Esquiline Hill image

Esquiline Hill

June 27, 2016

Reading Time: 16 minutes.| Comments: 1

In ancient Rome, those too poor to pay for burial were cast into the open pits of the Potter’s field on the Esquiline Hill, out beyond the noble walls of Rome.  The bodies that rotted there, piled up like old fruit, were the paupers, riffraff and the executed, slaves and those killed in the colosseum, those dead or nearly dead from plague and sickness.  On top of these poor bloated souls was cast Rome’s garbage, its dead animals, its filth.  Those with some money pooled their resources to afford some small dignity, while the rich were buried in tombs along the Appian Way, the idea that, even in death, wealth could still buy influence.  The only poor to ever earn some death space amounts those rich tombs and mausoleums where the six thousand defeated slaves of Spartacus’ army, all crucified, one hundred seventy paces apart, by Marcus Crassus, one of the richest man who ever lived (have you ever seen the “snails and oysters” scene from Spartacus, well that’s Crassus in the bath).  But for the poor and the outcast, their final resting place was in that open pit of rotting flesh and filth, their bodies picked over by rats, flies and birds.  Placing your dead beyond the city walls was of course a practical necessity, to dispose of the dregs into an open pit the easiest option, requiring the smallest burden on the state, not even an inch of soil wasted.  Those that continued to live, within Rome’s walls, no doubt imagined that by placing the unloved dead beyond, the dead who had never been known by the privileged, that they could be forgotten still: soil, root, stone, mortar and distance their tomb, the open sky their coffin lid.  But they could not.

It was my birthday on Friday, I was forty-five, imagine that, me a grown-up, that’s like dad old, a proper man, a time for mowing the grass (well twice in a year anyway), putting out the bins, a pair of slippers by my bed, heck I may even start watching football and flushing the toilet!  One year ago I was two days over my planned ten-day ascent of the Sea of Dreams, sic litres of water, enough for two days, rationed to last for six, my only food that day just some scraps from my food bags (there is always dry tortilla) and a packet of M&M’s (what a treat!).  The best thing about that birthday a year ago was at least I had just enough gas left for one last cup of tea, one of the most memorable brews ever. 

The Sea was a tough climb, and looking back at the video I feel genuinely concerned for my past self, even if I felt I had a grip of things at the time (but then future selves are often a better judge of such things).  The Russians have a saying that springs to mind when I watch that past self: “The future is known, but the past keeps changing”.  When I finish A Map of Scars, that summer will form the end of the book, a closing of a chapter, the death of one story that must die to make way for a new one, a better one (well that’s the hope).  I wondered why I climbed the Sea of Dreams, why I didn’t heed the advice that it was a horror show (only 4 solos in thirty-eight years I’m told), the strain of it in my eyes, the way my hands are shaking before I head off up the Hook or Book (it had been years since I’d soloed a big wall).  Once or twice in my life, I’ve had the urge to get into a fight, well not a fight, but to get beaten up, I’m not 100% sure why, but I think the Sea was like that; I walked into it on purpose because I think I knew this would be that end of that chapter, that it would be painful and terrifying and long.  It would be fitting, like a full stop written in blood.  Pain is always transformational, the opposite: unfeeling, numbness, a long slow suffocation.

And of this new chapter? If I was to write that the last twelve months have been the happiest twelve months of my life, well that would sound a little arrogant of me, a little bit boastful.  But yet it’s true, the last year being one in which I have laughed more than in any other, many pieces of a puzzle found in that time and snapped into place.  In the Quran it’s written that a man only becomes wise after the age of forty; I’ve always been a late bloomer, so maybe my age of responsibility and righteous behaviour came a little late, but it did.

And after so much searching to be happy, I think I now know better what it is I was looking for.

Happiness is a simple thing, and it’s perhaps when we overcomplicate its truth that we create log jams in our searching or find its smooth flow stymied by a head full of corpse ideas and dead thoughts and junk.  Worse is that the truth of real happiness can easily be hijacked by others, that just like a sexy female form can turn a man’s head, the promise of happiness is the marketing man’s ultimate weapon, the whole world under their spell.  The sixty-four inch TV.  The Range Rover.  A week on Richard Branson’s island.  The winning ticket that will give you all your ever wanted (but not want you to need).  The promise of happiness turns the heads of all, only the wrong way I think.

Cicero, one of those noble Roman’s passed by corpses bound for the Esquiline Hill, once wrote that: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”, an idea most of us can see the truth in, the trappings of life unnecessary as long as we can climb and wander and explore (swap library for climbing wall, garden for crag).  The simpler we make our lives, strip it back to the bare minimum, the less we over-leverage our happiness.  Ask yourself who was happier, our nomadic ancestor or us now? I know I have felt a kind of happiness no oligarch will ever feel, to gain pleasure from nothing but a packet of melted M&M’s and a mug of hot tea.

And yet, today, this week, maybe for a long time to come, that may not be enough; you feel a hole.  If I could offer one piece of advice, hard-won, about happiness (learnt on the wall and on the flat), it’s that you cannot let fate, misfortune, the tides and currents of living, or those we meet along the way steal your happiness.  Get a grip, and, learn when to let go.  When you are turned to ash by a supernova then mourn your passing in that split second before your gone, but don’t let a supernova a thousand light-years away steal the joy from your beating heart at this moment.  Don’t allow yourself to be a victim, fight it, shake it before t sticks and clings. You are not a victim of what is happening around you, of your past, of what the future may bring, you are a victim of how you allow yourself to feel. 

