Salve Sassenach – An Outlander in Rome

Other People’s Places mentioned in conversation today: A Pimm’s Party starting at 6pm. A Fashion Bermuda Triangle in a bedroom which mysteriously hides things then spits them back out. Willesborough in Ashford.

I have recently become addicted to Outlander.

Dr Ken Fox and I have been researching Seriality in Breaking Bad and I check all the boxes. Binge-watching on computer? Check. Reading on Kindle? Check. Listening on audiobook on iPod…che…really? Yes. This may seem a trifle excessive, but the books are plot-driven and after a gruelling end to series (not season) 1 on TV I was invested in the characters, wanted to know what happened and before I knew it I was listening to Book 2 in the car and reading 3, 4 and 5 at night.

I read a lot of Jean Plaidy in my adolescence. The past wasn’t another country, immersion in the familiar-but-strange world of historical fiction has all the patina of learning mixed with a plot (we know how it ends, so it’s the nuance of perspective which counts) and, in this case, with a big, irresistible dollop of Catherine Cookson swash-ripping bodice-buckling. This is roughly what John Urry calls Edutainment. For me, it’s not so much about pseudo-history, however well-researched. Facts like lead in the makeup or details like ruffs aren’t the focus, it’s a vacation to a place in time. I don’t watch the “how-to” video, but always try to maintain the illusion of place, with my fourth wall firmly intact.

My nephew and his wife recently saw Gladiator at the London Imax cinema. They’d seen the film before, but Imax was more of it. When I first saw Gladiator I was like Woody Allen at the start of Play it Again Sam. Open mouthed with absorption. At one point I caught myself thinking “I should go there for the weekend”.

I HAVE been there. The forum was both magnificent and had the pathos typical of ruins and that vertiginous effect when you consider objects which have witnessed an inconceivable amount of time and overwhelming events. Afterwards I insisted we went on a pilgrimage in the rain, tracking down the Cafe de Paris made famous by Fellini. When we finally arrived, the others thought it was too expensive, so we trudged back through the Roman interior, peering at the glimpses of villas hidden behind walls and gates as fat raindrops splashed onto the pavement. There was a slight miasma of my having wasted our afternoon, which perhaps could have been spent marvelling at the Pantheon. My strongest memory of that day and that road is a bellboy in full fig, a golfing umbrella in one hand, a silver cup of expresso on a silver tray in the other. We followed him down the length of the Via Vittorio Veneto. Someone in a hotel room (possibly wearing sunglasses and a monogrammed hotel dressing-gown) had picked up a (probably gold) telephone receiver and said “Get me an espresso from the Cafe de Paris.” It was Fellini. It was the act of a Roman Emperor. The point was that The Eternal City was its temples and traces of shuttered glamour, but was also caught somewhere in between the present and a 1950’s Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn clinging to Gregory Peck on that scooter,¬†passing the Colosseum in perpetuity, all of it contained in an espresso cup.

Watching Gladiator, I had caught myself thinking that I should visit Ancient Rome. The simulated time and place had enveloped me more than the actual place.

From the outset, my journeys in Outlander combine with my own Scottish rural idyll of 1970’s holidays, but that’s another post.


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