Volunteer burnout and mental health – the ugly truth

By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

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Until today I’ve avoided the subject of my library job coming to a rather messy end last October on this blog. Partly because I wanted to move on and not call out any of the people involved while feelings were still raw. It’s a bit undignified and I’m still not sure if I will be returning to that kind of work one day, so I was reluctant to burn my bridges.

What has made me reconsider is that this is Mental Health Awareness Week and a number of people have shared similar experiences on social media. Most of them have felt isolated and inadequate for being unable to cope with the unrelenting and unsustainable pressures of a job in the public sector in the current climate. Several have said that the thing they have found most helpful was others sharing their experiences.

I agree – this culture of grin and bear it is helping nobody. I suspect that the longer people like us go on trying to live up to ever-increasing expectations and growing workloads, the longer the present dire state of affairs in public services will continue. I can only speak for education. In the course of 15 months or so I went from 5 hours a week looking after one small school library (200 pupils) to three schools, three different sites, and over 1,000 children, plus well over 100 members of staff, having needs I was valiantly attempting to meet, officially in 16.5 paid hours a week, but in reality a full-time job and then some.

Some of this pressure was self-inflicted. I find it hard to say no and when my school became an Academy Trust it seemed like a great opportunity to roll out what had been a successful modus operandi elsewhere. I remain very proud of the three school libraries I either opened or revived, and the fact that they created at least one job other than my own. But I soon found myself trying to do a challenging job that I had absolutely no qualifications for, in a difficult environment where there was continual pressure on resources – financial, physical and human. Sadly, the bright era of co-operation between the three schools didn’t quite materialise, and I found myself in a situation where I was constantly suspected of having divided loyalties and vital information was undoubtedly withheld from me at times.

I think many of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was initially a parent-turned-volunteer who hung around and was eventually absorbed onto the payroll. Many colleagues appreciated what I was trying to achieve and the support I did my best to give to them. But I never quite felt I was one of the team. There were people who were only too ready to mention my lack of professional librarianship and teaching qualifications, though the Trust would never have been able to resource someone in the role who’d had them, and I left with nearly 20 years of experience under my belt. I probably had also developed a tunnel vision about the job which made it difficult for me to regard it rationally. I was always late, always fire-fighting, always putting on my best face for another class of lively 7 year olds, and always terrified that one day something would snap and I would be unreasonable or even unkind to one of those children I so very much wanted to inspire and help.

It took me a long time to realise how unwell I was. In fact, it wasn’t until I realised I was seriously contemplating throwing myself in front of a train rather than go to work the next morning. I won’t go into the gory details here. Some things could have been better handled, but nobody had the time to poke something that appeared on the surface to be working. My collapse surprised a lot of people and some were lovely and supportive. But I was asked to come into work three or four times after being signed off sick with severe depression to show other people how to do my job, and watch them struggling with things I could have done easily had I been fit and well. That did nothing to help my recovery.

It seemed for a while as if I would be able to return part-time to one of the schools where I had built up contacts, and a library service I was proud of and devoted to. In fact, once mental illness came into the conversation, I wasn’t even allowed to go into the building  to collect my things and say goodbye. Even bankers at Lehmann Bros got that. In education, the spectre of child protection always haunts you. I am sure the manager involved was trying to be professional but when you are already suicidally depressed and so stressed you are suffering from dissociative episodes and unable to drive safely, it’s hardly motivating to be treated as a potential threat to children’s wellbeing and told that you will need constant supervision should you have the temerity to come back into work. At the time, I wasn’t up to the job. But with better handling I could have been, and even an hour a week covering books would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

All that happened last October and I’m still not completely well. My medication has been increased and I spend my days gardening, working out, learning new things (my watercolours are coming along) and feeling useless and guilty. I am deliberately cautious about the time I spend on social media because I hear about so many people in desperate need and feel I am privileged and self-indulgent not to be out there helping them. Yes, I’ve done my bit, but I failed, I messed up big-time and feeling that I might never be able to handle a responsible job again is a hard thing to come to terms with. At 59, I don’t quite feel ready to retire. But it may be forced upon me.

