Thursday, 8 February 2018

"We're done here, chaps."

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..." View of 'archaeological graveyard', the Forum

I’ve just got back from Italy, where I spent a week with a number of other PhD students at the British School at Rome taking part in a pilot initiative to link the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership – comprising students from Newcastle, Durham and Queen’s (Belfast) Universities – with the BSR, a cultural and academic hub in the city, committed to bolstering mutually-beneficial links between the two nation-states.

This blog won’t dwell too much on the mission of the BSR, nor will it bore readers with superfluous details of the programme I took part in. Rather, I want to use this space to think aloud, as it were, about my experience as a first-time visitor to the ‘Eternal City’, carrying with me as I do the baggage of various identities: Professional North-Easterner; Poet; Creative Writing doctoral researcher; white, able-bodied male; &c.

Specifically, my intention is to use this post to dwell upon an incident which took place in the small hours of last Sunday morning—one whose symbolisms, cultural potency and ongoing political ramifications are tied indirectly with the aims and intentions of the programme and its contents; speak broadly to some of the hitherto mentioned intersectional identities; and in a roundabout way are germane to what I am beginning to term ‘Marradharmic Praxis’; that is, an International-Regional approach to poesis, extending William Martin’s search for social and spiritual equilibrium in late twentieth-century County Durham. There’s a fair chance that this won’t make an awful lot of sense immediately, but I think that’s part of the importance of sharing it. As ever, I welcome feedback, debate and the high likelihood of having to correct myself.

With apologies to Professor Helen Berry in advance, whose presentation and expertise I am about to make a hash of, I’d like to indulge retrospective interpretation of my own hastily-scribbled notes in order to frame the aforementioned ‘incident’ by situating it within a historical lineage opened up to me this last week by Helen’s fascinating presentation. This will be based on a very basic summary of a practice which gained traction in the late seventeenth-century, finding its zenith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I am, of course, talking about The Grand Tour, excursions involving young British men (and they were nearly exclusively all men) being chaperoned through Europe to arrive in the Mediterranean, where they would encounter for themselves the great works of art and Classical antiquity which entry into elite circles of aristocracy presupposed not only knowledge of, but direct engagement with. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, travellers reached Italy via peregrinations through the Alps, arriving in and touring through cities such as Venice, Florence and Rome in order to acquire through osmosis the kinds of connoisseurship that would grant them continued access to the most exclusive echelons of society upon their return. These young men saw themselves as the inheritors of the Greek and Roman world: they were public school-educated, extremely well connected, able to afford the company of a ‘Bear Leader’ (essentially an older guide whose chief purpose was to provide the types of ‘experiences’ one could not possibly seen to be having in the Home Counties, Gosh no) and they spent a year or more tramping around the continent picking up the good tastes (and discarding the inferior ones) that would stand them well for another few decades of privileged, bourgeois conversation in landed homes across the country.

While the more lurid ‘souvenirs’ they took home with them (not to mention the ‘gifts’ they left in their wake) might be the subject of another post entirely, it is worth considering the types of artworks these boys would purchase and later hang in their country pads, cultivating the kind of mutual back-scratching that such mementos signified. This Cappricio View of Rome with the Arch of Constantine by Viviano Codazzi is typical of the Baroque style so favoured by Brits of the time. Never mind that it represents an ‘impossible view’ of Rome (something which, personally, I don’t mind: in fact, skewed truth can be a blessing for poets), clashing architectural and archaeological elements incongruously, the point was to be seen: to be regarded as a well-travelled, tasteful member of an elite club, a collector of cultural capital who would be considered by others of a similar disposition as understanding what good taste signified and how it might be used to further the status-quo. Remember, this is the era of civic virtue and codes of conduct: a top-down approach to social stratification in which the elite and educated impose on to others the mores and manners of polite society.

Viviano Coddazi's 'Impossible View', so treasured by bourgeouis Grand Tourists
The Tribuna of the Ufizzi by Johan Zoffany, showing what Robert Walpole called a montage of "troublesome boys" indulging in the behaviours alluded to above

How funny, then, several hundred years later, to be encountering the descendants of the Grand Tourists in a bar in Rome. What follows is, again, an exercise in thinking-out-loud: an attempt both to try and process what happened, sure, but a way of reaching beyond; to thinking about how class backgrounds, social status and education and experience are always present, consciously and subconsciously, in the way we conduct ourselves in public, especially on foreign soil. The etiquette(s) we selectively deploy and the way we ‘choose’ to ‘break free’ of those parameters (or not—often such practices and taboos are performed in contradictory ways) form the focal point of what follows.

