The spectacle of Greece, over the last weeks, at the mercy of its creditors and fellow European Governments has been profoundly depressing. It has been a picture which, even for a professed Europhile as I am, does the image of Europe no favours. Whoever is to blame for this situation, and as in most human activities, blames sits in more than one place, there ought to be a better way of resolving the issue. As many other episodes in European history demonstrate, humiliation is a toxic ingredient in international affairs and humiliation has been dealt out in this situation in spades.
The events in Greece have been especially saddening for anyone, like me, who has been educated in or has any knowledge or love for the classical tradition. Through that tradition one is reminded of how completely central Greece, Greek language and Greek thought are to the history and identity of European and indeed western civilisation. Europe without Greece is inconceivable.
The story of Greece is that of the brilliant young man of history who has fallen on hard times in later life. Even when you have been immersed in it, it is totally staggering to reflect just how brilliant the golden age of Greek thought and civilisation was. In a couple of centuries in the middle of the first millennium BC the Greeks laid the foundations of western literature, drama, political thought, science and medicine. Little else of note happened until the rediscovery of Greek thought in the Renaissance rekindled western intellectual development almost 2 millennia later.
Even after the Greeks were conquered by the Romans in the second century BC they remained the intellectual powerhouse of the Roman Empire, providing the lingua franca for the Eastern half of the Empire and in the West providing many of the leading figures of intellectual and administrative life. Much Roman literature, philosophy and other intellectual products drew heavily from Greek traditions.The Romans weren’t known for inferiority complexes but they had a big one in relation to the intellectual superiority of the Greeks.
Greek thinking has reached modern times in other ways. What we know as Christianity owes a heavy debt to the Greeks. Starting with St Paul, Greeks and Greek speakers were crucial to the development of Christianity and Christian theology, incorporating into the Christian canon the traditions of Greek neo-Platonist philosophy. Islam too engaged with Greek thought as it took over the Greek speaking areas of the Roman Empire, embracing the Greek, and particularly Aristotelian traditions of thinking in science and medicine. As a result it was from Arabic sources from which many of these ideas made their gradual way back into western consciousness in the later Middle Ages.
So what was it about ancient Greece which led to this explosion of intellectual activity, the like of which is virtually unprecedented in human history? I am not sure if anybody precisely knows but a number of factors are important.
First in the period in question the Greeks were not limited solely to the country we know as modern Greece. A maritime people, often driven by the poverty of their own land, they spread themselves across the Mediterranean in search of opportunity and in many cases new ideas. Greeks were well established in the Ionian coast of modern Turkey (something which lasted until the struggles between Greece and Attaturk’s emerging modern state of Turkey in the early 1920s) and elsewhere in the Levant. In the west they colonised Sicily and Southern Italy (by the 5th century there were 500 Greek cities in this area). Marseille was a Greek foundation and there is some evidence that Greek explorers may have even reached Britain. Greek travellers and thinkers collected ideas and in particular acted as powerful bridge with intellectual developments of eastern civilisations in Syria, Anatolia and Egypt.
The second phenomenon which was special about ancient Greece was the creation and proliferation of city states. Fiercely competitive and often at war with each other, they provided a real focus for cultural and political developments. Their separate identities and rivalry fostered cultural developments and creativity allowing intellectuals such as Aristotle, Archimedes and many others to move between different centres of patronage which were, nonetheless, unified by a common lingua franca and cultural traditions.
Finally may be there was something about the Greek character, the love of argument and cleverness which for a number of centuries fuelled an intellectual revolution without precedent. The Greek intellectual revolution was not a silent one but one which was fought out through private and, often,public discourse. As the story of Socrates shows sometimes such intellectual struggles had a tragic conclusion
So what does all of this mean in 2015? A brilliant intellectual past does not mean that Greece should be, in some way, let off the consequences of the actions which have left it in its current economic plight. It should, however, make us reflect on what are the values which lie at the heart of the European project and consider whether we need a bolder and more generous spirit in how we approach the consequences of the economic difficulties which have traumatised the continent. As civilised Europeans we owe an awful lot to the legacy of the Greek intellectual revolution, perhaps even more than the Greek state owes to the European banks. Greek debts will one day be paid, we will remain, for ever, in debt to what Greece gave to western thought.