What would I say to others in my shoes? Don’t promise to do a job people should be paying you to do. In libraries these days it’s happening all the time. And it’s wrong. It’s exploitative and in the end it doesn’t make things better long-term. Professional jobs need to be done by people who have the status, experience and training to do them and are paid accordingly. If you ignore these stark realities, and many decent people will, you will eventually burn yourself out and the resources to pick up the pieces may not be there. Even for professionals they are thin on the ground. And if you must say yes, do your utmost to surround yourself with people you trust who will have your back and fight your corner. Many genuinely intend to do so when you start, but such are the pressures on them that they will take the line of least resistance when you need them to say unpopular things, and ultimately throw you under a bus if that is the only way they can see to ensure that the show goes on. I do not say that in bitterness. I was bullied at work and did not speak out when I should have done. By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

That is probably enough for now. But if you are one of those burnt-out professionals sitting at home right now, there are two things to remember. You are not useless. And you are not alone.

 

“Not perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” Getting stuff done in “This House”

How far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action?

That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other….We are not built for co-operation.

As Teresa May brokers another messy compromise in her attempt to quell the ever-shriller voices of thwarted Brexiteers and hold the Conservative Party together, it is tempting to regard these days as the most febrile and chaotic in British political memory. My husband always has an answer to that, “It was worse in the 1970s, they were wheeling MPs in on their death beds to vote then.”

James Graham’s whip-smart play, This House takes us right inside those turbulent times, when Labour would stop at nothing to defend their minute majority, when political life was dominated by deals and counter-deals with minority parties and rebels were begged to put personal idealism aside and toe the party line. It is astonishing that the final Callaghan Labour Government hung on for four-and-a-half years before losing a no-confidence motion by a single vote. Poised between a musical, a tragedy and a farce, it almost seems too entertaining, but there is a grim hilarity as the bodies, quite literally, pile up.

Westminster is a notoriously adversarial place. Probably the thing everyone remembers from a tour of the Palace is that on the Commons floor the Government and Opposition benches are separated by a gap precisely the width of two drawn swords. Incipient violence is contained by a web of arcane custom and gentlemen’s agreements. For example, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a forthcoming division, he can request a “pair” – that is, a member of the opposing party agrees not to vote. Most of these arrangements have grown up through custom and practice and can only survive if everyone follows their unwritten rules. It seems to work, most of the time. When it doesn’t, you get Heseltine waving the Mace around in fury and all hell breaks loose – perhaps gentlemen’s agreements matter more than we like to think.

The engine rooms of politics, particularly in a minority or hung Parliament, are the Whips’ Offices where individual convictions are hammered into party unity, superficially at least. Graham takes us deep into these hidden but vital centres of power. Often Labour and Tory whips face one another across the stage. And as the exhausting compromises wear on, the brutality of class warfare becomes more and more apparent.

James Graham writes brilliantly about the last days of Old Labour (and indeed Old Conservatives). This House shows us a collapsing political order on the cusp of seismic change, as the Conservatives back Thatcher as their leader and Labour rely on ageing Trade Unionists, who command loyalty and respect but are physically drained by years of manual labour and hours in smoke-filled rooms. It is truly shocking to see such giants staggering in to vote, one in a blood-stained shirt just hours after surgery, another in a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder. It is also extremely funny, though at times one feels guilty for laughing.

Several decades later, the haircuts and the music are different but a great deal remains the same. What I took away from this fascinating story was a reminder that, despite all, MPs are human beings, and there is an unexpected and moving gesture of fellow feeling between Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his Conservative opposite number, Jack Weatherill, at the very end. The final question is, how far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action? That argument is still continuing as the House limps toward an ominous new world order.

