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An East Anglian field, given over to grass and dog-walkers, used to be somewhere more, and something more.
One of the pleasures of living in East Anglia is the depth of its history. Layers upon layers of 🤯. I’m surrounded by dissolved monasteries from the time of Henry VIII. Older than that, we sport more medieval buildings than anywhere north of Italy. Older than that, circa 700AD, it’s a land of Christian miracles. Another jump back in time, as big a leap as from now to Shakespeare’s age, you’ll find the place swarming with the commerce and intrigue of Roman Britain.
And so I find myself signing up on Eventbrite for a tour of Venta Icenorum – present-day Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk. The former capital of East Anglia. A rich and important place.
So there’s not much to see anymore. Neither the Romans, nor their British tribute-payors left much of a record about who lived here or did what or how.
So it’s all speculation based on airal photography revealing ancient roads and modern eyes clearly seeing high walls and modern toes stubbing themselves on clear foundations.
But more, much more is unknown.
My guide is a volunteer, and a good one. He hasn’t got a lot to work with, so he reads us a letter on the site. At the time, I think it a letter from someone who lived on the spot. It’s not. It’s from Seneca, who as far as I can google, mainly lives in Rome and Spain. He’s described as writing 124 letters, dealing with moral issues. I can’t see how this is one of those 124. This letter seems different. It scolds a scolder for scolding. That’s why I like it and represent it here in full.
Seneca Letter 56.1-2 c. 50AD
My dear Lucilius,
If you want to study, quiet is not nearly as necessary as you might think. Here I am, surrounded by all kinds of noise (my lodgings overlook a bath-house).
Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one's ears. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing!
When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.
Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow.
Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing.
Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, - for purposes of advertisement, - continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead.
Then there is the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.
It’s not customised to this place and its time. But it’s all we’ve got, so it will have to do. More than that, it feels like something someone would have said everywhere, and at every time.
The past is not a foreign country. It’s right here and now.
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