We are seated for breakfast, the boys and I, at a B&B in Hexham near Hadrian’s Wall. The day before, we explored the Roman settlement of Vindolanda and climbed all over the ruins at Housesteads, where extensive foundations of the fort and wall are still to be found. Today we will go out see more ancient sites, but a hearty English breakfast is in the offing first in this lovely little Northern city.
Would we like toast, asks our waitress, whose ancestry is evidently Indian but whose accent is entirely Northumbrian. When we say that we do in fact want toast, she follows up with “White, brown, or mixed?” My older son has to have her repeat the question. Though the burr in her voice is hard to make out, she is very friendly and tells us all about how she’s headed off to Newcastle later today to see the Brazilian men’s football team play Honduras. I make a mental note that the trains will be crowded.
Breakfast comes out, and after the boys have indicated their disgust at the black pudding and made endless inquiries about why the waitress says tom-ah-to, I look over my notebook from yesterday’s excursions and scan the papers, where all the news is Olympic. There again on the front page is what I think must be the official symbol of the London 2012 games: not the Olympic rings or the Golden Arches or the Coca-Cola logo, but Jessica Ennis’ washboard abs. I do not believe I have gone 3 hours without seeing this woman’s six-pack, and mind you, I have spent the last few days in a region nearly devoid of wi-fi.
The Daily Telegraph has fine background piece about Ennis and her proud parents, one of whom is black, the other white. As the paper notes of the gold medalist,
People warmed to her pluck and skill as well as her beauty, which was cleverly marketed. … she had the look the sponsors wanted.
Research has shown that the face the majority of people of all ages find most attractive is symmetrical, flawless and mixed race.
So states the conservative Telegraph. The pride the nation feels in Ennis’ accomplishments somehow seems to typify this epoch of post-imperial, multicultural Britain.
Deeper in the newspaper is a more depressing article about the death of Shafilea Ahmed in 2003, a story much in the UK news. Ahmed, herself born in Britain, was murdered by her Pakistani parents as an “honour killing,” because they felt she had become too Western. This week, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In pronouncing the sentence, the judge told them,
Although you lived in Warrington, your social and cultural attitudes were those of rural Pakistan and it was those you imposed upon your children. … She [Shafilea] was being squeezed between two cultures, the culture and way of life that she saw around her and wanted to embrace, and the culture and way of life you wanted to impose upon her … An expectation that she live in a sealed cultural environment separate from the culture of the country in which she lived was unrealistic, destructive and cruel. … Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than your love of your child.
Here, then, is the flip-side of multiculturalism: while there is celebration for the flawless, “mixed race” look, a fear of impurity is also be found, so great sometimes that it transcends even the most fundamental of human bonds.
Jessica Ennis and Shafilea Ahmed are on my mind as I turn back to my recent notes on Roman Britian. The remains of Hadrian’s Wall are not especially impressive, nowhere near as complete as what can be seen in other parts of Europe, but the idea of the edifice expresses something deeply elemental about the imperial Roman mind. All walls are sacred and inviolable, Plutarch writes in the Roman Questions (sec. 27), and it is easy to see why. Walls clarify things, sift matters out, dissolve ambiguities. Hadrian’s Wall marked the empire’s sharply-defined edge. On this side of the wall was Rome; on the other side, the enemy.
At all the settlements of Roman Britain that we have visited, the idea of Rome is a broadly-considered one. At Vindolanda, there is recently-discovered altar within the fort to Jupiter Dolichenus, a Near Eastern deity whom the army worshipped way up here in Northumberland. Goods from the Near East and all over Europe have been found here as well. Not so far away in York, analysis of the skeletal remains from the Roman era tells a similar story. The image to the left is the skull of a woman, probably in her forties, whose diet seemed to be millet-based. Such a regimen “is mostly found in area where wheat cannot be grown successfully–South East Europe, North Africa and the Near East,” according to the Yorkshire Museum placard. Hers is not the only skeleton to bear such traits. Movement from one end of the empire to the other would appear to have not been uncommon, the physical evidence suggests.
But it was not all peaceful coexistence among the various cultures along Hadrian’s Wall. The skull on the left is that a young man from Southwest Scotland, found in a fort ditch at Vindolanda. It appears he had been decapitated, and “his severed head displayed on a pole near the fort,” as the placard tells me. (A millenium and a half later, Macduff will enter in the last scene of Macbeth bearing “the usurper’s cursed head” on a pike) It is a warning clear enough to understand, and intended not just for the Scots beyond the Roman pale, I have to think. Diversity of a sorts is to be tolerated, but within certain carefully constricted bounds.
If we are going to beat the Olympic crowd, I need to put the paper down now and get going, but first I down the last of my coffee and grab a final piece of toast. White, brown, or mixed? That’s the question of the day, I think, as the boys and I set off once again along the wall.