Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins: They came, they saw, they conquered us

The study of Roman Britain is always political writes Charlotte Higgins in her well-considered, beautifully-written geographical survey of 400 years under Roman rule.

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain
Charlotte Higgins
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £20
The study of Roman Britain is always political, writes Charlotte Higgins. History is a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves and objective vision is impossible when it comes to the people who invaded us but also founded our capital city, who were our masters but provided the template for our imperial past. They came, saw and conquered us. Then they stayed, for as many years as separate the reign of Elizabeth I from the Blitz. We lived with them for 400 years. Do we now identify with the aggressors or the victims – or was it a useful mix? Were we slaves or a developing nation?
Selves and national identities are complicated and conflicted organisms: it’s hard to sort “I” from “other”, “ours” from “theirs”. The palace at Fishbourne was a Roman Downton Abbey, the epitome of luxury and glamour, and it was built 20 years after the conquest of Britain in 43AD. Its influence and economy must have permeated Roman Sussex for seven generations – enough time for Rome to get under everyone’s skin and into many Britons’ blood. The palace’s elaborate, geometric flower beds remind this nation of gardeners that our first grand gardens, like our first straight roads, came from Rome.
For these and many other reasons, Under Another Sky should be on every shelf in the UK. Part travelogue, part handbook and part revisionist history, it is a personal and vivid encounter with landscapes, artefacts and people. Higgins has a shrewd, enjoying eye for everything: a chunk of Roman wall in an underground car park; ferns rooting in the Roman mortar of an arch in the centre of Colchester; a new head of an Oxford college, sitting in front of a file marked “Bureaucratic Crap”. She gives us the Britain of 212AD but also the Britain of 2012 – in which, since farming around Hadrian’s Wall collapsed after foot-and-mouth disease while 100,000 tourists visit Housesteads Fort every year, at least one local economy depends on Roman ruins.
Like a travel book, Under Another Sky is organised by region. Kent, Scotland, Norfolk, Essex, Wales – everywhere, she takes richfronded byways into literature and music as well as archaeology. In Cumbria, the artist W G Collingwood stumbles over what he thinks is a corpse. It turns out to be someone trying to write poetry: a young man called Arthur Ransome. Elgar wrote a cantata on Caractacus, “marinating himself” in the landscape of his hero’s defeat by Rome. At Wroxeter, once the fourth-largest city in Roman Britain, the poet and Latinist A E Housman, a rare visitor to Shropshire, wrote “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble”. Twenty years later, a real Shropshire lad called Wilfred Owen wrote an ode to the same ancient site: “I had forgot that so remote an age/Beyond the horizon of our little sight,/Is far from us by no more spanless gauge/Than day and night, succeeding day and night . . .”
Ever since Roman Britain was rediscovered, it has been interpreted through ideological filters. Writers in the 18th century saw their own cherished values as the unbroken heritage of Roman “civility”. For the Britons of the 1840s, their true forebears were the Anglo-Saxon originators of the nation, who could step forward only once the alien intruders left. That dream of ethnic purity is hard to give up. Not one of the frescoes commissioned to decorate the new Houses of Parliament showed a scene from Roman Britain. “In a building whose fabric was conceived as an expression of national virtues and history, Britain’s four centuries in the orbit of Rome were felt to have nothing to say,” Higgins writes. And now, in a Britain that has long lost its empire, ideas of our Roman past are “coloured by contemporary concerns about modern imperialism and warfare”.
Yet, as Higgins shows, Britain was written into history by Caesar and Tacitus; those “noble defeated rebels” Caractacus and Boudicca – the first dramatis personae of British history – are “entirely Roman creations”. We build on others’ images of ourselves. Britannia’s first visual representation is as a bedraggled figure pinned to the ground by the emperor Claudius: hardly the lavishly draped figure wielding a trident on the pennies of George V.
Under Another Sky is beautifully considered and written. Gold coins glitter beside their moulds in a Colchester museum, “like jam tarts sprung from a baking tin”. Higgins prises received ideas from their moulds and sets them up for us to examine. Roman Britain, she suggests, “will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite”. Perhaps she’ll do Norman Britain next. But in this era of ever cruder debate about immigration, would a study of French Britain leave no British Britain at all? After reading Higgins’s book, you wonder: who were we then, who have we been since and who are we now?
Ruth Padel’s latest book is “The Mara Crossing” (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
Empire's edge: Hadrian's Wall, begun in 122AD. Photograph: Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos.

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.