Being the puppy rather than the wolf

I was travelling on the Eurostar recently and for once (I have to say normally it behaves itself) the train was late on departure from Brussels. I travel so much that now I have the luxury of lounge access all the time and therefore made the best of it and sat there with my glass of wine, plate of nuts and newspaper and tried to relax.
I noticed that it was about five minutes after the train was announced late that the wolves began to circle the Lounge staff in a threatening manner. Needless to say these were the male and female wolves in smart suits. You know them, the breed of executive wolves that bare their metaphorical teeth and growl threateningly behind a thin veneer of civility.
‘Why is the train late?’
‘This is not acceptable!’
‘I don’t pay this much for this kind of service!’
You can fill in your own additional growling comments.
Throughout this the two lounge staff – who of course had nothing to do with delay and were themselves reliant entirely on the information they were being fed – huddled together for safety and tried to maintain an attitude that was professional, pleasant and as helpful as they could be in the circumstances.
It was not pleasant to watch never mind be on the receiving end of the abuse – for that is what it was – that these people had to survive. Needless to say I spinelessly did nothing to help, although I did remember to do the bare minimum and to say thank the poor sods for their stoicism as I left to eventually board the train.
What makes us think that this sort of behaviour is acceptable?
Unfortunately it is all too easy for me to think of the times and places that I now regretfully look back on where I am not happy about my own behaviour.
Shops spring to mind as one possibility (when that thing you ordered has not arrived as promised for example). Bank clerks (including the poor lad trying to manage us through our last mortgage and struggling with getting us through the increasingly pointless “just-so sacrifices” to the dread checklist we had to provide before we could seal the deal – needing to print 20 pages of our online bank account being the straw that very nearly broke this camel’s back).
Maybe at restaurants or bars (you should have booked guys); security guards at airports (a particular rich strain of annoyance for a lot of people and possibly the worst place to be anything other than polite – if you want to catch your flight).
Actually I think I might have invited Mr Grumpy to take over my social interactions more times than I would like to remember. The fact I felt terrible immediately after snapping at someone does not absolve me from the fact I did in the first place. Just because my bark is a lot weaker than my bite (more of a nibble, really) doesn’t make my bark any less annoying.
None of us are perfect and quite often the anger is coming from something we feel keenly. Some of the wolves of Brussels had long and tiring days and just wanted a smooth ride home. Maybe they had connections, or an important family event to get back for. Fear and despair is a strong driver that does make us take out our ire on our fellow human beings. But understandable does not mean it is alright. I need to get better at controlling my emotions and being more positive; the man who smiles through adversity may find it hard, but I can pretty much guarantee that we will not end up in a worse place than the one who barks and will feel a lot better about himself afterwards. I have enough guilt to get rid of from my past forty odd years without generating more. So I guess I had better play nicely with the other kids. And if I cannot be nice, then be polite, calm and factual, and remember too that the word “sorry” is also a powerful and positive tool to keeping ourselves from each other’s throats.


Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Revelation

‘How did you find us?’ Calgacus demanded. It sounded hollow as he said it but he felt he had to take back some control.
‘Do you think yourself so clever? I’ve been tracking people all my life since I was a child. It was usually with an aim to relieve them of their valuables… So I have my methods,’ Castor grinned, ‘although this time I confess I saw you leave, but lost you in the woods. I’m a city man really.’
Calgacus noted now that Castor very deliberately placed himself the side of the room furthest from Exuperatus. It felt like the man was putting significant distance between himself and a potentially dangerous beast. The man was no fool.
‘What do you want?’ the old Gaul demanded coldly, his eyes following the newcomer and his hand inside his clothing, making no real attempt to hide the weapon he was holding under the fabric.
‘Why, sir, to thank you for killing an enemy of the Empire!’ Castor said cheerfully,’ and I am fairly certain it was you, Gaul. Miletus was a perverted little snob with ideas above his station. Not only was he embezzling left, right and centre, he had some interesting plans on changing his status in society.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Vita said. Castor looked at her and thought about what he now knew. Yes. It could be true. The girl was certainly precocious, and had the air of someone who could get used to being obeyed.
‘Ah, my dear, it is fairly simple. He fancied I believe to make himself a king.’
‘Rome has no kings!’ Adeodatus exclaimed.
‘No. It just has mad emperors,’ Castor laughed,’ but still loyally spoken, even for a deserter.’
Adeodatus flushed with shame and hid his face.
Castor looked back at Vita.
‘What do you really know about your mother, Vita?’
The girl thought for a moment.
‘Nothing really… She was a Brigantes, that’s all I know. Came south looking for a marriage but ended up as a slave. She never talked about the past.’
Castor noticed that Vita was trying unsuccessfully to hide something. He felt excitement building.
‘What is in that bag, girl? Show me!’
‘Now wait a minute,’ Calgacus began.
‘Shut up, boy.’
Castor pointed to the leather bag that Vita was still holding protectively to her chest.
‘Do as you are told,’ Castor sighed, calmer now,’ please. It is to your advantage.’
Castor could tell from the expressions that they had not expected him to say that. Good, he was still in control. The girl looked up at Calgacus for permission. Keeping a close watch on Castor the builder nodded slowly.
Vita took out the torc from the bag and placed it around her neck.
Calgacus did not hide his surprise.
‘That must be worth a fortune. Did you steal it?’
‘No!’ Vita protested,’ it belonged to my mother. It is mine.’
‘And you know, I think it is, too’ Castor said, tapping a document he had pulled from his own tunic.
‘Among the various records your former molester kept on his financial dealings I found this. It is a letter to the leader of the Catuvellauni. It requests that your mother is to be treated with due respect considering her status.’
There was silence for a moment.
‘Which was?’ Vita asked.
‘I don’t think that the intended recipient ever saw this,’ Castor went on,’ I think Miletus somehow intercepted it. Without it, your mother had nothing. Miletus controlled her.’
‘Please Castor,’ Vita asked again,’ who was she?’
Castor looked at Calgacus who had been gradually looking more and more aggressive. The agent decided the game – or at least this game – was now at an end. He had not come here to fight.
‘Your mother was the youngest daughter of the chief of the Brigantes. She, like you, Vita was a princess. I think Miletus wanted to take her as a wife and challenge for that status as a client king; when you mother inconveniently died, he considered doing the same to you.’
‘I’m not sure I would have made you scrub the floors quite so much if I had known I had employed royalty,’ Exuperatus said, eyebrow raised.
Vita ran her hands down around the curve of the torc.
‘What do you want, agent?’ Calgacus demanded.
Castor rested his chin on steepled fingers and looked at Vita.
‘Well… Although I do not have any interest in Miletus and his egotistical plans for grandeur I see grounds for considerable profit here. And you lot have nothing else now- no homes, no bar, nothing at all. I think you will agree that this little girl is something of an asset to all of us.’
‘So?’ Exuperatus said,’ what happens next?’
‘Well, I am up to suggestions,’ Castor said,’ but I think a trip North appears to be in order, don’t you think? I do love family reunions.’


And that is it… For now at least (well after 25K words I think I deserve a rest). Since my Open University module is now in full swing, proper essays will have to take the place of more fun stuff for a few months at least. But there is a long way to travel, and Roman Britain is a dangerous place. G.

Big Graham, Little Graham*

I get confused every now and then whether the way to happiness is focussing on the little things or on the so called bigger picture, or both.
Sometimes I feel that there is a push on me to achieve great things, to manage the big projects. House, holidays, the big relationship and that dreaded thing some people call a career (although I firmly prefer to call it a job) kind of hang around your neck like expectant albatrosses.
Worst, these things rarely have an end point or a time when you can sit back and decide that whatever it did actually went well (or it didn’t). Life is not like soap operas (like the now lamentable Downton Abbey – and while we are visiting there I have to say that I am sorry, dear Julian Fellowes, but I feel almost betrayed by you on this one) where you have to create ongoing drama to keep the story going at all costs. So most soap marriages will fail; people will die/be thrown in prison/find lost relatives (never before even hinted that) in a frequency that if it indeed reflected real life the world would be a lot more interesting but infinitely more depressing place than it actually is.
Well, they never end until the series is cancelled at which point it is all a dream/ an exercise in purgatory or you get abducted by aliens (no really . I still cannot believe they had the gall to do that. Julian, maybe that’s an option, eh?)
Or everyone just moves to Brisbane.
So the bigger picture never gives me satisfaction because I never actually get to see it. I’m too busy living it.
So then I turn in desperation to the small stuff. Now, we can all get dragged down in the minutiae. That’s certainly true. But in terms of little nuggets of happiness minutiae take some beating.
If you have had the misfortune of reading my ramblings you know that this tags along with a hole I’ve plumbed before.
I find something to smile about as I walk into work at a stupid time in the morning listening to bird song and scaring the rabbits into the trees.
Many older towns in the UK, no matter how unpleasant they appear at ground level improve when you look up. You then notice that actually the building is rather attractive once you get past the generic high street fascia.
And then there are the little people moments. At Wrest Park recently I was doing my patter about some of the decorations in the mansion – rather sweet nineteenth century statues of a little girl and a little boy and the drama of a bird stolen from its nest (there is a happy ending, in case anyone is worried).
This time I was talking to a family that included a girl of about twelve, who appeared to have some level of difficulty following me. But she listened hard and as they left I heard her say to her mother:
‘Mummy, that was so cool!’
Now, I am not a great one for being nice to myself, but at that moment my day was made and I felt the proverbial million dollars. Was it of any importance? To me, yes. I think that will hang on for a while in my memory. I really hope that for the young lady concerned it does too.
I say this is about little things but in reality that is only my perspective and the actual “size” of something we do or say is difficult to judge sometimes. In a role where you meet and interact with many people, it is often very difficult to judge just how small something is. Maybe this girl will grow up to be a major supporter of the RSPB due to a bird story. Maybe it became the centre of her “what I did at the weekend” next week at school (suitably embellished). Maybe she had forgotten everything by the next room.
That’s her story and I’m (probably) not privileged to know it.
But I am happy with my little bit of it and that overall I think they keep me going through my big things. I’m not sure I can really ask for much more than that.

(And the return of most of “The Web of Fear” to the BBC archives is the kind of stupid little thing that makes me want to dance on tables, my inner Doctor Who geek released to make merry.)

*Anyone else remember ‘Big John, Little John’?

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Aftermath

Calgacus held Vita close to him as she sobbed uncontrollably into his tunic. He was close to tears himself. The boy Adeodatus just looked confused, unsure at what at just happened and how to react to it in this group of strangers.
‘Now who will I get to fix my furniture?’ Exuperatus moaned.
Calgacus shot the older man a furious glare. Then he saw the empty, haunted look in the man’s eyes and his anger died. They all would have to deal with this in their own way.
‘Come on,’ he barked harshly,’ we’re not out of danger yet. We have some travelling to do and we need to be in cover by daylight.’
To his surprise, the other two men just nodded and looked at him to lead.
He raised Vita’s face to look her in the eyes. To his relief she held his gaze firmly, while blinking the last of the tears away.
‘Let’s go,’ she said.
As he led them through the burning ruins of the Vicus that had surrounded the city Calgacus realised with relief that if they kept their heads, getting away was going to be easier than he had thought.
The city itself was now fully alight, and the Iceni were concentrating on that. The tribesmen outside the walls were few, and it appeared they were mostly drunk with celebrating their victory.
‘At least they didn’t get any of our wine, Senodo,’ Exuperatus muttered before choking back something that might have been a sob.
The group waded across the river and cut upland through woods as the city outskirts gave way to fields and arable land.
‘Where are we making for?’ Vita asked.
‘I was thinking of lying low in the old settlement to the East. Where my people lived before the Roman’s came. But now I am wondering if there is another choice.’
‘Which is?’
‘There are a lot of big villas in this area, including one over the next hill,’ Calgacus paused,’ now they might have been burnt by the Iceni, or they might have been passed by. If one is intact, that would be a lot more comfortable place to stay.’
‘The owners might object,’ Exuperatus said.
‘I can requisition it. On behalf of the Roman army,’ interjected Adeodatus, to the surprise of all three,’ as… Requisition it as a base of operations in a combat zone.’
‘I knew we brought this boy along for something,’ Exuperatus smiled thinly.
‘But won’t the Iceni come back and burn it?’ Vita continued to hold his hand and Calgacus was again forced to remember just how young she really was.
‘No. I don’t think so,’ Exuperatus said before Calgacus could say anything,’ the Iceni are like a stampede, plunging on and they think the gods are with them. They’ll be thinking of Calleva Atrebatum next. Thinking of more plunder and destruction right up until they run into the Governor and his massed and very pissed off legions.’
‘You think the rebellion will be halted?’
‘Oh yes. The war machine has been headless up to now. Under proper direction the slaughter will be massive and complete and serve them right,’ they crested a ridge looking down on what seemed amazingly peaceful farmland,’ we, however, seem to be in luck.’
The villa lay nestled on a slope on the opposite side of the fields. Although dark, it looked intact.
The original impression was born out. The villa was undamaged, although the occupants had fled in a hurry taking anything valuable. However, they had left basics such as food and blankets and other household items which the fugitives took full advantage of. Adeodatus lit a small fire and they sat huddled in the Atrium.
‘We don’t want to give out too much light,’ the soldier explained, but we do need to keep warm.
‘A sensible precaution, boy,’ agreed a voice from the shadow of the entrance hall.
All four of them got to their feet in alarm.
‘Oh sit down, all of you,’ Castor said as he walked calmly in and promptly followed his own instruction by resting his bones on a bench with a satisfied sigh,’ excuse me for my rudeness but it has taken me some time and effort to find you lot and I am not a young man anymore.’
The Roman agent looked at the wild eyes of the four and shook his head. What was he thinking of? Castor shrugged.
‘Alright you bunch of miscreants. Let’s talk.’

