Yesterday a few things happened altogether that made it a memorable day. I went to Te Papa to see the exhibition on Pompeii, I went to the Town Hall with my mother to hear Simon Schama, and a storm passed through town. In the dark, weird bit of my mind that likes to find connections, I woke up this morning and decided that all of these things were emblematic of something quite grand, and something quite small.
The reason that I started thinking this is that when I read Richard’s blog he had written about the storm, and when I read Fflur’s blog she had also written about the storm, and I realised that we had all shared a moment in a larger event.
When the storm came I was driving along the Petone Esplanade and I noticed that water was getting sucked up off the surface of the sea and whipped up into low, dark clouds shortly before a rolling bank of wind and sand and beach towels slammed into the side of my car. It had a slightly surreal quality. There were two girls on the Petone beach running about trying to gather what remained of their belongings, and cyclists cowering behind trees and public toilets, and a sudden switching on of lights and windscreen wipers on all the cars on the road. All the dull day was suddenly sharpened into a memorable moment.
By the time our little group of cars had made the motorway I couldn’t see beyond my bonnet. There were cars stopped along the road, and one car had simply given up and was parked in the passing lane with its hazard lights blinking feebly. Later, National Radio quietly informed me that every fire engine in the region was out dealing with roofs and trees and the police had taken 200 calls.
It reminded me of waking once, in the middle of the night, in my old bedroom in Karori. There was thunder, and the thunder in the bowl of Karori Park rolls, and reveberates around the hills like a kettle drum finale in a Beethoven symphony. For a second when I woke up in the pitch black with these huge, terrifying sounds I felt pure terror, as if the end of the world had come, as if the sky and the Earth were being torn apart. It lasted for a second but I remember it 15 years later quite clearly. I think it is the closest I have come to understanding completely the medieval vision of the Apocalypse, or knowing what it must be like to live in the instant before the onslaught of some grand disaster.
We took our Classics class to the Pompeii exhibition at Te Papa. We sat and watched the 3D film of the dramatic event in 79AD, we looked at the artifacts in the display cases, and we listened to our guide explain a little of the society of Rome. For me though the most affecting part of the exhibition were the plaster casts of the people who perished. I have seen photos of these people and animals before, but standing a foot from them was quite moving.
It must have been an extraordinary moment on the original dig when they decided to pour plaster into one of these pockets of air they kept discovering in the layers of hardened ash in Pompeii and found that it was the shape of a person. The details are chilling and upsetting. A dog chained to the wall straining to keep it’s head above the rising ash, and the folds of cloth clutched to the mouth of a woman. By far the most emotional cast though was the man and the woman found together. The man was lying flat on his back, he looked by the shape of him to be a bit passed middle age with a little paunch. His head was against the side of a woman, who was sitting up a little on her side with her hand resting gently on his head.
The hand of that woman resting on that man stirred me up. The students were elsewhere, and I was able to push back a tear without them noticing.
In the tail of the storm I tried to drive to the Town Hall to hear Simon Schama. Town was grid locked. Eventually I had to abandon my car in a park down by New World on Chaffers Street and run. I got there with two minutes to spare. My mother was waiting in the foyer with a whole group of people anxiously texting their delayed companions.
We found a seat near the back and shortly afterwards Sean Plunkett and Simon Schama ambled out onto the stage to a very warm welcome. I was surprised to find that Mr Schama was a very funny, and a very warm speaker. He even told us a joke (“A Catholic priest, a baptist, and a rabbi go into the forest to convert a bear…”). Amongst the many things discussed there was one that dominated quite a bit of the discussion: the idea that the big, epic narratives of history can be accessed through the small, personal stories of those who lived in those times. Schama said that when he wrote Citizens about the French Revolution he was interested in the big idea of how a society can suddenly become so politicized, because he kept reading about people who had lived through the revolution, whose private lives had suddenly been forced up against this massive, dangerous force. How had they coped?
The final question from the floor was from a young man who was a design student. He was rather awkward and gushing. He said how he’d had a hard time at school because of dyslexia, but how he had watched over and over Schama’s History of Britain series and how much it had meant to him. He asked what place he thought the teaching of History had in schools.
Storytelling. If we don’t have our stories we don’t have much Schama replied, and then he quoted Auden. History is, in part, “breaking bread with the dead”, sitting down with the people of the past and listening to them and finding our bonds. I like that. Telling stories and breaking bread.
You can talk about the storm as a meterological event, or you can share stories. You can study Pompeii as a vulcanologist or you can feel pity and compassion for the people who died there.
The hand of the woman on the man let me break some bread.