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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Strictly: Has Ed (Glitter) Balls got the winning moves?

Will the former Westminster high-flyer impress the judges and fans?

Ed Balls once had dreams of Labour leadership. Now, according to flamboyant Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, the former Shadow Chancellor should be aspiring to “imitate the hippopotamus from Fantasia” every Saturday night, preferably while basting himself in fake tan.

Welcome to my world, Ladies and Gentleman. A place where the former Westminster high flyer  is more famous for sashaying around in sequins (and ineptly tweeting his own name) than for his efforts with the Bank of England. It’s a universe so intoxicating, it made political correspondent John Sergeant drag a professional performer across a dance floor by her wrists in the name of light entertainment.

The same compulsions made respected broadcaster Jeremy Vine alight a prop horse dressed as a cowboy (more Woody from Toy Story than John Wayne) and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe fly across the ballroom like an inappropriate understudy in an am dram production of Peter Pan. It is a glorious, if unnerving domain.

Ed Glitterballs, as he will henceforth be introduced at every after-dinner speaking engagement he attends, has trotted out many well-rehearsed reasons for signing up: getting fit, being cajoled by his superfan wife, Yvette Cooper, regretting a missed opportunity. But could it be that, as he relentlessly plugs his autobiography, he’s merely after a bit of Strictly stardust for his post-politics career? 

Let’s start with the basics. Politicians are generally unpopular, while anyone with a vague connection to Strictly is treated as a demi-God. So the chance for “the most annoying person in modern politics” (David Cameron’s words, not mine), to bask in reflected glory is a no-brainer.

It’s a valuable opportunity to be humble and self-deprecating — qualities so rarely on display in the House of Commons. Which of us sitting at home scoffing Maltesers, wouldn’t sympathise with poor old Ed being chastised by his impossibly svelte partner for having a beer belly? Early polls suggest the dads’ vote is in the bag.

When Widdecombe appeared on the show back in 2010 — one of the most astonishing rebranding exercises I have ever witnessed — Westminster colleagues warned she would lose gravitas. “My reply was yes I would, but what did I need it for now?” she said.

Strictly Come Dancing gives the nation an extraordinary capacity to forget. Maybe it’s the fumes from the spray tan booth, but Widdecombe’s stern bluster was soon replaced by the image of a sweet old lady, stumbling around the dance floor with gusto. Her frankly shameful record on gay rights evaporated as she traded affectionate insults with openly gay judge Craig Revel Horwood and won us all over with her clodhopping two left feet. Genuinely incredible stuff.

Balls won’t be another Ann Widdecombe. For a start he’s got the wrong partner. She had untouchable fan favourite Anton Du Beke, more famous than some of the celebrity contestants, who happily provided the choreography and patience for her to shine. Balls is with an unknown quantity — new girl Katya Jones. 

His performance has been hyped up by an expectant press, while Widdecombe's had the all-important shock factor. Back then nobody could have predicted her irrepressible stomp to the quarter finals, leading to a career in panto and her own quiz show on Sky Atlantic. And unlike John Sergeant, who withdrew from the competition after a few weeks owing to sheer embarrassment, she lapped up every second.

Neither, however, is Balls likely to be Edwina Currie. If you forgot her stint on the show it’s because she went out in the first week, after failing to tone down her abrasive smugness for the ballroom. Balls is too clever for that and he’s already playing the game. Would viewers have been so comfortable with him cropping up on the Great British Bake Off spin-off An Extra Slice a few months ago?

My bet is that after a few gyrations he’ll emerge as amusing, lovable and, most importantly, bookable. The prospect of Gordon Brown’s economic advisor playing Baron Hardup in a Christmaspanto  is deliciously tantalising. But what happens when the fun stops and the midlife crisis (as he takes great pleasure in calling it) loses its novelty? Can he be taken seriously again?

When asked about Labour’s current Corbyn crisis, Balls told The Guardian: “If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us,’ I would drop Strictly and go like a shot.” Well, Jeremy Vine came out unscathed — he hosts Crimewatch now, folks! — and thanks to Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson casually led us out of Europe. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Great news all round for Balls, then, he’d have to work really hard to come out of this badly. But there’s a reason he’s the bookies’ booby prize, with odds of 150/1 to lift the glitterball trophy. An entertaining but basically useless act has never won the show. We’ll be bored by November.

“But Ed might be sensational!” I hear you cry. Unfortunately his brief appearance on this year’s launch show suggests otherwise. This weekend — the first time he and Katya will perform a full routine —  he will be giving us his waltz, one of the more forgiving dances, and a style Balls has already expressed fondness for.

After that come the sizzling samba, the raunchy rumba and the cheeky Charleston. These can be mortifying even for the show’s frontrunners. As a straggler, Balls may find himself dewy-eyed, reminiscing about the time Bruno compared him to a cartoon hippo. But if he can just cope with a few weeks of mild ridicule, the world could be his oyster.

Emma Bullimore is a TV critic