The undoubted highlight of my week was the first Annual Research Meeting between colleagues at the Tavistock and Portman and those at our academic partner at the University of Essex. It produced some very rich discussions no more so than a “question time” debate on the nature and purpose of research.
For good reasons research is a major voice in setting the direction of policy and action in the NHS. The aspiration for evidence based policy and practice is an accepted paradigm of how we do business although its application in the real world of health care delivery and commissioning is still patchy and inconsistent. Nonetheless at a time of ever more limited resources the mantra of doing “what works” is undoubtedly compelling. I would not want to question this view but I do think that we need to take a more sophisticated approach to formulating the questions on which we base the judgements on “what works” so that it better reflects the complexities of patient choices and the psychological and social factors which drive those choices.
Research has been one of the key domains in which the Cinderella status of mental health has been visible. Despite representing 23% of the demand on the NHS mental health accounts for only 9% of reach spending. Research in mental health has also been a fraught area at times, illustrating deep differences of view in the understanding of the causes of mental ill health of a scale unlikely to be seen in many areas of physical medicine. However mental health’s historic weaknesses in the area of research can also be turned to advantage in pointing to the need to change the paradigm of how we undertake health care research. Some of the lessons learnt in doing so can equally be applied to areas of physical health care, especially as the focus of the NHS’s work shifts from the treatment of single diagnosable conditions to the management of multi-morbidity.
Despite the historical claims of some of its practitioners, mental health has always been in a relatively poorer position than physical health in being able to categorically demonstrate what works. This has often been put at the door of a lack of scientific rigour and at times there has been some truth in this claim. However there is another factor. That is the much more visible and significant role which individual agency and social circumstances play in contributing both to the development of mental health problems and to the pathways of recovery from them.
Traditional healthcare research, epitomised by the gold standard RCT, has been historically good at demonstrating the population impact of various treatments. This model works well in situations, for instance pharmaceutical interventions, where the objectives and impact of an intervention can be clearly isolated and measured objectively, ideally over a relatively short period of time. It is also an approach which has its limitations.
There are two in particular which I would like to focus on. First is the alignment of a patient’s preferences and wishes with the purpose and potential of treatment. The best example of this is the role of anti-psychotic medication. If research on the impact of medication is purely focused on the alleviation of voice hearing it will tell a very partial story about the efficacy of those interventions. It was little surprise that the excellent work done by the James Lind Alliance in working with people with lived experience to identify priorities for research into schizophrenia and psychosis gave a significant level of prominence to work to understand the impact of treatment on sexual functioning.
Rebalancing the focus of research (as well as service delivery) by taking full account of the perspectives of people who use services is important not just to tick a box but to ensure that the questions we ask in research are driven in utilitarian terms by the interests of those who are affected by illness and not just by those who have an interest in the provision of services. Some researchers are beginning to focus on this and develop tools and techniques to take ensure patient preference can be properly taken account of in healthcare research and development. It has been very exciting, as part of our work to put together new models for CAMHS services, to work with colleagues from the Dartmouth Center for Health Delivery Science who have produced the CollaboRATE as one approach to systematically measuring shared decision making.
A more sophisticated model of asking what works also needs to look not just at preferences but also needs to be ready to take a more holistic view of the interventions which impact on health and wellbeing , including crucially the role of individual agency. Consciously or subconsciously most therapeutic processes require a level of concordance. In mental health services we know that there are major issues with dropout rates from services such as IAPT and in CAMHS the modal number of sessions is only one. These are crucial issues in a resource constrained system. We need much more research which focuses on evaluating and better understanding the qualitative impact of clinical interactions with the aim of identifying the factors in both clinical and patient behaviour which best promote positive engagement with treatment and the achievement of successful outcomes.
None of this is to decry the appropriate place of RCTs where they can best and most definitively answer key questions about effectiveness. Mental health, in particular, needs more well-constructed research of this kind and some treatments such as CBT can clearly show the benefits of building up a strong evidence base.
However we need far more than just RCTs and, as I have tried to argue in this blog, we need to put a much greater emphasis in incorporating patient preferences and a deeper understanding of individual agency as a key factor in therapeutic processes. In doing so we are more likely to research and by implication invest in the health and other care services which are most likely to increase human life and happiness.
