I was sitting on a bit of ruined abbey nursing the book I was supposed to be reading, enjoying the breeze and the faint brown smell that mulched York.
I tweeted something like: “What a magnificent city this is. Like a goddess! I am stumbling around like a primitive something.”
This was not altogether true, I was now sitting and stumbling only inwardly.
I started trying to write what follows in the past tense which I find very awkward, like writing left-handed. But here I went.
A friend of mine spent her school years abroad. She studied English literature and history and watched a lot of BBC television. After about eighteen years she finally set foot in Europe, was granted some sort of residential permanency and set about the serious business of assimilation.
She started in Rome. Being a trusting and naive member of the European diaspora she believed Europe to be some sort of cultural aggregate. (She later learned this to be an accurate but uncommon view which for a time she found confusing.)
In her far away studies she had spent many hours poring over street plans and elevations of urban, C 14th Rome. She knew which chapels bristled from which naves of which cathedrals and whose canvases and sculptures would be found in them. She knew which galleries and palazzi owned which works by whom and even which were of doubtful provenance. She knew the mythical stories depicted in fountains and on plinths and how the whole buildings had once looked, where now stood roped-off stony outlines. She knew these outlines too.
But, she said, no essay or exam preparation had prepared her for the shock, the smack of realizing that THIS Rome, thrumming with Piaggios and boys with nice jumpers and combed hair, THIS Rome was THAT Rome. The microfiches and slides, the imported catalogues and postcard reproductions of Great Works she had consumed, the material that constituted her entire education was this: this gelato, this boy in D&G glasses, this nappied toddler scrambling over this fallen column lovingly guarded by this black moth of an Italian Mama – this was that.
And here she was in it, drinking in the sun, the shameless admiration of Italian boys, and the starry glasses of prosecco.
She could recite this literature, she could draw maps of these streets possibly better than the people who lived on them, but she still thought: “Why didn’t anyone say?”
It wasn’t that she felt deceived or deprived, she said. Neither was it like she had turned up to a party the morning after, only to find everyone gone – though she admitted it was sometimes a little like that.
It was more like, and she said this was the best she could explain it, that she didn’t know who to thank.
As I wrote this I thought, as I often do, that had I been sitting where I then was, exactly 400 years earlier, I would have been part of a thick stone wall. I wondered how many centuries-dead people might have leant against that wall crying or laughing or bursting to go to the toilet, praying or farting? What might I, Wall, have seen or heard?
I finished writing and was walking away now remembering a documentary in which a scientist described how one day we will be able to hear all the sounds that have ever been emitted on the earth. Yes. Everything that has ever whispered, plinked or fizzed. He said it was all out there – the sound was all still out there: dinosaurs’ yowls, Shakespeare’s discarded drafts, Jesus’ teachings – we just have to develop a way of capturing it. An ear for the universe.
And then we will know.
What a reckoning that will be.