Change is inevitable and there’s nothing you can do about it
August 4th 2016
Warning: this is a long one, and possibly a bit rambling. tl;dr, the title.
The amphitheatre is now little more than a ruin. The gates have gone and the seating disassembled by the unscrupulous and opportunistic to become carts or tables. The shrines have vanished, no doubt after being desecrated, and their niches lay empty and abandoned. The spectacles, the pageants, the contests of my childhood will never return. It is now dark where it was once light. Soon the Saxon wolf will overtake us. Many have left the town already. The rest will leave soon. No one will remain who remembers. Not even me.
Commios Atrebates, circa 390 AD
When I’m down at my mum’s, in the family home in the village I was brought up in, my usual morning running route takes me to the old Roman amphitheatre at Silchester, where I stop, take a breather, and then run back. It’s a very pleasant route – most of my running is usually either urban or in the park – through the back lanes where there’s hardly any traffic at all, and mostly I’m left to my own thoughts as I navigate a twisty-turny course between high hedges and up/down big hills.
It doesn’t look any significantly different from four decades ago, when I used to walk and cycle the same back lanes, and the temptation is to think of the landscape as timeless. It’ll always be that way, and there’s no reason for it to change. Which is, of course, nonsense, and evidence literally stares me in the face at the half-way point: the amphitheatre.
There’s a little board just at its southern entrance, with a picture showing what it would have looked like in its prime: an oval structure with high, banked walls, a flat arena, with gates guarding the two opposite entrances. It’s thought that there were gladiatorial fights there, along with equestrian events (probably the beginning and/or end of a cross-country race) and other festivals. It’s in a remarkable state of preservation, considering it’s literally in the middle of nowhere in particular, and is nigh on two thousand years old.
A lot has happened in those two thousand years, but I’ll say that again. Two thousand years. My morning run starts in a village which is mostly Victorian and ends at a Roman amphitheatre. That’s an awful lot of history I’m moving through. This landscape is ancient. Not one bit of it remains even close to ‘natural’. We’ve resurfaced every single part of it, several times, and very little evidence remains of the previous iterations.
The roads I’m running on. They might be Roman (and briefly, they are). They might be Saxon. They’re probably much later than that, reflecting the consolidation of land around the time of the dissolution of the monasteries or the much later enclosure acts. The fields, the stands of trees, even the course of the river I cross. Not one single thing is the same.
And here I start to get to the point: you can’t save it. You can’t. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try. No matter what laws you enact, or armies you employ, or people you drive out or kill. It won’t stay the same. Yes, you can hold back the tide for a little while. But all that does is drive the water higher on the other side of the dam so that when it fails, it fails catastrophically.
I’m sure Commios thought, growing up in a Romano-British town, behind its high flint walls, that it was permanent. He’d live there, and die there, and so would his children. Then the Romans pulled their legions back and the Germanic tribes, by invitation and intimidation, displaced them. They had different priorities, different technologies, and Calleva disappeared under the farmland. The building stone was carried off, the roads dug up, and very many years later, archaeologists examine the remains. (editor’s note: I made the Commios quote up. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.)
Let’s bring it up to date. My dad was Chair of the Planning committee on the Parish Council. He fought long and hard to preserve the ‘village envelope’, to keep it the same geographical extent, to stop ribbon developments forming between this and neighbouring villages. To an extent, he succeeded. The village has only doubled in population by infilling and a couple of modest new estates on land within the parish boundary, when the external pressure had been for them to accept very many more.
But what else was achieved? The doctor’s surgery is overwhelmed, the local schools, the local railway station, the sewage pumping station, the roads, are all at the limit, or over the limit, of their capacity. Houses have two, three, four cars parked outside them, and the houses themselves are pretty much all north of half a million pounds. People with what I’d classify as ‘normal jobs’ simply can’t afford to live there any more. I grew up with labourers’ children in my school class, the sons and daughters of engineers and servicemen. Now, people down the street are ‘something in the city’.
The village is still there. But the village of my youth has gone. Many of the buildings are the same, but the people, the ethos, the community has gone. The heroic attempts of my dad and his colleagues to preserve what they could has been partially successful only in ways that have sown the seeds of the inevitable destruction of what they wanted to save.
The morning trains take rich people away to work elsewhere, and bring in poor people to clean their houses and look after their children. Before, they’d be living next door to each other. Now, they live miles apart. I talked to him about this several times before he died. He eventually accepted that perhaps such an aggressive defence had contributed little except a massive increase in house prices that meant his own children could only give a disbelieving chuckle as they passed the estate agent’s window.
Change is inevitable. Resisting change is perhaps noble but ultimately futile. Managing change is wise, but even then, change – the abrupt collapse of the Roman Empire, the Norman invasion, the break-up of the abbey estates, the Enclosures Act, the arrival of the railway – can be disruptive and unexpected. That something else will come over the horizon to break down the walls is a certain: less certain is what that’ll actually be.
Here’s the other thing, though. Change is always forward moving. It’s dynamic, destructive, often chaotic and frightening. The one thing it doesn’t do is look back, because you can’t go back. You. Can. Not. Go. Back. There’s no rebottling the genie or closing the lid on Pandora’s Box. There’s no recalling the legions. It doesn’t happen like that.
This is the part where I talk about Brexit. Yes, there were all sorts of reasons to vote to leave the EU, and none of them I was at all convinced about. But the least convincing of all was the slogan ‘take our country back’. Because you can’t. I know it was a rhetorical device, but to me it summed up everything that was wrong about the Leave campaign. Back to when there were fewer brown people in the country? Back to when we had an empire? Back to when we had an unelected oligarchy involve us in foreign wars we barely understood but felt the pull of false patriotism to support?
Back to when ‘we’ had control? We never had control. At best, ‘we’ nudged the direction of the wheels as we hurtled down the slope. At the worst, we were simply captives in the runaway cart. Even those who were in control (and unless you’re sitting on roughly a billion quid, it’s not you) were just as much victims as we ordinary folk were. They just got a better carriage to their destruction.
Everything that Leave are trying to preserve will be swept away, like the high walls and the amphitheatre of Calleva Atrebatum, like the abbeys and the manors and the commons and the forests and the hedges and roads and even the names of the places we live. History tells us that this is true. The very land itself bears witness to this.
Change is inevitable and inexorable. Our humanity is fragile and impermanent. But the only certain stability in this churning sea of change is ourselves, our persons, our love and our hope. Neither are we doing this on our own: there are others out there, who are simultaneously not frightened of change and wanting to carry their dreams into the future.
The next few decades are when I’m going to grow old and die. I’ll be gone, and I’ll have left a few academic papers, some stories, a handful of remembrances soon to be forgotten and that’s pretty much it. The wave of time will wash over it all, as it has done almost everyone else for the whole of recorded history. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s the people around me that make the journey worthwhile, and if I can do justice, love mercy and walk humbly on the way, my work will be mostly done. Helping others and equipping them – not least of which my children -to ride that wave is the point, and the hope that one day, they may arrive at the stranger shore.