This House is currently on tour. I saw it last week at The Lowry, Salford Quays

 

Weirdly Normal – The City and the City

The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

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David Morrissey stars in The City and the City (BBC)

Borders are a mundane daily reality for millions, yet retain a sense of deep weirdness. It’s a paradox pushed to extremes in  The City and the City, now a BBC TV serial starring David Morrissey.

China Miéville’s dystopian fantasy – if such it is – reads like a rather dull police procedural, until the final lines of the first chapter when the protagonist notices and then “unsees” what appears to be a perfectly ordinary elderly woman. It’s the first indication that normal rules don’t apply in Besźel, the down-at-heel, vaguely Eastern European city where he lives. Gradually we piece together what appears to be impossible. The city has a twin, Ul Qoma, occupying exactly the same geographical space. But nobody is allowed to acknowledge this. Inhabitants are conditioned from birth to deliberately avoid seeing it, as are their opposite numbers across the boundary. It is a brutally enforced, State-sponsored act of mass hallucination.

Okay, we think, this is weird. We are in for a wild ride here. But the more we think about it, the more parallels with everyday normality seem to appear. We play along, expecting things to become trippier, or at least to get some explanation of how this extraordinary situation developed. Yet the tone of the narrative remains defiantly mundane. Our guide, the taciturn Inspector Tyador Borlú, doesn’t bat an eyelid as he describes the day to day reality of living in a place where you walk down a street navigating around people from another city whose presence you could be locked up for acknowledging, and (a particularly haunting example) he feels a frisson of unease when he notices a familiar street of crumbling buildings reflecting back light from the glass and steel skyscrapers of its unacknowledged neighbour. The question becomes not, how the hell is all this going to be explained but, what do human beings have to do to survive this imposed reality?

The best fantasy, like the best satire, knows it is best not to exaggerate too much. A grounded, intricately described world that differs from our own in just one or two respects, perhaps simply in a matter of intensity or degree, is often the scariest and most intriguing. After a while the reader starts to accept its normality and even make comparisons with life in what we collectively call, “the real world.” In fact, the real world is full of borders. Some look very odd on a map, such as the shape of Norway or Chile, but make perfect sense when natural topography is taken into account. Others appear utterly arbitrary, but developed as the least-worst solution to decades of lethal and bitter conflict that could flare up again if anyone poked the hornets’  nest. And such arbitrariness may, with the passage of time, create its own self-reinforcing visible divisions. Many years of malnutrition has left the citizens of North Korea stunted, several inches shorter than their neighbours in the South. Economic gulfs open up between adjoining communities, apparently trapping one in a technological or social time warp. Languages that were once similar become mutually unintelligible.

But borders retain their fascination, particularly ones that run directly through human communities that once were united. They remain the subtext of every unspoken, carefully navigated conversation. What seems like an absurdist joke – a house with the front door in Northern Ireland and the back door in the ROI, can quickly turn nasty. A few years ago I visited Cyprus. It was, in every obvious respect, a relaxing trip. Except I never really did relax. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place’s tragic history, the community just a few miles away that might as well be on another world. The ruined luxury tourist hotels of Greek-speaking Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta locked up and left to rot since 1974 while tourists sunbathe just yards away, has haunted me ever since.

Mieville loves to write about cities, and they don’t have to be formally politically divided to be shaped by invisible boundaries. One of the first things you learn when you visit an unfamiliar conurbation is where the no-go areas are. Cross a street, and suddenly you feel unsafe. People look at you in a different way – or are you imagining it? Your language, gestures, maybe even your clothing, mark you out as suspect. And the barriers imposed by social inequalities, even in a theoretically stable state, can be surreal. Ordinary Londoners crammed into substandard, overpriced flats walk daily past billboards depicting sterile, idealised communities of unaffordable and often empty apartments. Don’t think about it too hard, it’ll do your head in. Keep your head down, head for the tube, don’t dwell on the body on the pavement inside the sleeping bag.

