To illustrate just how stupid and green round the gills me and Geoff Quigley were in the spring of 1986 I remember that when we went to Pompeii we didnÂ’t even think to buy a map, let alone a tourist guide. Thus we just wandered aimlessly round a site that is literally the size of a city (being as it is literally a city) without any idea of where we were or where we were going. Consequently we missed out on much of what the place has to offer, whilst failing to fully understand the bits that we did manage to glimpse. Man we were idiots. Though not big enough idiots to buy a fake Rolex off of Dick Emery. Or possibly not rich enough idiots. We couldnÂ’t even afford a guide book. I bet we were wishing weÂ’d been able to afford the watch. Imagine how many guide books we could have bought with the ÂŁ800 profit. Probably about 300 at 1986 prices. That might be a bit excessive. I think we would only use three at most.
Even so Pompeii has remained for me, ever since, the best place IÂ’ve ever been to in the world. It was still unbelievably magical to walk down those streets that had been worn by the feet of genuine Romans and put my fingers in the grooves left by the chariot wheels in the road. In a sense not knowing where I was going or what was round the next corner made the experience more magical. Suddenly I would find myself overlooking a spectacular amphitheatre or enter a house with almost perfectly preserved murals. For a young man with a love for history and who had not seen much of the world it was an overpowering, practically religious experience. Maybe it has taken me so long to return for fear of spoiling those memories.
After a dull night in new Pompeii (possibly one of the most boring places to spend a Monday night on the planet) I was all geared up for my visit. I had already bought a guidebook, with a map and planned to walk up every road and look at every building of interest on the bloody thing. IÂ’d show the 18 year old me what an idiot he was. ThatÂ’d teach him.
And I was still fairly blown away by the place, not least because it was a Tuesday in November and there werenÂ’t many people around. Apart from the bluster of an occasional group of disinterested Italian students (well disinterested in Pompeii, mostly just at that age where they were taking unusual interest in each other, or in the members of the opposite sex anyway) or coach load of German tourists, the place was quite empty. Sometimes I had an entire street to myself. At one point I sat for about five minutes, totally undisturbed in the small 1000 seat theatre. ThatÂ’s the one IÂ’d have been failing to fill whilst Dave Gorman or Jethro played the bigger place next door. Not that the Pompeians would have been impressed or shocked by a show about cocks. Their whole town was full of representations of it. I canÂ’t be certain, but I am certain that I was an inhabitant of this town in a former life. Definitely. ThatÂ’s the only possible explanation for why I like it so much and feel so at home here. I did imagine that I had once been an actor performing mimes on this small stage. I imagined the sound of Pompeian laughter ringing round the covered theatre. I decided that these people all deserved to die if they found mime so amusing. And if just one mime artist was amongst the thousands who perished then it was a loss that I personally can live with. You canÂ’t destroy an omelette without breaking already badly broken eggs. Perhaps by using a shoe.
Sorry lost track of that metaphor a little towards the end there.
I suppose it was less surprising this time and to my jaded and more critical 36 year old eye not as absolutely as impressive as before and I was annoyed that a few of the famous bits were shut off to the public or behind closed gates. But evenso I spent a very happy five hours wandering the site. And I was transported back to adolescence when I found the villa of the banker Caecillius who had been the hero of the Latin course I had done at school (which had been the starting point of my fascination with this crazy ruined city). I was looking at the very atrium that Caecillius had been in, in the story. Through a barred gate, but nonetheless I was stripped of any small sophistication I pretend to have and got quite excited.
I hadnÂ’t realised that there are also still quite a few swathes of unexcavated land, especially towards the north. I passed one villa that was in the process of being dug up by archaeologists and kind of hung around outside for a bit, hoping theyÂ’d spot me and recognise me as a bloke who had done a couple of digs nearly twenty years ago and ask me if I wanted to join in with them. I pulled a face that should have conveyed the information to them, but they still didnÂ’t get the hint. Maybe the Â“I went on two digs almost twenty years ago, so why donÂ’t you ask me to join in?Â” face means something else in Southern Italy. Maybe it means Â“I am considering hitting an omelette with a shoeÂ”. Probably it does. That would definitely explain why they didnÂ’t ask me to help. But it would be so fantastic to be part of a dig that had a better than average chance of finding quite a lot of simply fucking excellent stuff. It made me want to go on another dig. So this holiday had caused me to resolve to do some archaeology and learn to speak Italian. LetÂ’s see if my enthusiasm lasts beyond Heathrow (IÂ’m flying home. Enough trains already). I love holiday resolutions.
I am glad I had a map because it also meant that I got to see the Villa of the Mysteries, which I had had no idea about before and which is beyond the city gates and is frankly astonishing. It is so complete that I would be more than happy to live in it now. And as for those crazy Dionysiac murals, youÂ’ve got to see them to believe them. Though the room they are in is quite hidden away and I had to go round the whole thing twice before I found them. Again they were shut off even then, but close enough to see pretty well. Make sure you go and see them if you go. Get a map. DonÂ’t be a Quigley about it. I could equally say a Herring, but hey, itÂ’s my diary. IÂ’ll do what I like. I hope to one day get it inscribed with the motto of what I have learnt here in Italy (perhaps translated into Latin so it fits in with the general ambience and on a wall thatÂ’s already bare, IÂ’m not a philistine) which is this, Â“Buy more guide books and less fake RolexesÂ”. I know itÂ’s no Â“Relax Your ShouldersÂ”, but there is just as much wisdom in it, believe me, my friends.
As I was leaving I pondered on why I found Pompeii an acceptable tourist attraction and The Titanic Exhibition a bit sick and exploitative. I think it is partly clearly because of the massive historical significance of the place. You know whilst IÂ’m sorry that all those men, women, children, dogs and pigs had to be caught up in a burning cloud of ash, I am still delighted that it happened because it gives us a window into a world that we could only guess about otherwise (something not true of the Titanic finds). And the very discreet souvenir shop in Pompeii isnÂ’t selling lumps of ash or rocks of lava, like the coal in the Titanic shop. It celebrates the art and the life of the people who died. Which I suppose is what the whole city does.
Yes, the death aspect still fascinates us. The awful plaster casts of the victims cowering in terror are endlessly fascinating, even though they record the final moments of real people (and dogs and pigs). And with Vesuvius an ever present sight on the horizon one cannot help by contemplate the fragility of our own lives and how just because something seems secure and eternal that doesnÂ’t mean it canÂ’t be obliterated in an afternoon. And then one cannot help feeling a bit trite and stupid for making such an obvious observation.
Ultimately Pompeii is about living though. ItÂ’s about ordinary life captured in an instant and frozen for two thousand years. It preserves the history of the ordinary man, the shops, the toilets, the brothels, the graffiti and the everyday art in a way that no book or historian has ever managed. Recovered from its shroud of ash it becomes again a place of life, rather than a Titanic graveyard. Though it holds a mirror up to our own fragile mortality, it also shows us why being alive is great.
It all passes. We must laugh and love and feel whilst we can.
Well thatÂ’s how I felt when I left, but unfortunately there isnÂ’t really anywhere to do any of those things in modern Pompeii. These people could do with a volcanic eruption to warm things up a bit. So I just had a pizza and some wine and then a strawberry ice cream and went to bed. I also put 50 cents in one of those little machines full of plastic bubbles with toys in and won a necklace worth about 10 cents.
Make every second count. ThatÂ’s my philosophy.
That and the slightly more forgettable guidebook/fake Rolex thing.