To cut a long story short, and spare the reader mundane scene-setting, here is an open question: What drives a man – a white, Englishman in his mid-late twenties, to scream directly into another man’s face (a man he has never met) a Millwall Football Club chant? Now, I’ll be honest, I do not recall what the chant was in any great detail, other than that it was about Millwall, a club well-known to have historic problems with football hooliganism. The ins and outs of this are beyond my frame of reference, and I do not wish to fall into the trap of painting all of their fans with the same brush (and, by extension, all British football fans: those kinds of simple narratives have been damaging enough in the wake of, for instance, the Hillsborough disaster), but no matter how apocryphal or unsubstantiated the claims and their skewing by media bias may be, we are still talking about a football club whose support base (or its extreme factions) is known for attracting, how to put this, rowdy tendencies. If a Millwall fan reads this and thinks any of what I have just said is unfair, do please get in touch: I would hate to read a partial account of, say, South Shields or Sunderland supporters.

Anyway, this story isn’t about football, or sport per se. The man in question had doubtless consumed large quantities of alcohol and I suspect will not remember scoffing in my face, nor receiving in reply a firm but fair shove away, which I admit was coupled with an impolite version of the aphorism, ‘go forth and multiply’. If, by some magical nexus of the internet, the young man in question does somehow end up reading this, I’d be more than happy to engage with him in polite discussion about why he really ought not to repeat his actions in, say, the Bigg Market, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

I suppose I’m interested in the reasons why his fellow drinkers, who had clearly assembled much earlier in the bar to watch the first two Six Nations rugby games, rushed to interject. Let’s rewind several minutes: before Mr Millwall shouted in my face, I had politely introduced myself to one of the rugby fans while ordering a drink at the bar. His reception was frosty at best: saying that he couldn’t understand my accent. I admit: when I’ve had a drink – and, for the sake of transparency, I had definitely partaken of several strong libations by this stage in the evening – my accent does thicken, but it’s hardly impenetrable and I was not introducing myself to an Italian with no prior contextual knowledge, but to a fellow Englishman with whom I wished to make acquaintance, perhaps partake in a bit of light chit-chat about the day’s egg-chasing.

The rest of this story hardly needs telling: it’s so fraught with stereotypes that only the eye-rolling emoji need stand in as suitable response. Nevertheless, compost... Following a bit of argy-bargy – the old hand shakes at dawn and “let me buy you a drink on that daft fellow’s behalf” routine – I left the bar. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that I was with two other Northern Bridge students, who I won’t name, but were also men in their mid-late twenties who, upon entering the bar with me some half-hour earlier, had expressed similar feelings of cynicism about the group of rugby fans and their quarrelsome tag-along. I think it is worth stating this as unambiguously as possible: I certainly made hasty value judgements about the group, in an inverted snobbish kind of way, but my sense of anticipation in these scenarios is usually prescient. Cutting the meat from the fat, events culminated in a heated discussion with some pushing and shoving. Having dared question why another man, part of the group but not really privy to the initial squabble, had deemed it acceptable to stand in front of a street-sweeper making provocative gestures and generally being a menace to an Italian civil servant (no doubt on minimum wage) keeping the square we were all enjoying looking fresh, I was once again approached and provoked, the clear and loudly-articulated basis of which was incredulity at my reckless impinging on a mere matter of fun and games. Let ‘banter’ be banter? Are my virtue signals on full-beam here; do I need to dim them?

Look, I’ve been a tit in public. Only last spring, in my own capital city, I was part of a group of several thousand South Shields FC supporters, converging on Covent Garden, drinking too much and generally causing a racket. Now, I don’t wish to, and couldn’t even begin to if I tried, speak for the other few thousand Shields fans present, but I certainly didn’t interfere with any public servants that night, nor did I scream my ludicrous chants mere inches from a bystander’s face. However, sour-tasting as these actions are, their undercurrents are more malicious still. Being pushed and shoved around a bit is cause for a strong cup of tea and a moment of reflection, but I wasn’t actually hit (and, I feel the need to say this clearly and frankly, did not hit out at anybody else) and also, thank God, no Italian law enforcement personnel witnessed the scene, which could very easily have escalated in all kinds of ways had it been perceived as more than the in-some-ways-ridiculous display of macho pea-cocking that it was. However, and I’ve had a few days to process this now, something much more invidious took place. The sub-text of which was to be found in, to borrow sardonically from conference proceedings, the closing remarks: that is, the young man who elected to be diplomat-in-chief and diffuse the situation by saying to me and the other two lads, de facto, “We’re done here, chaps.”

Bunch of Saveloy Dips outside Wembley: 21st May 2017

There are many, many things I could now say, most of them unpleasant. However, in the spirit of reaching out, let me unpack that phrase, “We’re done here, chaps.” Syntactically, it constructs an interesting structural arrangement: the placing of the collective noun ‘we’ at the beginning acts as a bargaining chip: the by-line being: “We’ve all been complicit in this silly little kerfuffle, and there’s no use dwelling on things when we will never reach a solution, so let’s all be on our way.” In practice, the diplomat meant to use the first-person ‘I’, but, owing to his no doubt first-class degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), retained enough self-assurance to penetrate the lager-fuelled window of translucency sufficiently to deploy common rhetoric, thus diffusing the situation not for our benefit, but for the collective advantage of his fellow Grand Tourists. Better to call the whole thing off with a feckless admission of complicity than being pulled in front of a disciplinary hearing at Oxbridge and tainting the family name.