But how do you find silver linings?  Well, happiness is hard to achieve by simple addition (if I have X I will be happy), but much easier to find by imagined subtraction (if I lose X I’ll be unhappy).  Ask yourself how you felt before you began reading this?  Like most I suspect you have some shadow over you, but ask yourself this: are you starving?  Are you freezing? Are you sick?  Ask yourself what are your chances of waking tomorrow without a knife to your throat or lungs full of saltwater, your kin bobbing beside you?  As a society we are maybe so unhappy, make life so much harder than it needs to be because we lack the imagination to see how much we really have.  Perhaps that’s our curse, not content to split bones for their marrow with rocks but to want more.  When someone compares the UK to Stalin’s Russia or Nazi Germany I wish we could send them back for a little while, then yank them home to paradise.

So yes my cup overflows, but it is only a very small cup.

But I am not smug. I have work to do.  Perhaps this being the most important and final piece of this puzzle of happiness: the digging up of the dead.

Last week a picture popped up on Facebook taken by my old editor Ed Douglas, the words ‘ANDY K RIP’ on the high road up from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.  I know Hebden bridge, know that road quite well, having driven it many times, having had a girlfriend whose mum and dad lived not far from there.  It was meant to be funny, sending that picture to me, like spotting an obituary of someone who shares your name.  Instead my mind, one happy moment of seeing it, I twisted the picture into a knot in my head, knocked me sideways a little, putting me into a weird mood all day.  It reminded me of her, that girlfriend, someone who I thought, well-told myself, had finally become less than a stranger.  Can you see what I did there, I betray myself, and it’s important that we see the truth of the dead in what we say, do, think, not in what we believe. 

I wondered what it meant, these words on the road, kind of my name, what was the story of those letters on the tarmac.  Was it a joke, or was aimed at me, written for me to see?  It was an irrational thought I know, but then so are many things we think, we have soft human minds, not one’s machine hard, we should not judge. 

For whatever reason, the image struck me down a little. 

I thought about how two worlds can aline for six years, a big chunk of life, several chapters long, align like two perfect cords for a time, pitch-perfect, until a wavering leads them astray, to a love discordant.  It’s a common story.  Such miss-steps and gone awry are almost impossible to perceive at the time, and hindsight would make a most perfect relationship councillor wouldn’t it.  But life and how it will unfold is as easy to foresee as the snaking path of a mighty river while you’re being swept down it. 

And so I looked at the picture and wondered if these words were by her hand, or as a joke by a friend, meant to mean something, the funeral of what had been love, love that turned bad, as bad as love can turn.  Did I once wish her dead, her name like that? To be honest, I did, but not for real, but only lovers hate, but the worst hate there is.  I know she felt the same.  But we cannot judge.  As I looked at it, that picture, going again and again, I wanted to know the truth of it, that it had nothing to do with me… but then a part of me would be disappointed, an admittance that reveals the puzzle of a once broken heart, and I marvel at this, no bad thing to be rejected, but only a noble flaw.

But now, a few days on, as I look at it now, I know it has nothing to do with me, had no need to make me feel bad, to feel those things of yesterday, of pain, of shame, of anger, of sadness, of loss, feeling like a murder of someone still living, but unable ever to ask for either forgiveness or to forgive. 

I’ve written a lot in the past about the inability to move on, well not quickly, the reality just an illusion, a trick of forgetting, real forgetting only glacier fast.  The hurt I felt that caused my music to stop dead I feel it now, all that came after, the hurt I gave back, to make her feel what I had felt, that hateful betrayal, well I feel it now.  And it makes me feel… something, something I don’t want to feel, unwanted, unloved, rotten. 

But back to Rome. 

Yes, you can cast the dead into pits unseen, no responsibility at all to the never wanted or the soon forgot, just a cart and some men with strong stomachs all that was required, not even a shovel worth of dirt to be wasted.  Into this pit, on that Potter’s field, you could cast all you wish to forget, all you wished to just go away, just like that.  And we treat painful memory just the same, we take it beyond the walls of now and leave it outside.  We want rid of its stink, want to be rid of its infection.  How can you make a new life with the death of the old one rotting there?  And so we throw these things into what we think will be the past, but is really a shallow timelessness.  If we throw the dead and the still living, the painful and the never to be reconciled, and that wish hope will never be remembered.  And for some this works, for a while, maybe forever.  This is how we cope, perhaps those that take their lives the ones who can’t cast away the dead, the living dead those who do, but then can only stand and stare down into the pit they have dug. 

As for me, this wiser man, I think it a mistake to believe this is the way, after all, such rot is never quite so far beyond the walls of remembering not to be brought back to haunt them now, nothing but a word, a picture, an escaped memory all that’s needed, some movement, down there, something still living. 

And so there in Rome, the high watermark of civilisation, on a hot summers night, when the wind blew from the East, from the Esquiline Hill, those who wished to remain untroubled were troubled.  They could not ignore the thick sickly smell, and with it came the reality that they had a responsibility to both the living and the dead.  That they must put things right if they truly wished to be free of the burden of the dead, that they must give a proper burial to what lay beneath the Esquiline Hill.


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