Well done You

I used to work for an American gentleman who I (still) respect a lot. One day he invited me into his office to tell me I had been promoted. I quietly said thank you. I think I allowed myself a small smile.
He looked at me and grinned widely. And said (I paraphrase):
‘Is that all? Don’t I get any other reaction? You’re so damn British!’
He was right of course. I am not sure he really expected whoops of delight and a little jig of joy around the conference table but I did take the good news with something that even looked like lack of enthusiasm.
But I was delighted. Of course I was. But I find it very hard to show it.
I do not think I am alone in this. I know a lot of people who when given praise for anything kind of look at the ground, cough and say nothing. Or mutter nonsense like “it was nothing” or try and compare the praiseworthy act unfavourably with something the person giving the compliment has done.
When we are children, we do take delight in being told we have done well (even if only because it means we are not being scolded!) but some of us seem to lose that into adulthood. Someone raised this with me recently so it set me thinking about why personally I find taking praise stressful.
It is odd, as for me, praise is like a drug. I am one of those people that need affirmation. I need people to give me feedback; even negative feedback is better than feeling ignored. But in theory, I should be over the moon if someone says I have done some good work, or that I have been helpful to them in some way. But it never lasts. It is like smoking a hookah – it goes straight to your head in a second and is gone just as quickly.
I don’t allow myself to store up that lovely nugget and save it for the days when it all goes bad and it might be nice to get it out of the box and caress it for awhile to make myself feel better. No I gobble it up instantly like tube of refreshers in an instant orgy of sugary goodness and nothing is left. That is except for the inevitable coming down from the sugar rush later, because none of us have a consistent, continuous supply of positive vibes to live on.
So why don’t I allow the praise linger on, to allow it fuel the whole day at least? A number of reasons for me:
• I’m British – damn that false modesty (and damn the Victorians while you are there. Back in the Eighteenth century you really would dine out on the compliment for weeks, and then suddenly it is all modesty and paper thin decorum and a lot less fun.)
• I think they don’t really mean it. They are just saying the nice thing because it is my ‘turn’; or they cannot think of anything else to say (having exhausted the weather, strictly come dancing and the Royal family as topics); or, most despicable of all, they have an agenda of their own and they are buttering me up; and add your own paranoid delusions of why, in your head, you cannot take the compliment at face value.
• I don’t deserve it. This is my “favourite” one. Sometimes we work our socks off for something but get no praise whatsoever. Then the next day we do something that took us no time at all and minimal effort and suddenly everyone tells me I’m great. The problem I have here is that I am not seeing things through their eyes. What I find easy or what, by my situation, is easy for me to do may be really hard for others. They value the act more than I do. That does not invalidate the praise. Rather, it should encourage me. If I can get that affirmation by doing just what comes naturally to me, then maybe that is my path to some kind of contentment.

I would like to ask everyone to give and take praise better. We all know that life knocks you down all the time and we can support each other through encouragement.
I have friends who tell me that encouragement is something I give out freely and passionately. And it is true that if I am on earth for any reason, it is to give people as much of a boost as I can. But I need to learn to take it myself as well.
Maybe I am right, and often there is an ulterior motive.
But if the mouse gets the cheese out of mousetrap before it springs, does it matter what the intention was in putting the cheese there in the first place? And is the mouse is still pretty happy I think with the reward, as it munches away on its reward of a nice piece of Lincolnshire Poacher.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Sacrifice