There is nothing more certain in life than death. We can postpone it but, as yet, mankind has not found the means of avoiding our encounter with the Grim Reaper. Sometimes in the NHS we seem to forget that fact and in all our laudable efforts to save lives we neglect the equally important task of helping people to experience a good death.
I attended a couple of weeks ago the launch of a Dying Well Community Charter in Hackney, as part of my role with the One Hackney partnership of NHS, social care and voluntary sector providers. It was a very powerful occasion which reminded me of how fundamental these issues are but also how attention to the things which matter in ensuring a good death might also help us improve more generally the quality of care we provide.
Dealing with death has an emotional and psychological side and a practical one. As society we have become increasingly diffident about discussing it as an issue, in part because of the decline of organised religion, in part because we are less familiar with it, having managed, as with many aspects of real life, to banish it from our everyday consciousness.
I remember vividly my first experience of death. My grandfather died in 1972 when I was 9. He did n’t have a great death, dying alone and badly disabled on a long stay ward in a Birmingham Hospital 6 months after having a stroke. NHS rules at the time didn’t allow any visitors under the age 14 so I hadn’t seen my grandfather since he had been in hospital, despite going every week with parents only to have to sit in the car park while they visited him.
I also remember seeing him after he died, in his coffin on the morning of his funeral. He looked very peaceful, the cares of old age and illness lifted and almost seeming younger than at any time I had known him. Quite clearly he was no longer there but the chance to see his earthly remains once more helped me in coming to terms with his passing.
Talking about death is not easy and it’s often easier not to do to so. Health professionals spend a significant amount of time with patients at the end of life but as many good clinicians will admit their view of end of life care has often been focused on those individuals with a diagnosis of cancer. Even there it can be difficult to speak to patients and families directly about death.
In previous ages, and to some extent in our own, death has been the preserve of religion. My late father-in-law was a clergyman and I was struck, in talking about his work, how much of it had to do with supporting individuals and families facing terminal illness or death itself. A thoughtful and sensitive man and with a deep empathy, drawn in part from his own experience of losing his mother at the age of 7, he was very skilled indeed at the task.
We cannot expect health professionals to take the place of the religion but it is one of those areas where the work of clinicians would be enhanced by broadening the basis of their training with more focus on learning the softer more empathetic skills which help them manage the difficult situations which are so linked with illness, suffering and the provision of care.
If clinicians can have the conversation with individuals and their family members about how they might want to die and how they might want to be cared for at the end of life they can then be in a position to plan what might be possible to meet those wishes. With the right services much can be done in many circumstances to allow someone to die at home.
I would stress the right services. Dying well doesn’t necessarily require the NHS to do more but it requires clinicians and services to the right things. A well informed understanding of the dying process which is shared by patients, families and practitioners can prevent many needless and distressing hospital admissions where an inevitable stage in the process of decline is treated as a crisis with hospital admission as the default position. The warning from the USA where around 20% of healthcare costs are spent in the last year of life should show the dangers of letting this phenomenon go unchecked.
As we are exploring in Hackney strengthened specialist palliative care in the community, the availability of night sitting services as well as a generally better co-ordinated system of out of hospital care, including psychological support, should be available to provide a better quality and more cost effective alternative.
There are practical aspects of death as well as dying. It was deeply shocking at the seminar to hear about the problems of some families and individuals being able to access an affordable funeral or the insensitivity of a housing provider cancelling a tenancy immediately on an individual’s death despite it being shared by a spouse or partner. I believe it is more than possible for Government and local authorities to do things to address these issues. Information also matters as, until it happens, very few people know what needs to be done when someone dies.
There is an individual responsibility though too. It is hard to think about one’s own mortality but it is very important that we do so. In our age what constitutes a good death will be less driven than in the past by cultural norms, important thought these will be for many and crucial as they will be for those seeking to plan services.
So to finish here are some of my own thoughts on a good death.
I am grateful to have passed my half century in good health. I cannot assume that that will continue and life is something I have to accept cannot be taken for granted. My responsibility is to make the most of the life I have, not to expect its indefinite extension.
If I have a life threatening condition I would like to know as clearly as possible the likely prognosis.