In the trope-driven Hollywood narrative, there is always a band of brave rebels fighting against segregation, borders, state-imposed realities. But what if we need borders? What if the fearsome secret police were the good guys, keeping us safe? Is that really so weird? UN peacekeepers, in Cyprus and elsewhere, are armed. And which is preferable – a peaceful, stable society where the vast majority of people just want to keep their heads down and carry on undisturbed by local ethnic tensions, or one where people think and speak freely and they flare up into dangerous conflict?

Our daily reality is composed of the world view we sign up to, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes imposed by brutal State repression, more frequently by unspoken mutual consent. All that Miéville does in The City and The City is to dial up the tension and the absurdist level a notch or two. It makes for a challenging read.

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Contrasting skylines at Canary Wharf, London (The Guardian)

Country House Shakespeare – Twelfth Night at the RST

Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn?

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Dinita Gohil, left, as Viola and Kara Tointon as the besotted Olivia in the RSC’s new Twelfth Night – MANUEL HARLAN

And so to Stratford-upon-Avon, for the third time in six months, to see the last performance of the RSC’s Twelfth Night. I have very happy memories of Stratford in general, where I did an MA in Shakespeare and Theatre Studies, and in particular of the RSC’s 2014 productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, which were set either side of the First World War. It was a period setting that brought out new layers of meaning in both the plays, further enhanced by Christopher Luscombe’s sumptuous country house setting and Nigel Hess’s joyous musical pastiche of Edwardian pomp and circumstance giving way to the Jazz Age.

Quite rightly, it packed the house out for weeks and so it was natural enough that the RSC ordered more of the same for Twelfth Night, this time setting it rather arbitrarily in the 1890s and packing it with a pianola, an Indian Sebastian and Caesario, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers and rather a lot of Oscar Wilde, green carnation stuff. All this was sumptuously recreated at great expense; Olivia’s gowns alone must have set the RSC back thousands, and there was even a scene in a London railway terminal.

Twelfth Night is a broad church (although if you make it too contemporary there’s some highly questionable treatment of mental illness). It can stand a lot in the way of updating, particularly when it’s as beautifully produced and performed as this, but there was a whiff of opportunism about the amount of late Victoriana we were being subjected to here. Rather like a piano in a Victorian parlour, there seemed to be a great accretion of detail to wade through here on the way to something meaningful. Was it just heritage porn? In the setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is itself festooned with bunting and restaurants offering cream teas as Mad Men era music plays in the background, it did rather come over that way. I’m surprised that the normally commercially savvy National Trust hasn’t co-funded this production, since it takes a local property as a design reference (the wonderful Arts-and-Crafts house Wightwick Manor).

Stratford, at least the Shakespearian bit, is a living temple to Englishness as it is generally viewed by the rest of the world. The Chinese pound is doing a great deal to keep it in business these days, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the local Council to lay on basic Mandarin courses for hospitality and retail workers. I saw the Birthplace Gift Shop lose a substantial sale because a lady was unable to understand a request to enter her PIN number. I remember from my MA days that on the late-evening train back to Birmingham you were as likely to hear Polish spoken as you were English. I noticed a lot of businesses advertising for staff.

Post Referendum, I’m inclined to take a rather jaded view of all this chintzy Englishness. The RSC offer a varied programme, and everything they do is first-class, so it would be churlish to complain about them offering the occasional crowd-pleaser. But if I have to sit through one more production featuring a pert scullery maid bobbing to her betters in a mob cap, I’ll start missing Maggie Smith. Christopher Eccleston is up next as Macbeth. Given his forthright views on social class when pressed on the reasons why he quit Doctor Who, I can’t help wondering what he made of Twelfth Night. There are some terrific Shakespearian insults in it.

Through Northern Irish eyes – “a portrait of love’s complexity”

It’s becoming clear that there are some people in English politics who would value a clean Brexit more than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Why isn’t this getting more press coverage? We may speculate, but surely one reason is that, to be honest, Northern Ireland doesn’t really register in a lot of people’s minds as an important place. A generation has grown up now without nightly reports of atrocities on the streets of Belfast. And many of us would rather not contemplate the intricacies of the province’s politics, believing vaguely that if they really wanted to “they could sort it out.”

I’m not entirely guiltless here myself, though I do remember the IRA blowing up the centre of Manchester, fortunately without loss of life. I don’t go out of my way to read about the Troubles, but recently Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break sneaked in under my radar. I bought it because I’m middle-aged and long-married, and his story of a couple like that on a short holiday to Amsterdam sounded like something I could relate to. I didn’t realise it was about the Troubles at all. But it is, and I admit with some shame that for the first time, after reading it, I felt some empathy with the people who had to live through them.

Gerry and Stella live in Scotland now, but spent most of their adult lives in Belfast. Stella grew up in poverty, Gerry in relative comfort, but both bear the stigma of being part of a minority. Stella remembers her large family losing a much-needed council house to a less needy Protestant family. Gerry lived and worked for years with bombs going off around him. And it becomes clear that they both continue to be affected by a life-changing incident, one that was very much of its place and time.

Marriages sometimes survive for decades because the people in them have learned to navigate around contentious areas. There are elephants in the room left unmentioned by tacit mutual consent. We see the dynamic clearly here – Gerry’s drinking is out of control, he pretends he’s hiding it from Stella, knows that she knows, but she hides the fact that she knows and is contemplating leaving him because he won’t confront it. And Stella is not simply a cradle Catholic, but an increasingly devout one. Gerry is frightened, and increasingly jealous of his wife’s faith, yet understands the need she has of it. Meanwhile, they rub along like all ageing couples, tolerant of each other’s foibles, resenting yet needing the rough edges of human interaction.

Holidays have a way of bringing such situations to a head. Trapped in a bland hotel room by icy weather and a tiredness that speaks of advancing age, determined to enjoy themselves yet somewhat adrift and always aware of the way a partner will respond or react, feeling one ought to make an effort even though excellent English is universally spoken, Gerry and Stella find the gulf widening between them impossible to overlook. Drastic action needs to be taken. But they are what their lives have made them, and ultimately they understand one another better than anyone else could. When illusions crumble, they are there to break one another’s fall.

It’s a quiet masterpiece. Very little happens outwardly but MacLaverty is a master of small but vital detail. He reveals his character’s secrets slowly and creates increasing tension as we circle around what we’d rather not know, and what they wish had not happened. By the last page, without any didactic special pleading, I was far more aware than I had been of how precious the Good Friday Agreement is, and the trauma that continues to haunt the lives of those who experienced life without it.

Midwinter Break reviewed in The Irish Times

Rich and Strange – The Shape of Water

The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary but was completely artificial.

“Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water, image Fox Searchlight, reproduced without permission.

NOTE: This reflection does not contain spoilers, but the two reviews linked beneath do.

There are narratives that wear their artificiality and predictability on their sleeve as a badge of pride. In the Shakespearian equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, a character in The Winter’s Tale compares the action unfolding before us to an old tale. Fairy tales use familiar phrases – “Long ago and far away,” and “Happily ever after,” to alert us to their alternate universality. And the property of myth is that it is told and retold, possibly embroidered or repurposed but fulfilling the same essential needs.

One such fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast. In a patriarchal society, frightened young women were routinely sent out of their childhood homes and into arranged marriages with unfamiliar partners, often much older than themselves. The narrative trope of a cunning woman managing to negotiate this relationship helped to comfort and guide them. As a reward, the Beast may well turn out to be a handsome prince. The destination of the journey and the reward is framed by the expectations of the host community. Belle is an outsider, set apart by her love of books and her intelligence, but her journey suggests that in “taming” these socially problematic qualities in herself she may become a valuable and loving mate. The taming is not all one way.

But beastliness may be in the eye of the beholder. In a social system that has its own distinctive bigotries and cruelties, it may be the outsider who is, in fact, virtuous and lovely. In the monster-taming movies of the 20th Century, from King Kong to The Creature from the Black Lagoon onwards, there is an implicit comment on the intolerance of human society. The Fay Wray character in King Kong acts as a bridge, though ultimately an unsuccessful one, mediating between the apparently savage and the outwardly civilised.

Guillermo del Toro’s new work, The Shape of Water, has the malleability of our concept of the strange and monstrous built into its very title. The opening narration alerts us to the possibility that the monster’s identity may not be as obvious as first appearances suggest. We are also told to expect a princess who cannot speak. There is a fairy godmother figure who is, in fact, a gay man. The rules of engagement are clear; this is a world where achetype and symbol is as significant as plot and character, if not more so. This is not a Three Billboards movie examining humanity in all its depth and complexity. Its moral messages are writ large, its characters presented with little in the way of backstory. What we are called to bring to our viewing is an appreciation of world-building, minor details, and themes recapitulated, like a nest of Russian dolls. Something as simple as an egg unlocks a whole range of messages.

The more I think about the unrealistic elements of this narrative, the more I realise that the narrative that frames it was in itself a fantasy, a political construct that was considered necessary, but was completely artificial. The Cold War was one of history’s greatest examples of tragic and wilful “othering”. Millions of roubles and dollars were spent maintaining the fiction of the opposing sides’ essential inhumanity, and that apparatus, particularly on the American side, is fetishised here.

There are other signifiers of the fantastic. Two of the main characters live above a faded cinema where blockbusters play in faded glory to a handful of viewers. Screens are ever-present – on closed circuit TV, and broadcasting vintage situation comedies and dance routines into people’s homes. A character’s emotional awakening is realised as a homage to Fred and Ginger’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Framing is everywhere.

A gay man is told to leave a “family restaurant” in a painful scene that also features overt racism, while black employees remain silent in the background. A “family man” appears conventional and is seduced by a salesman’s patter into seeing himself as someone who is going places, yet abuses everyone in his world and turns out to be a sexual predator. A Russian defector shows humanity and compassion. Most of the action takes place at night, in a greenish-tinted universe that itself appears aquarian. This gives it an air of dreamlike unreality, but what we see in the light of day is equally constructed. And many of the interiors seems to fetishise retro-chic, particularly the secret base where the monster is being held. Nothing seems to date more, or speak more eloquently of a past era’s values, than its concept of the futuristic.

I haven’t touched here on Sally Hawkins’ remarkable performance as the mute Eliza, whose origins themselves evoke the trope of the orphaned infant with a literally unspeakable past. All the main characters are outsiders, isolated by disability, race, sexual orientation or a sinister background left unspecified.  All have something unfamiliar, and in some people’s eyes repulsive, about them. All are objectified and abused and casual or wilful racist statements abound.  The Creature is simply the most obvious example of isolation, yet has the greatest transformative power.

So here is a tale as old as time, unapologetically signalling its plot cliches in letters marquee-high, because originality isn’t the important issue here. It’s the power of storytelling and how it creates our world. There have been reviews that have pointed out the flatness of characterisation and the obviousness of moral signposting. But perhaps we are looking for subtlety in the wrong places. We are more likely to find it in the minute details that lodge in the mind – a family pictured around a green plate of Jello, an egg-shaped timer, a severed finger in a brown paper bag. A hackneyed popular song expresses the film’s great truth. The familiar is made strange, the strange familiar. And isn’t that one of the things cinema has the great potential to achieve?

So who, or what, is the creature?

50’s-style creature feature as modern day allegory – Washington Post review

 

What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.

 

Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X

 

How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)