‘But we cannot go without them,’ Senodo said as they moved through the town towards the construction site and a way out.
‘I know,’ Calgacus said,’ but we don’t even know they are alive, let alone whether they will know go to the baths. We were supposed to meet at the bar, remember.’
Adeodatus said nothing. He did not feel part of this story.
‘I should leave. Perhaps go to the North Gate,’ the boy said.
‘You will be killed,’ Senodo said,’ I do not think that is wise. Come with us, lad.’
‘But as a deserter my life would be forfeit,’ Adeodatus moaned.
‘Think of it as a strategic withdrawal. Matter of perspective,’ said a dry voice from the dark,’ most of my life has been spent repositioning things to stop me going mad or to get myself out of trouble. Having a variable sense of perspective is a wonderful thing’
The voice was quickly followed by Exuperatus stepping out of the shadow.
A bundle of young girl virtually knocked Calgacus flying.
The whirlwind then went onto leap up into Senodo’s arms, who managed somehow not to burst into tears. Neither of the two men was able to react to Vita’s embrace in anything other than silence and grins.
‘Right, that’s enough emotion,’ Exuperatus snapped,’ Calgacus, where is this much vaunted escape route of yours? Because we need it, and we need it now!’
Calgacus stopped grinning.
‘Thank you Exuperatus, I didn’t think…’
‘You usually don’t. Now shut up and show us the way out. We can talk about payment for the girl’s life later – when you have gotten us all to safety.’
The smile faded from the younger man’s face.
‘Very well, follow me, all of you.’
The small group jogged cautiously through the increasingly ruinous town. The Iceni attack had set most of the city ablaze and any moment they expected to meet an armed party. Those with swords kept a firm grip on them. But as they got close to the construction site it seemed much quieter.
‘No one lives here,’ Senodo said sadly,’ there’s no one to kill or rape or stuff to loot here. We should take advantage of that, I suppose. You have thought well Calgacus.’
The bad news was that the construction site itself had caught fire.
‘That’s not good,’ Calgacus admitted,’ I don’t think they fired this place deliberately. I think it has just spread to the scaffolding.’
As they watched, a section of the partially built bath house collapsed under the weight of the burning superstructure.
‘That hasn’t taken out our escape route has it?’ Exuperatus asked. His voice was level, but his eyes were a little wild.
‘No. But the rest will go soon. Follow me.’
Calgacus led the others down into the basement of the bath house and with a grunt pulled open part of the paving.
‘Just as well we are doing this before they got to lay the mosaics,’ he said,’ first one in. Crawl in a straight line between the pilae stacks and you’ll come to a clay blocked hole. You should be able to punch your way through. I’d like Vita to go –‘
Exuperatus had dropped into the hole and they heard him crawling along the rough floor, moaning about his knees as he went.
‘Damn him,’ Calgacus muttered.
‘It’s alright,’ Vita said,’ I promised to hold Senodo’s hand. He doesn’t do small spaces well, remember?’
‘Then go now.’
‘No,’ Senodo said,’ please, you and this boy go first. Vita will go in front of me. I promise on the souls of all I love that she will get through.’
Calgacus grimaced.
The girl was right, she had promised.
‘Very well, Adeodatus – get going.’
The boy looked confused.
‘But I… My oath to the Emperor…’
Calgacus thought quickly.
‘I order you to protect this girl. She may have information important to the safety of the empire. Now go. Make sure the exit is safe for us.’
The boy looked pathetically grateful and disappeared down the hole.
Calgacus kissed Vita and shook Senodo’s hand.
‘Follow me as quickly as you can before this all collapses in on us.’
And he followed the legionary.
Senodo looked at the dark hole in the floor with dread. Vita, seeing this, wrapped her tiny hand around his.
‘Come on. I’ll lead you through.’
Gently she led the big man down after her into the labyrinth of the hypocaust structure, down through a channel formed of the piles of tiles that held up the floor.
Their progress was slow. Ahead of them they heard noises that suggested the exit had been found and this spurred Vita on. She pulled encouragingly on Senodo’s hand.
‘Come on. We’re almost there.’
They were most of the way through when the burning scaffolding finally collapsed and took the floor and most of the floor with it.
Vita could not help but scream as the hypocaust collapsed.
Then she opened her eyes. She was still alive.
Senodo had let go of her hand and the reason for both that and her survival was obvious. The big man had braced his body against the floor above and he was the only thing now holding it up.
He looked at her with eyes full of sadness and yet, she was sure even in the darkness, there was a strange half smile on his face.
‘Go little one,’ Senodo whispered,’ I cannot hold this for long. I could not save my daughter, but I can save you. Give me peace, Vita.’
Her head told that she had little time and, and she reluctantly followed it. Blind from dust, the dark and most of all her tears, Vita scrabbled frantically along the remaining feet to the rough hole at the end. Reaching it, she threw herself through as the floor finally collapsed behind her.
Senodo closed his eyes. He was so tired.
He felt the touch of a girls hand on his face and thought for a second that he had failed and Vita had stayed with him.
‘I’ve missed you so much, father,’ Arduinna said.
Grinning Senodo reached out to embrace his daughter in his huge arms.
He would never let her go again.

