Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Living in the past

Not so long ago I bought, for three reasons, Osbert Lancaster's Sailing to Byzantium at Oxfam: it has a nice cover; I like Osbert Lancaster's stuff and, having been to Rome, Istanbul is the city that I most want to visit and (as far as I know in ignorance of this book) I'd got the idea into my head that when I do go I'd like to arrive by boat. I see though, while looking for a scan of the book cover, that it's the title of a poem by Keats. Didn't know that. I love the word Byzantium. Imagine getting it (or byzantine, I suppose) on a triple word score in Scrabble.

Anyway, reading through the book, on reaching page 11 a paragraph on the monophysite controversy hit me like a hammer blow. I remembered it as a lecturer had used almost the exact wording years before. The odd sensation was heightened as a few days earlier I'd been flipping at random through St Augustine's Confessions and had landed on the part in which the pious Alypius is drawn into watching gladiatorial contests at the Coliseum*, which again I'd remembered very clearly hearing from the same lecturer.

My first feeling was a consciousness of walking in his footsteps (twenty years later than he'd have liked really, though I doubt Sailing to Byzantium was on the reading lists, the Confessions probably was though). Another part of me felt, at the discovery of these ingredients, something like disappointment, along the lines of, "So that's how how he came across as so knowledgeable and erudite, he just read a load of stuff. Pah!" . Simple, isn't it?

On a cold winter's night, years after I'd graduated, I walked into my local in Sheffield. It was very busy and as I stood defrosting at the bar surveying the throng I was astonished to see, sat in a corner, the spit and image of this old lecturer. "It can't be", I thought. And it probably wasn't, but as my dope-addled brain grappled with the situation the doppelganger looked across at me, smiled and raised his glass. That definitely freaked me out a bit and, still not certain, I didn't go over for a chat. I don't know, maybe it was him.

*Isn't it amazing what's on wikipedia?