As I get older my expectations of the balance between the costs and benefits of treatment should change.
Comfort and quality of life would matter. I’d strongly want to spend as much on my “last year of life” at home.
The time I had with my family and close friends would be paramount. There is a responsibility for me, at the appropriate time, to prepare the way to make my dying as reasonable and unfrightening a process as it can be for them.
If I get the chance I should make sure all my affairs are in good order.
I’d want a good funeral (the odd Welsh hymn) and a glass raised to mark my passing.
Inevitably it may all be very different but I am convinced that openness about death at both individual and societal levels are crucial priorities for us to address if we are to give the greatest number of us the chance of a good death. For as the Greek historian Herodotus commented we should consider no man happy until his end is known.
It’s now a fortnight since I and my family moved back to London after nearly 23 years living in God’s Own Country. I’d like to dedicate this blog to a celebration of a very special part of the country and, just as importantly, a very special set of folk.
Size is a defining feature of Yorkshire within which there is an amazing breadth and contrast of landscapes. Where we lived in Leeds drew us naturally to the Yorkshire Dales, a particularly distinctive limestone scenery, so much more impressive in real life than it ever was in the pages of geography textbooks. The nearest reaches of the Dales were very much on our doorstep in North Leeds but the furthest reaches in Swaledale a couple of hours drive away. If you ever could grow tired of the Dales then there was the different but equally distinctive character of the North Yorkshire Moors to explore. Beyond that the Yorkshire Wolds, which I only really managed to get to in our last year in Yorkshire, or the bleak but impressive Yorkshire coast. If you could ever have enough of upland scenery then there are many hours of lovely cycling to be had journeying through the villages of the Plain of York or the flatlands leading out to East Yorkshire.
In part because of its size, in part because it contains many places, like the Dales, which aren’t on the route from A to B, Yorkshire can hold 5 million people yet also have in relatively close proximity to its urban centres many places of genuine solitude and grandeur where, as Shelley said “We taste the pleasure of believing all we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”
Yorkshire’s probably not a place, in my opinion, to go for the weather. It’s not particularly wet like the west but it does appear to get less sun and is definitely colder. Spring can be slow coming and in the depth of winter the days are dark and gloomy. Yet when the sun shines it does not take much to make Yorkshire places look special. I am especially fond of May in Yorkshire and the look of the Dales bathed in a verdant green, crisscrossed with the silver lines of the dry stone walls.
So what of Yorkshire folk? When we first moved to Leeds, my wife’s great uncle, himself from Yorkshire, advised us “Tha can always tell a Yorkshireman but tha canna tell him much”. There is a hint of truth to this statement. It is certainly the case, as anyone who listens regularly to Test Match Special will know, that Yorkshire people are not slow to offer an opinion. When we first moved north we noted the contrast between London where if you asked for directions in the street you could easily be ignored (or more likely find someone who was just as much a stranger as you were) whereas in Yorkshire if you even so much as looked lost someone would volunteer directions. When I was training for a marathon a couple of years ago I would do a run during the week in London and one at the weekend in Leeds. In Leeds every other runner you passed would say hello and, as far as available breath permitted, make some encouraging comment. In London you were lucky if you could make eye contact.
So what of Yorkshire’s relationship with the rest of England and Britain? In many ways it is big enough to argue the case for a significant amount of devolution. After all, as was proudly pointed out at the time, Yorkshire won more gold medals at the last Olympics than Germany. It has a very clear regional identity and sees itself as very different from London and the South. It has a strong Viking heritage, reflected in many place names and in that doughty sense of independence of character which I have already alluded to. It has a distinctive cultural tradition: brass bands, choral societies, cricket, rugby league but also more contemporary traditions in music. So it’s surprised me in a way that there has been less momentum towards devolution in Yorkshire. Perhaps that reflects the absence, in contrast to the other side of the Pennines, of a dominant metropolitan area such as Manchester. It will be interesting to see whether as the momentum towards regional devolution increases whether Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield can work together to create a viable focus for regional government in Yorkshire.
As has been the case with my family for generations, economic forces have again led us to upsticks and leave the place where, very happily, we brought up our children. There will be always be a place in my heart for the White Rose and it won’t be too long before, once again, I am found in my favourite haunts in God’s Own Country.