That’s not all. Let’s think of the meat in that proverbial sandwich: the “done here”. Shrugging off the incident as a mere hiccup in an otherwise-bountiful evening of banter, the phrase resonates so detestably for what it obscures: that is, our encounter here in this square, in which the behaviours and actions of the entitled are brought into question by the less-than-entitled, is being forcibly closed. Discourse is being shut down and there’s not a jot you can do about it, old bean. And then there’s that ‘chaps’, isn’t there? That wonderful piece of vernacular that contains all of the privileges and presences of the leisured class. “Chaps”, the diplomat might have said, “On this occasion you have been lucky: we have elected not to use physical force, not because we couldn’t, but because we are social media savvy and cannot possibly risk our names going viral in an altercation with three individuals at a lowly institution like Newcastle.” He might have gone on, “Chaps, your petty provincial concerns and academic persuasions matter nothing to our six-figure salaries, and as for the street-sweeper, push him in the Tiber and see what we care.”

Chaps, Chapettes, the Grand Tourists are alive and well and they are not about to check their privileges on the account of some measly, Northern PhD students. The problem for our Hooray compadres is that, via the academic discourses I am so heavily invested in, I can at least bring to attention the problematic nature of their conduct. I’m not naïve enough to think that, on the very slim chance one of the perpetrators reads this they will in any way change their behaviour, but it needs to be said regardless. At a time when our links with nation-states such as Italy become ever-more important, does it not behove of us to think more deeply about how we conduct ourselves; how we refract back to the (baffled) onlooking continent and world our better natures?

Perhaps, having had a week’s worth of in-depth tours of places like the Forum, the Lateran and Keats-Shelley House, by leading experts in their fields, my resentment towards the ignorant Chaps was magnified. I suspect that this could and will come across as me taking more than just one kind of moral high ground, but my time in Rome was predicated on the basis of being an amateur. Wishing to absorb and learn from art, architecture, archaeology, cuisine, language and politics, I came to Rome acknowledging the narrow-mindedness of my knowledge base on Romano-British relations, wishing to – and succeeding in – having my horizons expanded.

In our home nation, never mind in how we act when we’re ‘away’, civic discourse and politics are being eroded by buccaneering PPE graduates with little care for the ordinary person. I realise that that is quite a claim, and in some ways it is unrelated to the matter at hand, but a culture of entitlement was on display last Sunday so burly that it shudders to make me think that we are still being governed by the vestiges of those Empire-expanders.

The Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, (who, full caveat, I know little about), speaks about ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’: the former being the norms and customs coerced onto a populace using ideology; the latter being – I think? – an individual’s agency and ability to grasp those inherited narratives for transformative social change. Again, my knowledge base here is slight, so I’d welcome input from critical theorists or Gramsci scholars. Anyway, the crux surely is the “We’re done here, chaps” line as (anti)Gramscian coercion-in-action? Not prone to violence (would a rugby league fan from Warrington have chinned me on the spot?), the collective Chaps imposed extreme ideology, vis a vis learned rhetoric, to simultaneously shrug us off and expurgate themselves of any transgressions.

In my critical work on the poet William Martin, I situate his neologism, ‘Marradharma’, as an important blend term or portmanteau which might offer a useful prism through which to examine and critique the modern and contemporary region. Predominantly, I am concerned with how this term can be used as tool, or framework, in poetics, but its potential to be applied across a range of humanities and social sciences contexts is profound. As humanities scholars, we are used to seemingly-throwaway ciphers like ‘the past in the present’, but I think Marradharma offers us a very potent tool for engaging with social change from not only the ‘bottom-up’ (as its socialist ‘left’ implies), but from the ‘top-down’, too (as its religious ‘right’ suggests). The term is, of course, contestable, which is part of its excitement, but it seems to me to contain the kinds of dynamism and inclusivity that a relational poetics – indeed, a relational re-public – ought to strive for. The past was certainly on display in the present in Rome last week. In so many ways, it was a pleasure and a privilege to ‘bridge the Tiber’, to bring to bear on contemporary Rome my own discipline and field of expertise, but then have it exploded by proximity to other vastly different frames of reference within the settings of a literally palimpsestuous city.

I genuinely don’t want to end this with a sarcastic comment, and I realise that the prospect of carrying on this discourse with those who so firmly blocked it is near zero, but something deeply troubling took place on that square in Rome, and I’m saddened that it had nothing to do with a Roman or Italian—just several English lads who, through ‘common sense’, might forever remain apart.

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