Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.
Hello people and welcome to Blog Four. Every chunk of daily life is filtered by perspective – firstly by sight – the quick targeted snap of your camera-phone; a breaking news item; whatever your eyes flit to as you scroll down your laptop screen or pass through a crowd. And tied in with the physical actions of your body is whatever mental or emotional prism you are going through – how tired you are; if you’ve had a ding-dong/row with a boss at work or partner; whether you have time to stick your favourite track on, buzz down the windows and sing your heart out with your foot slammed to the pedal. Heck, we all know how the weight of your bags and tightness of your shoes can affect your state of mind. But it is also a fact that on a good day happiness can turn on a look or be caught from someone else like a virus.
Right here, right now it seems that the world, his wife, their three kids and in-laws have decided it’s a great day to get out and about and descend on the city. Canterbury is buzzing with virtually no gaps in anyone’s eye-line down the high street. There are troops of locals chatting and pounding the cobbles; a tonne of early lunchers / brunchers chomping in the sunshine; gaggles of grannies buying fruit from the stalls and unseen bits from Marksies and outside the cathedral, a wagon train’s worth of coach parties circling the memorial, trying their best to hear the history of the gates and sculptures from brolly wielding guides. Bunched in the skinny lanes and out in the open, a bevy of students are de-stressing, escaping their exam plagued campus to test the pubs and benches for beery chat and frappuccino slurps and it almost feels like there are too many shoppers to shake a stick at. The sun is out and today the world is in a good place.
Contrary to the crush and hustle above, there is a sense of calm below decks in the Roman Museum. It’s atmosphere is deliberate, giving both space and time to consider and explore. Although it is busy, there’s a sense of stillness – unlike the candles and principled silence of a church or popcorn and necessity of a cinema, but it is here, present. There’s a hum of conversation and, as is to be expected, the air-conditioning. The latter is both precise and scientific, with engineered sealed cabinets and temperature controlled environments used to prevent the clumsy touch of the over-enthusiastic; the hopefully unlikely possibility of light-fingered robbers; and more practically, further corrosion of Roman materials, especially metals. This afternoon I have been taking notes in the corner that is the military section and am in for an unexpected treat.
Suddenly a little girl can be heard talking, massively confusing her mum by wanting to get some sweets from the gift shop. Mum and slightly older Brother don’t remember any and can be heard trying to placate her so that they won’t get dragged back up the stairs they’ve only just descended. On the way she says “Hello horsey” to the cavalry steed as if it were going to answer and after a degree of shushing and attempts at delay, her quietly despairing mother gives in and asks where she saw them. The girl takes her by the hand and arrives, dragging Mum, Brother/Son and assorted mini-rucksacks over to near me. I try to look as uninterested and not too weird as a man writing in a skull book can.
They stop at a nearby display case. There, Daughter/Sister gestures up above her head and trails the glass with sticky fingers. Her mother quickly rubs at the marks with the cuff of her hoody and asks what she means, but all the jumping girl can articulate is “Here. Over here.” Frustrated by her mum’s serious lack of understanding, Miss Enthusiastic, 2015 asks/demands “Pick me up!” and her mum does so until the little girl can see into the cabinet. “There – those sweeties. There! The Midgets! ” Under a shelf of finely tooled, first century brooches (fibulae) and shining coins from the days of the emperors Caligula (AD 37-41) & Claudius I (AD 41-54), trays of sparkling white crystals lay. They are silica gel, used in conservation to prevent further corrosion to these metal treasures by absorbing the moisture in the cabinets. “Ah,” says Mum, gently putting / letting down her daughter, “you can’t eat those, darling. They’re not sweeties. They’re to keep all the old things from getting ruined. ” Obviously disappointed, Miss Less-Than-Enthusiastic retorts with “They aren’t ruined Mummy. They’re just old like Nanny.” Mum laughs and Daughter hangs on to her hand as Mum teases her back to the here and now by challenging her to “Go find the hairdresser.” They do that half-walk half skip thing that elders do with youngsters, particularly because Mum now has to find the wandering sibling who slipped free by the ‘Midget Gems’.
In the next area there are a range of exhibits on the Roman era Canterbury Town, principally about the marketplace, and Mum soon finds Son/Brother standing amongst the debris of his Iron Man back-pack, surrounded by a Twix wrapper and a licked looking crisp packet. Someone not too unknown has clearly decided on a second stab at lunch. Brother/Son has apparently also moved onwards in his hunt for food, and left chocolate fingerprints on the wired-together clump of plastic eggs on the veg seller’s stall. Blushing and groaning, Mum looks at me – a total stranger pretending not to be eavesdropping – and mouths “Kids!” before rooting through her pockets, finding and using a wet wipe with the quick precision of the well-practised. Son/Brother mutters “They’re not real.” to which she replies “Yeah? Well, you still gave them a go, though, didn’t you?” as Sister/Daughter suddenly yells “Mummy? Mummy! Found her! I’ve found the hair lady!” in a voice I know to be from only round the corner, but which may seem to Mum far, far away. It’s all a question of perspective.