As I sit here and begin to write beside my candle, I am not thinking about Marcus Aurelius, the inspiration for this blog. Instead, my thoughts have drifted towards another Roman emperor.
I have recently visited the city of York and in the square in front of the cathedral there, York Minster, is a bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine. He sits on a throne looking appropriately powerful and commanding. His gaze seems to go beyond the square to take in the centuries since he reigned (306-337 CE). Perhaps this was intended by the sculptor, Philip Jackson, as the statue was officially unveiled in 1998. It was a millennium project I suppose, suggesting that Constantine transcends the millennia, (as does Marcus, not least, I hope, in my humble blog!).
There is a small marble bust of Constantine dating from Roman times in nearby Stonegate, an altogether more modest image but with that commanding stare nevertheless. When I was in Rome, I saw the fragments of a colossal statue of him (including a very large head with a more mellow gaze and and a hand pointing upwards) in the entrance to the Capitoline museum. It must have been a massive edifice and would have dwarfed all around it. Should my school decide to place a statue in my honour outside my dear Drama studio, I would be quite happy with a small marble bust. In reality, I am happy with nothing at all (just as well, you may say!) as you only have to stand in the centre of the studio and look around you to see my monument!
It may seem strange but Constantine was actually crowned Emperor in York which was then a Roman settlement called Eboracum. There is a large stone column from that time quite near to the statue on the small square. Constantine had served in the army under his father Constantius since 305 (having fled from the reigning Caesar, Galerius, to serve the army in Western Europe). When his father died he was declared emperor by the army. It is appropriate that the statue is situated in front of the Minster as Constantine was reputedly crowned near that spot, and also because eventually he became the first Christian emperor.
York is a city steeped in history: it not only has a Roman past, but also was a Viking settlement and was a thriving medieval town around the Minster. There are also some elegant 18th and 19th century buildings and some beautiful city gardens and parks. I very much enjoyed staying with friends in York and having a little city break – my first break since last autumn and my first major venture out of the lockdown stockade. It was heartening to see the streets busy, not with international tourists of course, but with visitors from the UK. The city seemed to be going about its business in a relaxed way, unlike my visits to London last summer where the streets were virtually empty and a tense atmosphere pervaded the metropolis. There was a gentleness about the place which I hope won’t be swept away when lockdown ends (possibly) in a few weeks. At the moment in this hopefully last stage of lockdown, we seem to be in a gentle and quite relaxed phase. I wish this could be the so called ‘new normal’ and that we do not return to a frenetic or even frantic lifestyle once lockdown ends. I hope we do not forget what we have learnt from lockdown.
My first reason for travelling up North was to be with my sisters and family in Leeds. I hadn’t seen them since last August and was so very pleased to be with them, especially as we were unable to spend Christmas together. So we had Christmas in June instead! I travelled on the train with my Christmas gifts for them, like a Santa who had lost his way on Christmas Eve and had spent six months trying to find his way home! We exchanged gifts and had a turkey dinner and hats, crackers and games and it was a wonderful festive occasion especially as we hadn’t seen each other for so long.
It has been wonderful that families have been able to get together at last over the last few months. I imagine not a few have also re-celebrated Christmas, with all the family together at last. At the end of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man and the narrator comments that ‘it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well’ and hopes that ‘may the same be said of us and all of us.’ Well my family and I did our best last month. They had already been together last December 25 and celebrated without my being with them but, nevertheless, the spirit of Christmas was present among us on June 24!
On that trip to Leeds and York, I came to realise that I never travel light. I always have too much stuff with me. I suppose I had a good excuse this time as I was carrying presents for seven people as well as clothes for a five day stay up North. Also I must confess to being quite nervous about travelling even though I have made the journey so many times before. I think the pandemic may have made us all nervous at times about the most ordinary things (especially travel). I spent the day before I travelled packing and repacking and deciding what to wear (as the weather is so changeable at present) and what else to take with me: books, I Pad, headphones for my music etc. My bag was heavy enough without my personal accessories.
Of course I was forgetting that I would be spending most of my time in the company of my family and my friends. I would have little time to read or play music. They weren’t important. My bag wasn’t much lighter either once I had emptied out the gifts in Leeds and gave them to my family as I received gifts too from them to take home with me. As I trundled along station platforms with my large tunnel back at my side and my backpack
on my shoulders and heaved myself onto trains for my journeys from London to Leeds then from Leeds to York and later back home again from York, I slowly began to realise that I was literally weighed down with possessions. I came to the conclusion that I need to live lighter let alone travel lighter.
I had also forgotten one of the lessons I had learnt from the lockdown last year: that people are more important than possessions. And more especially from our days of isolation, that the company of others is very precious.
Yes, I hope we do not forget what we have learnt from lockdown.
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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