I’m keeping it for a Rainy Day

Are you the kind of person that never throws anything away?
I am trying not to to be a bit more selective, but I suspect – and a fair amount of scientific research supports it – that there is certainly something in my make up that insists that I should hoard things. Whether that is genetics or learned behaviour – or as with many things, both – is less interesting than the fact of it.
Sometimes I find it intriguing when the same thought turns up in different conversations over several days. Not the same conversation with different people you understand, but something that kind of joins up multiple conversations on that common theme.
Recently I had an empathic conversation with a fellow Wrest Park volunteer in which she was bemoaning the amount of stuff in her mother’s house. Her mother had cupboards and chests of drawers full of everything, clothes, kitchen and household items long replaced by something more modern and my personal favourite retained item – keys. Keys that you have no idea where they fit or if the lock they used to fit even exists. But you still keep them for some reason.
Maybe it is just me and her mother.
Anyway, the conversation reminded me so much of my own, terribly missed, mother. Mum was just like that. When she passed away, we tried to help my dad by going through the house and clearing out a lot of the less personal things. It was a bigger effort than we ever thought it would be. Not only was every major storage spaces stocked with anything you could imagine, she had collected every Christmas and birthday those big decorative biscuit or chocolate tins, and filled them with the detritus of the following year.
And then she would put them somewhere safe.
We are still finding them and my parental home is only a bungalow. Of course we, well, my dad, would talk to her about it and ask ‘do we really need to keep that?’ and the answer would indeed be (and I am sure you can see this coming) ‘well, it might come in useful, some day.’
Annoyingly for my dad, sometimes that would be proved true.
I have to say though that I suspect that many of the boxed items could never be found again even if they did ‘become useful’.
So where was the second link this week?
This week I took part in a surprisingly enjoyable session for work equating low grade bush craft skills with business in a wood in Hampshire (no one died and marshmallows were toasted which equates to one of the more pleasurable work experiences of the last 20 odd years).
One of the instructors was a charming chap who had a definite interest in pyromania (one many people seem to share, there is definitely fun to be had lighting fires using interesting techniques you’ve never thought of – batteries and wire wool was my personal revelation and I won’t look at Vaseline again without a certain degree of suspicion). But it was not so much the techniques for lighting the fire as much as the comment about how when people were living outside more – and being able to light your own fire was a life or death thing – how hoarding was much important.
In this specific context it was the need for dry kindling – stuff that was flammable and had a large surface area, such as bark and, oddly, Clematis seeds. Stuff that if I was living outdoors and saw them it would be to pick them up, whatever else I was doing and store them away, literally for a rainy day. So I could still get that fire going. Of course this applies to food as well but I had not thought about it in this context. Something my lovely wife has mentioned recently is that you should not go for walks in the autumn without a bag; to collect the blackberries, elderberries and sloes that are abundant and just waiting to be collected.
So I go back to my mother. Well, she had a box of buttons. Whenever some piece of clothing was thrown out, the buttons survived to go in the box. Did she use them? Yes. On numerous occasions as a kid lost buttons were replaced by the nearest alternative in the long plastic box that was the button storage facility.
So hoarding is a natural activity. In times of plenty, store stuff away. But – and as an inveterate hoarder myself (I assume now by both design and experience) – I am going to try and limit to it – mostly – to useful stuff and most importantly, make sure I can find it again when I need it.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Looting

Castor was beginning to think that he had badly miscalculated.
As he dodged the packs of rampaging Iceni with his two increasingly nervous guards he reminded himself sternly to keep calm. He really had been in worse situations than this and as long as he kept his head it would turn out as he planned.
But the Iceni were moving faster through the city than even he had expected, and the sight of the house of Miletus already in flames brought a curse to his lips that made even the soldiers accompanying him start in shock.
‘Should we just go, sir,’ one of them said,’ If we make straight for the North gate – the defenders seemed to be doing better there…’
Castor thought about this. The plan, if flight was now the only option, was a reasonable one. The North Gate was currently still held or had been, by the Roman army. The Centurion in charge seemed to be the only one with any sense of tactics.
Castor idly noted that he should recommend the man for a commendation, albeit most likely a posthumous one.
‘No. Not yet,’ Castor said,’ you two stay here and keep an eye out. I’m going in for what I came here to find.’
The soldiers looked at him and said nothing. Castor laughed. They thought he was mad.
‘Look boys, if I’m not out in ten minutes, just go.’
The look of relief in their eyes was pitiful. Castor had serious doubts about the Empire. Between the widespread corruption on one side and spineless weevils like these men on the other, collapse was surely certain.
Maybe it was time to make other arrangements for his future prosperity…
Castor crept into the burning building complex, holding a cloth across his mouth to reduce the amount of smoke he was breathing in, although he still found himself coughing and spluttering. He made it through to the atrium and saw with some relief that the cubiculum was not yet fully alight. From the girl’s evidence this is where he would find his treasure.
As he entered the smoke filled room he stumbled over the body of Miletus.
Grimly Castor kicked over the body. He had to smile at the look of sheer surprise fixed on the man’s face.
‘Plans came to nothing, eh?’ Castor smirked at the corpse.
He looked around. There was no sign of the girl, alive or dead. Then a thought struck him and he looked down at the body again.
Yes. Miletus had been killed with a single, clinical strike to the heart. Most of those killed by the Iceni had been literally hacked to pieces.
‘Interesting… So someone got you first,’ Castor muttered. He considered Vita, but for some reason it did not fit. The girl was bold enough but this blow had required strength. That he was less sure she possessed.
Castor shrugged. The man was dead and had probably been a traitor anyway.
The Iceni had been in the room however, sometime after his death. The chest Vita had described had been overturned, the contents thrown around the room as the tribesman had looted anything valuable.
Castor had a different view of value, and quickly began to pick up the documents that were strewn all around, glancing at the contents as he did so with increasing excitement. He had been right!
There was a groaning noise followed by a crash as part of the house collapsed. Castor was brought to his senses. It was time to get out. He turned to go, but was suddenly distracted by another document, written and sealed differently from the rest. Castor picked it up and ran from the building.
He was not surprised to find the two guards had already gone. Just as well. They would have been a liability. Castor had no intention of fighting his way out. What he needed was a dead Iceni around his own stature. Subterfuge was always preferable to direct conflict.
Once he had sneaked through the Iceni lines he would have plenty of time to look at his haul. That final document intrigued him. Something instinctively told him that it was the key to making sense of at least some of this mess.

How I learned to hate the M25 just a little bit less this summer

This summer has been a great one for getting the walking boots out and seeing this lovely country of ours from angles that are a little different from what we are used to. Long, sunny evenings have provided plenty of opportunity to get out and do a decent (5+ miles) walk in the evening, rather than just on holiday or at weekends and some of these have been well worth the effort.
Evening walks give you a tremendous chance to see wildlife sometimes in the most unlikely of places. A lot of animals are starting to emerge and feed as the evening goes on, and some of the more common large animals, such as Fallow and Roe deer, foxes (or indeed fox families!), as well as ubiquitous rabbits and a diversity of bird species were all very present. You just have to be a bit quiet and try and avoid jingling coins and keys too much (although it does conflict with the great opportunity for chatting that walking provides, I admit).
Some of the most unlikely locations can be the best places to walk to get an interesting perspective both on what lives there and in seeing places from a different perspective.
We live very close to the M25 and the footpaths that were there before it was built still exist now going through tunnels under and bridges over and giving a chance to see what that junction I crawl past every day looks like from underneath.
What really surprised me was – don’t laugh – how quiet these places are. Obviously not in terms of noise, as the traffic roars constantly over your head, but how isolated and quiet these paths feel. No one goes there except for the odd piece of motorway maintenance and in Hertfordshire it is unusual to find places where you can walk for half an hour and not run into someone. These places may not be pretty, but they can provide real reservoirs for a bit of a rest from the bustle and for wildlife, and give an opportunity for us to see it.
The other thing that walking does is to allow ourselves to wallow in the detail and the minutiae of the area you are walking (and this case living in). In the course of this summer we’ve walked around and thus learned about nature reserves, agricultural research stations, police dog training facilities and ruined castles, old railway lines (and there are an awful lot of those), churches, parkland (with and without the associated house), veterinary schools and some active gravel mining.
All of which held interest in some way or another and all of which are within a few miles of the front door. What I am trying to get at is that it is not just about rolling fields and hills, but more about the landscape in its entire spectrum that makes walking in the UK so enjoyable.
It is nothing to do with getting back to nature; there is not a square mile of this country I would describe as truly natural and had not been altered by agriculture or Industry in some way at some point. But that’s fine by me. I appreciate a countryside that is moulded by that history of human occupation and if seen in the right way can be made even more interesting because of it. The M25 is no one’s tourist attraction but seen up close is still an impressive construction. I just wish I saw more of it from a quiet watery oasis under it than stuck in a traffic jam on top of it.
So it has been a good outdoor summer for us. We even had an evening when we found a slow worm making its way across a tarmac cycle path and then looked up to see the sun glinting off the tower blocks of Luton making them almost – almost – look attractive. Miracles can happen it appears.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Redemption

