One of my favourite writers is Rosemary Sutcliff. She is really known as a children’s author and I was a child when I first encountered her work. But I have gone back to her every so often as an adult because her themes about love, loss, belonging and courage still speak to me in adulthood as strongly as ever. (Incidentally her novel for adults A Sword at Sunset is the best single volume exploration of the Arthur myth, read it if you can get it.)
‘Hold on,’ you’re thinking, ‘where is he going with this?’ Stay with me a little longer.
Her story The Eagle of the Ninth has been made into a film which will be released in the new year. It’s a fine story that has at its heart a clash between different ways of thinking about the world. The Romans think in orderly straight lines where the British produce art in spirals and curves to express how they see the world. I’ll come back to cultures clashing.
The Eagle of the Ninth is perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff’s most well-known work. But my favourite is the third book in the sequence The Lantern Bearers. It’s set right at the end of Rome’s rule in Britain. At the start of the book the hero, a young soldier, has to decide whether to follow his orders and sail away with his men from the Dover garrison as Rome abandons Britain to fend for itself. In the end his ties to Britain and to his family are too strong so he goes awol.
With his unit already out of the harbour he is drawn irresistibly to the light house dark now for the first time in hundreds of years. Without analysing why he lights the beacon. The last time it will be lit before the dark engulfs Britain. It flares defiantly as he leaves for home to be with the people and places he knows and loves.
It’s a powerful and arresting image. That last flaring of the lighthouse beacon. Signalling the end of the old world but not hailing the arrival of the new. A balefire.
It’s an image that has come back to me often in recent weeks when I have caught up with old friends and colleagues busy with the impacts of the CSR and other government policy changes. One colleague told me his council had decided that his corporate performance team had to go. No one was now interested in bureaucratic accountability: performance indicators and the like. The new world is about putting everything into the hands of everyone and letting the public somehow decide if they are happy with service quality and costs.
And, of course, it’s not just corporate services that face radical pruning. Other colleagues I have seen talk of tussles with councillors and non-executive directors over where to wield the sharp utensils. In each case I sensed a little that same retreat faced by the hero of The Lantern Bearers. A mission ending leaving only empty buildings and the world a little darker as each garrison’s lighthouse beacon burned away to ash and nothingness.
I said I would come back to a clash of ways of thinking about the world. Yesterday’s Guardian Society Daily mentioned a dispute about The Big Society between the anonymous civil servant who writes an excellent column in The Observer and a Conservative local councillor from West Yorkshire. The two pieces make fascinating reading.
The civil servant represents the Roman view of the world. Order, planning, direction. The councillor in contrast is the celt whose dreams are swirls and curves. Bureaucratic accountability against local people taking control over their lives back with complete freedom to do anything or nothing about the problems that surround them.
It feels increasingly to me that an old world is passing quickly now. The legions of state spending have been recalled. The agents of the state left without a mission waiting to be disbanded. The beacons of local public service providers are beginning to go out, starved of fuel and extinguished. And the country is waiting. In The Lantern Bearers the scars of what happened next dominated the next twenty years of the characters’ lives.
I wonder if it will be the same for us …