Monday, 7 September 2015

What Did the Romans Ever Do For Us?

Let me take you through the average Saturday of a gigging comedian:

1. Leave the comfort, contentment and warmth of a happy Saturday afternoon with friends and loved ones to head out into the cold, unforgiving world of motorway travel.
2. Arrive at the venue after a drive which included at least one stop at a dead-eyed service station and a disappointing pasty.
3. Survey the crowd: you pray for couples, a warm buzz of expectation and good-hearted laughter.  Eyes are calibrated to notice warning signs of groups of women in tiaras and anyone dressed as a giant phallus.
4. Depending on the make-up of the room, your level of self-confidence and the phases of the moon you either storm it, wade through the treacle of disinterest, fight a bearpit or just do your job an make a room full of other humans happy for 20 minutes.
5. You drive home full of pride/self-hatred/hunger/bafflement at humanity, hunkering after your bed at 1:30 am.

Now let me take you through my ridiculous Saturday night gigging:

Myself, Paul McGarrity and The Story Beast (aka John Henry Falle), along with my business partner Swanny hit the road at the offensively early time of 9:30am, with a far-off destination in our sights: Chester's Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.  Swanny and I have been plotting away to stage comedy gigs at some of the most famous heritage venues in the country and we finally got our chance to start - quite appropriately - somewhere near the beginning of British history.  After hours of travel - sadly not along Watling Street - we finally arrived at Chollerford, near Hexham, in Northumberland, to be greeted by what later became known as the Giant Igloo of Education and the White Inflatable Nipple of History.  Our pop-up venue had been erected (well, blown up) right next to the archaeological dig of one of the largest forts on the wall - a place where, approximately 2000 years ago men in plumed helmets would corral horses against the combined barbarian masses of the Picts and Scots facing them. In many ways, the experience of Roman soldiers on the wall was not far off your average weekend comedy club.

The show was a wonder: we had an audience full of good cheer led by an American Marcus Aurelius, ably assisted by a genuine Roman archaeologist in the audience, who was on hand to regularly correct me on the bullshit facts which I regularly spouted.  It was exactly the audience we'd hoped for - warm, daft and encouraging.  I like a good, challenging bear pit as much as the next comic, but an audience in which at least three people are enjoying hot chocolate with marshmallows whilst you joke about the finer points of sculptures commemorating the death cult of Emperor Hadrian's gay lover are pretty special.

All of the acts had an absolute smasher - Paul doing his very best to remain alpha archaeologist, The Story Beast causing muche rejoycyng in the halle and Gordon Southern taking us home with 10,000 years of human history in 20 minutes.  Three weeks and the Edinburgh Festival had really taken it our of The Story Beast and his four humours were clearly so unaligned that he was coughing and spluttering after getting off stage.  I ran to the Heritage shop to see if they had any lozenges or warm honeyed drinks.  "Terribly sorry, but no" was the reply of the man behind the till.  Then after a pause "we've got some mead though..."  And so we fixed an 8,000 year old yarnspinner's dodgy chest with the most apposite elixir around.

Delighted with our success we packed up, grabbed some more mead from the shop and headed down a genuine Roman road (with exciting hidden dips for extra irresponsible driving points) to our accommodation at Birdoswald, another fort nearby.  The route was preparing for the upcoming Tour of Britain, so as we neared our destination, lampposts reared up out of the darkness with full-size knitted bicyclists hanging off them, like knitted mannequin wraiths come for our souls.  Safe to say we genuinely screamed in fearful union a few times.

On arriving at our place for the night, we weren't really sure what to expect - a bunk bed and breakfast was about all we'd been told.  It turned out that, not only were we sharing with other Heritage staff who had helped organise the Hadrian's Wall Live weekend, but also an entire troop of Italian historical recreationists - Legionnaires and barbarians alike, wondering the corridors in tunics, bedraggled and bedreadlocked, marked with whorls of woad and wielding the odd (hopefully blunted) Gladius Hispaniensis.  This was where the night got really interesting.

It wasn't long before the mead (and the Stella and the red wine) began to flow and we befriended five of the Italians.  Not to be too judgemental towards our own noble British history recreationists, but there was not a whiff of the cardigan-wearing nerd about these men.  They were tanned, muscled, good-looking representative of the Roman nation and had a classic Mediterranean unbridled passion for what they did.  We traded drinks and handshakes and embraces and insults (Swanny: "I'm from Wales." "where?" "The chaps in red who beat you at rugby all the time.") as we did our best to communicate our passion for history in broken Anglo-Italian.

When bedtime was declared instead of heading to our bunks we followed the crocodile of soldiers out to their encampment on the wall.  Sadly we'd missed the huge firelit party of the night before, but we still spent a good two hours under a glittering canopy of stars sharing more intoxicants and a potent Italian cigar with Fabbio, the clear leader of this troop.  It was tremendous to chat to him about how much it clearly meant to him to be here, at the limits of the Roman Empire, on the edge of civilisation ("no offence to Scozia, I like it now.")  The passage of time is a strange thing - I'd spent the evening telling an audience about Hadrian's brutality (he persuaded his 90 year old brother-in-law to commit suicide in order to ensure the succession he desired) as well as the general calculated, bloodthirsty world of Rome.  Names such as Nero and Caligula and Brutus throw up images in the mind's eye and they are not of civilisation, but the worst of humanity's machinations.  But then the Roman's were not a reflective people - they were conquerors and civilised by assimilation.  They were not philosophers but people enjoyed bread and circuses, wine, women and song.  I found it odd, but touching how much this empire meant to Fabbio.  It  was a grand achievement, but sealed with blood.  The long passage of time allows that perspective and pride I suppose, although I don't think 1,000 years down the line any recreationists of the British Empire are likely to nip over to India to re-stage the Amritsar Massacre.  But somehow the mighty and the repellent actions of the Empire just become stories, myths and tales.  No one living in Persia, Asturia or Brittanica now holds anything against the Romans. They're just tremendous tales and marvellous drinking buddies.



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