Two figures made their way carefully through the increasingly chaotic mess that had once been an ordered Roman city.
‘What a mess,’ Exuperatus muttered as he led Vita through streets that were now strewn with the belongings of people whose homes and shops had been looted. Often they were also strewn with the bodies of those – now very much former – occupants.
Vita kept quiet and tried not to look too hard at the bodies.
They had walked out of the house of Miletus without challenge, the magistrate’s slaves having long since fled, probably delighted at being given the chance to do so.
Moments after the pair had left the house, as they were cowering together in the shelter of a shrine to Mars, they watched a group of tribesmen enter the house. Soon afterwards it became obvious that they had set fire to it.
Exuperatus had raised an eyebrow at that.
‘Unusually for me, a rare moment of luck,’ he observed,’ no one comes looking for an old Gaul with a kitchen knife if the corpse is burned to ash. I’ve even had a chance to profit a little…’
‘You stole from him?’
‘Of course,’ Exuperatus said, tapping the bag he was carrying that jingled slightly,’ anyway, you can talk, little miss. The trinket you have in there is of considerable value.’
He pointed at the small bag that Vita was clutching tightly. She could feel the hard curves of the torc through the thin leather.
‘This is different. It’s mine. Well it should have been mine,’ Vita listened to her whining and was a little ashamed. But she clutched the bag tightly nonetheless.
‘Oh it does, really? Interesting…’ Vita could not see the Gaul’s face but she could still hear another raised eyebrow.
‘Yes. According to him it belonged to my mother.’
Exuperatus grunted, and then decided to let the matter rest.
‘Come on. We cannot stay here. We need to get onto the bar and meet the others. And get out of this place.’
‘Why did you come for me?’ Vita whispered suddenly,’ I mean, of everyone, I thought you would be most happy I was out of the picture.’
Exuperatus did not answer at once.
‘Do you believe in redemption?’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ Vita admitted.
‘That the bad things you do in one part of your life can be somehow compensated for by better things you do later, to make up for it in a way?’
‘I suppose I believe that. That’s why we sacrifice to the gods, surely?’
Exuperatus laughed.
‘That? No, you silly young thing, sacrifices are just to keep the temples in business.’
‘You don’t believe in the gods?’ Vita was shocked and a bit confused,’ but you have household gods in the bar. I’ve polished them enough times!’
‘Doesn’t mean I believe in them, girl,’ Exuperatus said,’ I have the house gods there because none of my superstitious customers would come and drink in my bar if they did not feel they were under their “protection”,’ the older man sighed,’ no, sorry, I don’t believe in any gods. And considering my life to this point, if they do exist I want nothing more to do with them. Anyway, this redemption thing is about all I have to put my hope in, now, to allow myself to come to terms with the monster that I am. ’
Vita was about to respond, but saw the hard look in the man’s eye and shut up, just as a couple of Roman guards went by, accompanying a familiar figure.
‘Castor,’ breathed Vita,’ what’s he still doing here?’
‘I don’t know. That is odd. I would have thought master and his dog long gone by now,’ Exuperatus shook his head,’ still, he can worry about his neck – we need to care about ours.’
They continued through the town to the rendezvous.
The bar, however, by was by now an inferno.
Exuperatus stood for a moment and Vita felt rather than saw his shoulders slump.
‘Oh well,’ he said eventually,’ I guess I expected this, but it is hard to look at still. I wonder if the others made it.’
Vita squeezed his hand.
‘Come on Exuperatus. I think I know my way to the construction site. If the others are alive, that’s where I would go.’
Exuperatus allowed himself to be led away, shaking his head once more as his business literally collapsed behind him.