No breeze and no respite until well gone shops-shut closing time. There’s a tendency in some folks to be sceptical about British weather and in particular our summers – to tell you that it’s been rubbish or that old classic, summers were much better In The Good Old Days /When We Were Young. Yeah, right! Solid years of golden warmth! Yes the summer of 1976 was a cracker, but we all remember days of foreheads on the window pane watching the rain and bored to tears. However, back to the present, whether it was the cool promise of the venue itself or the start of the school holidays up north, I don’t know – but the museum was doing good business, with groups and couples and extended families/ gaggles of friends. Whatever the reason, there was a lively buzz about the place and by about 4pm I had a poem on the go so retreated from the noise by writing in the Roman dining room.
After about 20 minutes of happily scratching away with my pen, I was trying to zone out whilst being distracted by wishing I had even more cushioning on my backside to stave off the ache of the wooden kline (dining sofa). I’m sure that this is why writers try so hard to convince their loved ones that they need a study to work in peace and why on so many writers’ blogs/ websites the desk and seat are always prominent. We tell you we can write anywhere, but it’s clearly easier to do so if we have a modicum of comfort! The dining corner is out of sight, but even when focused on work you can still hear what’s going on and what was pricking my interest was a dry, almost deliberately so, male voice, 20s/30s maybe, working the rooms as he walked through, asking the same thing in what turned out to be four different ways –
“Had enough yet?…Finished, yeah?…You’re not too bored?…OK? Time for an ice-cream, now?”
As it was the first time in all my visits I had heard the like, I was curious and went out to take a look.
Stalking the voice, I was expecting a bored boyfriend or an exhausted dad, maybe carrying a lot of shopping bags or loaded down with those Dora Explorer, Iron Man mini-rucksacks that all kids seem to need these days. By the way, I’m not being judgmental – mine was an old gas-mask case, but now seems to have grown big enough to kidnap a goat! However, rounding the corner by the museum’s star exhibit, the pavement section, I came upon a group of five/six French students, probably in their early teens, up on the steps overlooking the exhibits and leaning right on the glass, excitedly chatting away about the mosaic, with another group over in the far corner gesticulating at the remains of the Roman baths, weaving their hands around as if mapping something.
In the latter group, a girl with a huge, mahogany plait reaching half-way down her back suddenly ran off, almost whipping a colleague’s eye out in the process, only to return 20 seconds later to prompt and drag her group off back round the corner. Following, I saw that she was puffing out her cheeks and blowing frantically whilst pointing out a huge piece of amazingly modern looking pipe which had actually been part of the Roman bath’s under-floor heating system. She did this impersonation of hot air until another girl discovered the display of artefacts found within the bathhouse remains and started to mime plucking at her friend’s eyebrows as if with a pair of the tweezers held behind the glass. Kids! Always something to laugh at. Not a bad mantra!
As they ran off giggling, I returned to the first group and saw them say something in passing to what I assumed (judging by his familiarly sounding response) was their English teacher/guide who was sitting on a bench, half-watching the making of a villa on the screen nearby. Amidst their chatty loudness, by contrast he seemed resigned to what he possibly thought of as his fate – to wait, wait, wait for the happy students to finish and so he sat, fussed with his collar and kept checking his watch. Maybe he was desperate for an ice cream or needed the kick of a double espresso, or just keen to get to a date after his day’s work was done? Or if I’m being fairer and giving the benefit of the doubt, maybe he had done this for so many summers he had ‘seen it all’. But I guess I couldn’t help wondering whether, if you don’t engage, what do you expect to get out of an experience? Still, judging by the traffic in the museum yesterday, he was most definitely in the minority.
Not wishing to end on a down curve, in total contrast, I shall leave you with this.
Needing to get back into the right headspace to finish my poem, I returned to what I have begun to consider as ‘my spot’. Very cheeky, I know, but all humans nest – whether in a lounge painting the chimney breast a different colour; a shed probably full of well oiled but unused tools; or surrounded by detritus in the driver’s seat of our car. Anyway, as I nipped by the plastic onions and passed the rigid back of the servant girl dummy, the clink of glass being tapped on wood and dropped into ceramic slipped onto my radar. Someone was in the dining room and playing The Soldier’s Game. To the uninitiated, it’s a board game for two people which is a lot like draughts in that it involves moving two different sets of coloured counters in more or less the same manner as the rainy, caravan time-passer we all happily mastered in our childhood. To the initiated, the Roman name for this is Ludus Latruncuulorum, but try saying that after a few chilled Limoncellos!
I was about to excuse myself to the couple and then apologise for intruding, get my drink and go, when I realised that despite having far too heavy, clumpy boots on and my wearing a heady scent mix of scents, neither of the pensioners had looked my way or even seemed to notice me. Heads down, barely breathing, his hand indecisively hovered over the blue counters whilst she seemed to be silently calibrating her moves to victory. Now, a cynic might say that they were probably deaf or they were on the verge of nodding off. But I prefer to think that, like most of us swamped in the middle of our rushed, busy lives, they probably hadn’t had the free time or the chance to play a game for years. And so there, amidst the noise of the crowds, hardboard recliners and ceramic apples, they grabbed at the opportunity to read the rules and take each other on at the game. After all, we might not be centurions back from battle or a splinter-toed legionnaires, but every one of us wants to be victorious, because to the victor go the spoils – even if only bragging rights on the coach home.