Next Monday is a significant date in terms of British history. It marks the 800th anniversary of the agreement, in a meadow besides the Thames, at Runnymede between Staines and Windsor, of the Charter of Liberties (later to be known as the Magna Carta or Great Charter) . While some of its notoriety relates to later interpretation, in particular in the 17th century, it is nonetheless synonymous with the tradition of liberty, due process and representative Government in this country and, by transference, more widely in the English speaking world.
Magna Carta was the culmination of a long running fight between King John, and it is fair to say his predecessors, and the English aristocracy about the limits of royal power and, in particular, how royal power impacted on the rights, privileges and livelihoods of the aristocracy.
John is a notorious figure in British history. Unlike his later Plantagenet successor Richard III, he has not had the redeeming experience of having been dug up in a 21st century car park. His reputation lies exactly where the medieval chroniclers on whose testimony we are most dependent for information about his reign left it – in tatters. They portrayed him as a tyrant who squandered his inheritance, murdered his enemies, raped their wives, lost his treasure in the Wash and died a horrible death after eating a surfeit of lampreys.
As ever the truth is probably a bit more complex. The records of his Government which survive show evidence of an able administrator concerned with the extension of royal justice, undoubtedly paranoid, suffering with the unfair comparison with his courageous but equally flawed brother, Richard the Lionheart and dealt a bad hand in the nature of issues and opponents he had to deal with. In the end John’s difficulties, like those of many rulers, came down to money and the abuses he committed against aristocratic privilege reflect to a great extent the challenges he faced in raising sufficient resources to protect his overseas possessions in France.
Nonetheless at the end of his reign he lost control of his kingdom and was forced by aristocrat rebels to concede a Charter of Liberties which dealt with their grievances about the arbitrary use of royal power. For a variety of reasons it has had life which has extended well beyond the circumstances in which it was granted and has a special place in our history.
It is important to note that this was a Charter of Liberties not a Charter of Liberty. Unlike later statements such as the US Declaration of Independence, there is no overarching political theory of freedom or equality underpinning Magna Carta. It reflects no more than the attempts of a vested interest to reassert its privileges yet somehow it is contributed something to the DNA of British life and Government which has had a longer term effect.
There are a number of reasons why it is important that we use this anniversary to reflect on the state of liberty in our country.
First it reminds us of the central importance of safeguards which protect human rights, grant equality in front of the law and provide restrictions on the use of arbitrary power. Britain has in many ways one of the best traditions in respect of these principles but we have relied as much on custom and practice as formal measures to provide those safeguards. Magna Carta has great symbolic value as the most famous statement of our liberties which successive rulers of this country have wished to align themselves to in intent, if not in practice.
There is an importance in having a statement of freedoms which transcends any individual Government. In 1945, at the end of the bloodiest and most brutal conflict in human history, another land mark declaration of human rights was put together in the form of the European Convention of Human Rights. The war and the horrors of the Nazi regime made it self-evident that basic human rights, so grossly abused in the previous 12 years should be given international recognition and protection.
A major contribution was made to its drafting by British politicians and British jurists, their thinking grounded in the tradition going back to Magna Carta. For me it would be a retrograde step to repeal the Human Rights Act and especially to sever our link to the European Court of Human Rights There is something reassuring about a commitment to guarantee rights which goes beyond the writ of any national Government. International rulings can at times be awkward for national Governments but in general they are a welcome protection for ordinary people against arbitrary authority.
Second it reminds us of the importance of fair laws and the fair application of laws. Whatever a Government chooses to do the basis for its actions must be transparent and open to challenge. The arbitrary and inconsistent exercise of power is both harmful to individual citizens but also in due course undermines trust in Government itself. As I have commented in earlier blogs, there has been too much of tendency in recent years for Governments (of both political complexions) to rush to legislation, often in response to media pressure. Poorly though out laws pushed through Parliament eventually the erode the trust on which the authority of Government is based. As King John discovered fear can only get you so far in securing the support and compliance of those you govern.
