Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine


At the Byzantine basilica he concluded my tour, declining any payment. He left me as simply and disinterestedly as he had approached me. That’s why I wish more people in western Europe knew about Sucidava. Because people like Adrian and their attachment to places like Sucidava, rare as they no doubt are, seem to me a valid rejoinder to the widespread insinuation, more or less unspoken, that an east Europeans is always a question-mark gangster or, presumably, whore.

I suppose by familiarising himself with the history of Sucidava Adrian had uncovered a kind of blocked doorway into the history, yes of Europe but not only. Stone by stone he had unblocked it – the Iron Age, Roman colonisation, the Migration Period, Byzantium, Ottoman advance and retreat – and the uses made of all these by historians since, as French, German and Russian influences came and went. Perhaps light began to break through that old doorway little by little until at last it was completely cleared and large enough for a man to pass through. Perhaps as a childhood home it had just that ‘universality concealed in the remote and small’ which John Fowles once wrote of.

On the strength of which he had, evidently, got himself into a good university. Here he was now, having quietly installed a formidable security system for the site, using nothing more than his own enthusiasm and the children who live next to it. Nothing if not ‘economical’, though not, perhaps, as the term is understood in Brussels, or by the owners of those textile sweatshops in Corabia.

Some months later, I took those two coins to the little counter at the back of the Persian Department at the British Museum. I rang the bell and a young woman appeared who listened to my story, frowning a little at such looting of defenceless and priceless archaeological remains, at such fleecing of the locals. So I let her frown. She confirmed, in any case, everything my guide had told me about them.

‘Defenceless’ was just what that site wasn’t but there was obviously no point in trying to explain. For rather grand young ladies at the British Museum as for most of the British public it is now axiomatic that everything ‘out there’ is scandalous, so they’ve no time to listen by the time you bring them something that isn’t scandalous at all, just downright marvellous. A site which captures the imaginations of its local children, initiates them into its mystery by means of a little C4th pocket money and thereby forms its own fearless troop of security guards. The pocket money is just the start – that’s how Sucidava puts out for their attention while it still can. Before the world they are about to join delivers their sensibilities over to the people for whom Romanians are either cheap labour or dangerous immigrants, and for whom Roman remains are an obstacle to building schedules.

In what world, then, do people like Adrian and his recruits ‘belong’? He is the kind of Romanian nobody ever hears about in western Europe because he draws no particular attention to himself. You meet him by accident. He is invisible to the world of power because his interest is in protecting something which lies beyond that world’s comprehension.

And if he’s an outsider in fast-buck post-Socialist Romania, will he ‘belong’ any better in the EU? Once the local mayor wakes up to the Sucidava Experience as a tourist attraction, once entry is for ticket-holders only and the children have been warned by the guardian not to pester visitors, will they take to milling about in the streets here the way they do everywhere else, and so learn to look out for nothing but themselves? Will they, in other words, ‘grow up’, as this process is referred to?

Where, actually, does this undemonstrative, knowledgeable, thoughtful aspect of any country now belong – either in England or Romania? What are those coins I keep on my classics book-shelf now a token of? Not, assuredly, of European grandomania. What they remind me of more is someone poor who would neither sell me his coins nor accept payment for showing me around the old Roman site which had taught him everything for free. So he tries to pass on its lessons in the same spirit.

And in fact Ancient Rome makes a dubious founding myth for the expanded EU, not least because it incorporated little of Germany, none of Scandinavia or Poland or the Baltic States and most of North Africa and the Middle East. Still, there it is – haunting anyone who gives the matter any thought at all. It connected up more of this part of the world for longer than anyone has managed since. It was an enthusiastically military enterprise, which the EU, thankfully, is not. The ideas, Greek and Judaeo-Christian, which travelled its road network proved longer-lasting than the pitiless imperialism that made that interchange possible.

Is it ever possible to extract that pitilessness from political projects? To angle them so that they promote the people who have more live vision than hunger for economic or political power? Might not the EU also, even if only by accident, become a union of understandings, of people who refuse the puppet-show version of reality offered them by their newspapers: of people who know there is something more, and choose to live for it?

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