hairy creatures of God


A little on Roman cities in the pre-underwear age, as I am immersed in finishing The Time of Troubles. Although public baths had toilets, albeit shared in common, and although the most lavish peristyle house might have had a latrine next to the kitchen, most places did not. So people would relieve themselves on the street, in alleys, on stairways of houses, a corner of the bathhouse or even on tombs. A walk along the street would encounter many piles of fresh and not so fresh bowel movements. Apart from the smells and sights, a number of writings indicate how common this was.

You read to me as I stand, you read to me as I sit, You read to me as I run, you read to me as I shit (Martial, Ep 3.44).

And in various cities the following notices were scrawled:

Shit with comfort and good cheer, so long as you do not do it here (Pompeii).

If you shit against the walls and we catch you, you will be punished (Pompeii).

Twelve gods and goddesses and Jupiter, the biggest and the best, will be angry with whoever urinates or defecates here (Rome, Baths of Titus).

Whoever refrains from littering or pissing or shitting on this street may the goddesses in general favour. If he does not do so let him watch out (Salona).

With a few weeks to go until Time of Troubles is due with the press, I am engaged in intensive reading and writing, which absorbs me for most of the day. Every now and then, I come across a delightful insight. This one comes from a study of Roman bathhouses.

People urinated into buckets in the middle of the street (and the urine was then used as detergent), men and women shared open toilets at the public latrines. Overall, in this pre‐underwear age, body parts that we today tend to conceal were much more on display.

From Yaron Eliav, ‘Bathhouses as Places of Social and Cultural Interaction’ (2010).

I have been to more conferences than I care to remember and have often listened to old, old fogeys spouting forth. But one of the more fascinating experiences is when some very old man or woman ends up delivering a mish-mash of odd ideas, if not simply rambling on incoherently. I have wondered about knowing when to stop, when your mind and mouth are no longer what they used to be. I guess it requires someone else to tell you.

But over the last few days another idea hit me: an old fogey panel or series of panels. This would be reserved for exactly such garbled presentations, full of vague and wandering ideas. How would it work? The inspiration comes from China. A couple of years ago I attended a large conference, where one particular very old invited speaker was less than impressive. In fact, it was pure rubbish. Yet, after his presentation, countless people came forth, shook his hand, wanted photos taken with him and so on.

Puzzled, I asked the person next to me, ‘How can people be so impressed when what he said was so bad?’

‘Oh’, said my colleague. ‘We deeply respect old people, especially the very old. We show them the utmost respect. But we don’t listen to a word they say’.

Exactly why there should be old fogey panels.

Have you ever met people who are afraid of trees, animals, or indeed anything that resembles nature? Our strata executive seems to made up of such people. For them, trees are dangerous, threatening to overwhelm us all unless we fight them and subdue them. Any animal that may even dare to be in the vicinity is a ‘rodent’. This includes possums, birds, snakes, cats, dogs, lizards and the usual types you find around our place. What next? Perhaps all the green areas will be cemented over. Or they may start poking rifles out of their windows, picking off any animal that dares venture within range. Did I mention that many of us think they are barking mad?

On our journey across the Gulf Country – the Gulf of Carpentaria – we happened upon this intriguing piece of art amongst the graffitti of a rest stop:

IMG_1626 (2) (427x640)

One cannot help wonder what situation generated this one.

By the early 1930s, Klara Zetkin was suffering from the heart problems from which she would soon die. In the meantime, she needed injections of camphor to raise her blood pressure. On the occasion of one such injection, the nurse administering the stimulant began to prepare her left buttock. Zetkin instructed the nurse to find another site on her body. ‘That one’, she said, ‘belongs to Dr Zamkov’.

In the midst of the foi furieuse of the Stakhanovite period, when everything was being made anew at extraordinary speed (and with massive disruption), the government of the USSR felt keenly the lack of trained specialist in all areas of work. So in an address to metal workers, Stalin observes:

People must be cultivated as tenderly and carefully as a gardener cultivates a favourite fruit tree.

A slightly different image of the man who is charged with callously slaughtering millions, drooling while doing so. A little later, in an address to graduates from the Red Army training centre, he tells this famous story to illustrate his point:

I recall an incident in Siberia, where I lived at one time in exile. It was in the spring, at the time of the spring floods. About thirty men went to the river to pull out timber which had been carried away by the vast, swollen river. Towards evening they returned to the village, but with one comrade missing. When asked where the thirtieth man was, they replied indifferently that the thirtieth man had “remained there.” To my question, “How do you mean, remained there?” they replied with the same indifference, “Why ask – drowned, of course.” And thereupon one of them began to hurry away, saying, “I’ve got to go and water the mare.” When I reproached them with having more concern for animals than for men, one of them said, amid the general approval of the rest : “Why should we be concerned about men? We can always make men. But a mare … just try and make a mare.” (Animation.) Here you have a case, not very significant perhaps, but very characteristic. It seems to me that the indifference of certain of our leaders to people, to cadres, their inability to value people, is a survival of that strange attitude of man to man displayed in the episode in far off Siberia that I have just related.

Works, vol. 14, pp. 48, 77-78.

Stalin unknown 10 (Siberia) (320x236)

Next Page »