The final point is that justice must not be or be perceived to be “for sale”. One of the issues which prompted the barons to rebel against King John was his practice of selling justice and we must always be concerned at the perception that wealth can in some ways buy an advantage in front of the law. Today it feels, increasingly, that the quality of justice which is open to the poor is of a different character to that which is open to the rich. This is in part as result of cuts to legal aid, in part because of the ability of the rich to buy a level of legal expertise not affordable by others, in part because of the increasing ability of rich individuals and corporations to use their wealth to buy levels of access to lawmakers not open to the more disadvantaged in society.
So Monday June 15th and the anniversary of Magna Carta should be treated as more than just a dry historical occasion. This issues which led to the meeting at Runnymede are just as important today and we should use this moment as a genuine opportunity to celebrate the tradition of this liberty in this country and to think afresh about the challenges facing it and the steps we need to take to guarantee it for the future.
I have just finished James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, perhaps the best book I’ve read this year and a beautiful account of the traditional life and perspective of a Lake District fell farmer. At the centre of the story is a very deep seated attachment to the mountain area where James’ forebears have farmed for six centuries and this has inspired me to write my next blog about the issue of “place.”
As a shepherd James uses a lovely word “hefted” to describe the genetic attachment which a flock of fell sheep have to the particular part of the mountainside where they have grazed for generations of summers. Place too has an enormous role to play in the human psyche, although increasingly less so since the start of the Industrial Revolution when the forces of capitalism began to uproot us from the patterns of settlement and work which had held or hefted the majority of us in one place for centuries.
My sense of place is very much part of my Welsh inheritance. Place is important in Welsh culture, unsurprising in a country which is made up of lots of small communities, often quite cut off from each other, even in modern times, by geography and the lack of fast communication links. Given the limited number of Welsh surnames it’s quite common to identify someone by a reference to the farm, street or hamlet where they live. The most famous of Welsh hymn writers is always referred to as William Williams Pantycelyn or sometimes just Pantycelyn as if the place as much as the man shaped the beautiful hymns he wrote. Many Welsh poems relate to places or features in the landscape.
My own family has wandered since the start of the Industrial Revolution and I have personally shifted home, several times in my life, often in search of employment. However I retain that strong sense of place. Where I live matters, the landscape whether urban or rural, the people, the sense or otherwise of community, the accent, the peculiarities of custom and practice which distinguish one place from another all make profound difference to my sense of wellbeing. My family ruthlessly take the mickey out of me for always wanting to stay behind at the end of film to see where it was filmed. The setting of a story can matter as much the story itself.
A sense of place matters too in politics and social policy. Landscapes and communities are fragile things and what they offer is so much more than bricks and mortar or a simple collection of amenities. The planners of the 1960s and 1970s have much to answer for the soulless and materialistic approach they brought to urban development which has scarred so many of our cities. Nowhere was this truer than in Birmingham, the city I was born and brought up in and whose concrete jungle I was so keen as a 20 year old to leave. This was a classic example of how government provided for the physical needs of city dwellers while ignoring their needs for community and wellbeing. While I believe planning and architecture has improved, and has lost some of the arrogant view that it knows best, the mistakes made in the developments of the post war period have cast a long shadow. How much have ugly dead end estates, with no sense of community and nothing for people to do been the breeding grounds of mental health problems, social issues, drug and alcohol misuse and crime?
Good places also need a viable economic focus. One of the themes of the Shepherd’s Life is the need to appreciate the Lakeland fells, not just as the playground of the urban masses, but also as an economic landscape within which a traditional and valued form of life, that of the hill farmer, can still continue. The balance of that economy is very fragile and vulnerable to external shocks. The joy of the hill farmer is not just admiring the aesthetic beauty of the mountains but in appreciating the deep enduring and sustainable relationship which man has built with this landscape. Such places all over the world are disappearing as wider economic forces undermine the basis on which they are able to survive. Their potential loss is an immense tragedy for humankind as we lose more and more of the diversity which is at the heart of what makes our world and our species so special.
We need wealth creation, but capitalism, left unchecked is an immensely destructive force. It raises places up like the Rhondda Valley, where my grandparents lived and where my father grew up. However when it’s finished it can leave them abandoned in a dark post-industrial no man’s land. Places of character and community can be left as islands of hopelessness where the only way up is out.
