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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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad