Archive for April, 2012

News from Ambridge: Vicky Tucker recognises the story of Sabinus and Ambiorix and reveals her classical education

April 16th, 2012

Ambiorix the Gaul: Brian Aldridge beware

Vicky Tucker wears her erudition lightly. The well-meaning but controversial second wife of Ambridge’s one-eyed milkman, the hapless Mike Tucker, she is known for her ampleness ‘in form and deed’ and for her lack of tact. She is fond of dancing, cooking, gardening and sun-worshipping. She loathes killjoys who might want to interfere with her fun – and exams. A characteristic utterance at Willow Farm, in her pronounced ‘Brummie accent’, might be ‘Ooh Mike, I like the look of that cruise’ ( Who would have thought that she had benefited from a classical education?

On Friday 13 April, conversation in the village shop turned, as it often does these days, to Brian Aldridge’s alarming plans for a massive milking factory. Not only will it be a blot on the landscape: the idea of keeping cows indoors, instead of allowing to them graze in the open, is denounced by the traditionalists as cruel and unnatural.

Brian’s most articulate opponent is undoubtedly the retired academic Jim Lloyd who, in the presence of Vicky and another customer, Bert Fry, referred to him as ‘the most insufferable, pompous, self-centred man’.

‘I grant you he can put on a carapace of charm’ – Jim continued – ‘when he’s trying to sugar-coat this megalomaniac scheme to blight our glorious countryside with a monstrous industrial edifice. But if he thinks he can buy off the deeply-held objections of a community with a cash donation and a few pints of ale, then he’s heading for the biggest disappointment since Sabinus trusted the word of Ambiorix the Gaul – and we all know how that ended.’

The bucolic Bert (likeliest utterance: ‘My Freda bakes the finest cakes in Borsetshire’) seemed not to recognise the allusion. Indeed, Jim’s invective was greeted with a stunned silence, until Vicky artlessly enquired, ‘Was he the one with the potion?’

No doubt Jim has Caesar’s De Bello Gallico constantly to hand, but it must be a while since Vicky read it, for it was not Ambiorix, but Cativolcus who took the potion (an infusion from a yew tree). Ambiorix and Cativolcus were the two kings of the Eburones, a people between the Meuse and Rhine rivers, who rebelled against the Romans in 54 BC. Ambiorix persuaded their beleaguered commander in Eburonia, Quintus Titurius Sabinus, to surrender, promising that he and his soldiers would be unharmed.

Sabinus had been naïve to trust Ambiorix. According to Caesar, he ‘orders those tribunes of the soldiers whom he had at the time around him, and the centurions of the first ranks, to follow him, and when he had approached near to Ambiorix, being ordered to throw down his arms, he obeys the order and commands his men to do the same. In the mean time, while they treat upon the terms, and a longer debate than necessary is designedly entered into by Ambiorix, being surrounded by degrees, he is slain.’ (De Bello Gallico, V, xxxvi-vii).

Colourful detail is added by Cassius Dio (Historia Romana, XL, vi – p.415 of the Loeb edition), who says that Ambiorix seized Sabinus, ‘stripped him of his arms and clothing, and then struck him down with his javelin, uttering boastful words over him, such as these: “How can such creatures as you wish to rule over us who are so great?”’

Few of Sabinus’s soldiers escape. Many take their own lives, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. It was left to Caesar to wreak his terrible revenge on Eburonia. Ambiorix fled with his men across the Rhine and was never found. As for poor old Cativolcus, ‘being now worn out by age, he was unable to endure the fatigue either of war or flight, so, having cursed Ambiorix with every imprecation, as the person who had been the contriver of that measure, he destroyed himself with the juice of the yew-tree, of which there is a great abundance in Gaul and Germany’ (De Bello Gallico, VI, xxxi). Surely too cruel a fate, even for Brian Aldridge?

It is surprisingly that Jim resisted a rather apt pun by quoting from the original Latin: ‘qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat’ (who had entered into the design together with Ambiorix). Perhaps he is saving it for another time.

Wooing NADFAS: Setting Out One’s Stall at the Annual Directory Meeting

April 13th, 2012

The annual ‘Directory Meeting’ is a key event for NADFAS lecturers, as they are able to advertise their wares and take provisional bookings from clients – the secretaries of the regional Decorative and Fine Arts societies – who assemble there en masse. It is a great and splendid occasion.

On Tuesday 27 March, the meeting was held for the first time in the sumptuous Westminster Central Hall, a venue much approved of by the writer, who photographed the above view of the nearby Abbey from its entrance.

Newly-accredited lecturers are given a precious opportunity to ‘market’ themselves by means of a two-minute presentation on stage. It is their one-and-only chance to make an impression and stand out from the crowd, on which their future lecturing career may well depend. These are followed by the one-minute presentations of established lecturers, who will have competed by ballot for the limited slots. The occasion is somewhat reminiscent of the auditions on X-Factor: those exceeding their allotted time are ruthlessly silenced by having their microphones turned off.

My new colleagues are all as brilliant as they are congenial and, in successive addresses, each of sparkling originality, they contrived to fascinate on the obscurest of topics. I hoped in my own presentation (the ‘Ws’ came last!) to epitomise the spirit as well as the content of my NADFAS lectures. It is clear that humour, and a strong element of social history, were much appreciated by the audience.

Apparently I am alone in offering a lecture, the teasingly-named ‘Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture’, about the most notoriously over-developed town in England. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Rudigore, the word ‘Basingstoke’ is said to ‘teem with hidden meaning’. Apparently it teems with it to this day as the mere mention of it had the hall in stitches. The joke seems to have been enjoyed by branch secretaries from as far away as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, who hastened to book the talk.

Indeed, well over half my bookings that afternoon were for ‘Basingstoke’. There was a tense moment when I was approached by representatives of the Basingstoke DFAS. Luckily they were all smiles and it appears that I will be able to deliver the talk to their group in 2014 without the prospect of being lynched.

Here, then, is the text of my address:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am an historian of domestic life. I am interested in fundamental things like fashions, hairstyles, and the living arrangements of both rich and poor.

First, I offer a lively introduction to the Bayeux Tapestry. I demonstrate that the Normans were a bunch of skinheads, and that they attributed the downfall of the English to their girly hairstyles.

Or I can take you on a room-by-room tour of Simon de Montfort’s castle in Hampshire. I will reveal the most intimate details of Simon’s home life, even down to his undergarments.

Or let me guide you through the world of Jane Austen, peeping into peasants’ cottages on the way. I will elaborate on the peasant’s smock and the gentleman’s knee breeches, on powdered wigs and pigtails and on the shocking introduction of the trouser. 

Or I can show you my family photos from the 1890s and early 1900s – scenes of people wearing the latest fashions in the Bois de Boulogne, sitting on bicycles, posing with a new motor car or indulging in mixed bathing, all of which offended or even shocked the conservatively-minded at the time.

Finally, let me commend to you ‘Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture’. It is about the post-war development of a typical English town. What motivated the planners who imposed the absurdities of Modernist architecture on our landscape? It is a story that neatly illustrates the ugliest episode in England’s architectural history. You will be thrilled to discover the largest phallus on public display in Britain. You will marvel at the sudden rise of the chav. Hilarity is guaranteed. Please book now to avoid disappointment! Thank you very much.