Preserving, creating or recreating good places is no easy task. It is not a thing for Governments alone although they can do much to enable it. It does need experts and it does those who can create and channel wealth in a benign manner. It more than anything needs people who care, who are prepared to put more into a community than they take out, who value the place they live in and are prepared to fight to make it a better place.
I have had a lifelong interest in Roman Britain. When I was 6, having failed to visit the Roman site at Chester on the way back from a family holiday in North Wales, I decided, one Sunday morning, to take the law into my own hands. Being the “intelligent clot” I am I knew that the A41 which went past the bottom of our road went all the way to Chester. So I set off with a carrier bag with a drawing pad and a packet of custard cream biscuits. I had walked two miles into Birmingham before my father found me.
46 years later I still find anything to do with the Romans in Britain fascinating and as my family know to their cost, it will take very little to divert me from wherever we happen to be going to visit some little piece of Romanitas, however far off the beaten track it may be. Recently it’s been a great pleasure to discover someone else’s fascination with the subject while reading Charlotte Higgins Under Another Sky which describes her journey round some of the principal (and less principal) sites of Roman Britain together with some of the stories which surround those places. It’s a great read and I thoroughly recommend it.
While there are one or two earlier references in other writers to Britain, the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55BC marks our country’s transition from prehistory to history, the first emergence of named individuals with some idea of what they did and said. I always take a pleasure that it wasn’t any old Roman who first tried to conquer Britain. He came, he saw and, of course, he didn’t quite conquer. After two expeditions, of mixed success, he was forced to give up his ambitions and it wasn’t until 43AD and the Emperor Claudius that the Romans finally added Britain to the Empire. They remained here for another 367 years until the Emperor Honorius was forced to call the legions home in 410AD and leave the British to their own devices.
As Charlotte Higgins brings out very well Under Another Sky an interest in Roman Britain is both an interest in the Romans and in Britain itself. While militarily and economically one of the most challenging parts of the Empire the Romans nonetheless successfully brought the trappings of their civilisation to Britain. Cities, roads, bathhouses, literacy are amongst the list of what the Romans did for us and while, with the exception of Hadrian’s Wall, the physical remains of Roman Britain are not as grand as those to found in other parts of the Empire the lasting legacy of the Romans is still with us. It is probably the Romans who first defined Britain as a distinct geographical and cultural entity and who initiated many of the reference points which are still very important references for our cultural identity.
Our capital London is a Roman foundation, for a while one of the most significant cities of the Empire as it became the centre of the grain supply for the Roman army in Germany. The essence of London as the administrative and economic centre of the country is a Roman creation and many of the main roads leading out of the capital still follow the lines of their Roman predecessors. Furthermore our relationship with Europe is still underpinned to an extent by the shadow of having been part of the Roman Empire. Finally, while no one should idealise the motives and conduct of Roman imperialists they were the first to bring an idea of “civilisation” to this country.
While the Romans would have definitely recognised the economic fault line between the North West and South East halves of the country Roman Britain is not just about the South East. The military investment in maintaining the northern frontier of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall and, at times beyond, ensured that Roman life and Roman civilisation was well established in northern England as well. York, a crucial staging point on the Great North Road, was an important Roman city where two Emperors died and where one, none less than Constantine the Great, was proclaimed. The discovery of the wonderful Vindolanda tablets (from one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall) show Roman civilisation alive and well on the very edge of the Roman world. It is impossible not to be moved by the birthday party invitation sent from the wife of one of the senior officers of the unit based at Vindolanda to one of her friends.
It is this sense of distant, but yet at times quite intense, connection with the inhabitants of Roman Britain which make I spent a large part of my University summers working on archaeological excavations at two Roman cities: Wroxeter in Shropshire and Silchester, near Reading. In both cases the cities were abandoned at the end of the Roman period (although in the case of Wroxeter much later than was originally supposed) and they are again green fields. In both there is a lovely haunting sense of the shades of the ancient Romans who went about their business in these places, looking at the same sky and the same scenery. AE Houseman captures this perfectly in the line in his poem about Wroxeter
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double
I t blows so hard it will soon be gone.
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Like the Romans we will, at some point, all become dust but it does not mean that our time on this earth is without meaning. Roman Britain is a distant but significant period in our history. Despite all that has happened since, it has contributed to our identity and values and is worthy of our interest and reflection now.