I took a couple of painkillers and a large glass of whiskey, naughty perhaps, probably cancelling out any good the antibiotics might have been doing, following my little accident with a rusty nail a couple of days previously. My left thumb was telling me that rain or cold weather was on its way, but hopefully, the ache would be subdued by the, ‘medication.’ The digit has been my own weather forecasting system since shortly arriving up at Cambridge, when I made a hash of catching a cricket ball smashed with gusto by Lovejoy.
I’d arrived at Cambridge to read Classics and what an alien world it had turned out to be! Now, fifty years later nothing surprises me about the place. Looking back, I wonder if us, ‘Country Bumkins,’ as I wasn’t the only one with an unpolished accent, didn’t try harder than was really necessary to outdo Sebastian Flyte, thus proving our apparent sophistication, if only to ourselves. Rustication had loomed and the thought of my mother having to live down that shame, pulled me back from the brink.
Damned undergraduates! Waking an old man from his sleep! I knew I was being a complete hypocrite, as I had undoubtedly done that to my tutors and the Master in my carousing days. But even so!
A gentle knock on my door completed the wakening process. “Professor? Professor!”
“Is that you Anna?”
“Yes professor, I’ve a note for you, smart gentleman asked me to bring it up to you as he was in a hurry.”
I struggled from my chair, stiff, aching and vaguely hung over, whisky and painkillers turned torturers rather than the comforters of the previous evening.
“Anna, shove it under the door will you please or you’ll be standing out there until doomsday. Damn crutches have a mind of their own, need a couple of minutes to get them under control.”
“Right you are professor. Shall I get some tea and toast sent up to you, you’ll miss breakfast by the sound of things?”
“Kind of you, kind of you, about thirty minutes please.” I heard her leave, leather shoes on shiny oak floorboards.
Heard about your accident old man, rather clumsy of you not to see it, or were you away in your dreamland again? Fancy a spin? Just let Anna know will you, she knows where to get hold of me as the phones are out again. Ever thought of getting a mobile old boy? Joining us in this modern age?
Let me know by 9.30am.
Yours as ever
Whatever one might say about Lovejoy and many had said much, from his ability as a lover and carouser, to his complete disregard for authority, his driving was faultless. Fast certainly, but considerate. Besides, I suspected that the worst thing that could ever befall him would to have put even the smallest scratch on the gleaming red car he lovingly referred to as, ‘My Morse.’
He never denied the rumour that the car had featured in those stories and knowing him, I certainly wouldn’t have bet against it. The only concession he had made to modernity was the installation of the latest sat-nav or ‘Beatrice’ as he called it. Lovejoy, by his own admission, could get lost in an open field.
“Yes thanks, pills are kicking in, damn foot. Went right through you know, that damned nail, came out the other side.”
“No alcohol I suppose then?”
“That’s the theory, but at my age I’m inclined to ignore such theories as invented by killjoys or dour Scotsmen. Which brings me to this trip. Where exactly are we headed?”
“Ely. That ancient bookseller behind the Cathedral has a first edition I’ve been searching for these past thirty odd years’”
“You mean the Defoe?”
“Yep, Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday and bugger the PC brigade!”
“Going to cost a bob or two then.”
“Not thinking about it old boy. Just not thinking about it. It’s one of the few things left on my bucket list.”
“Oh, dare I ask what’s still to be done?”
“You can ask old boy, but there are certain things a gentleman never discusses.”
“So it’s a woman then, or more likely two or three knowing your reputation.”
“Like I said, somethings one never discusses. Ely, then Cromer for crabs?”
The bookshop was tucked away up a narrow cobbled side street and it would not have been entirely unreasonable to suppose one might espy Charles Dickens emerging from it, such was the impression it gave of having been the inspiration behind the illustrations for The Old Curiosity Shop.
The owner, small, bald and theatrically complete with wire spectacles, greeted us with the air of a man who begrudgingly knows he must sell his books if he is to eat. But one could suspect he regarded all customers as abusive mountebanks rather than prospective buyers of some expensive first editions.
Lovejoy and he disappeared, the former emerging some minutes later with a discreet parcel in his hand and a smile that would have put the Cheshire cat to shame.
“Cromer then? Crabs, fresh bread and butter, hot tea in those tin mugs old boy?”
“A minute Lovejoy, a minute.” A dusty, faded orange book had caught my eye.
“To you sir, twenty-five pounds and worth double to the right scholar I’ll be sure.”
We reached Cromer in the early afternoon. Normally I would have enjoyed a short walk along the beach taking in the North Sea air, but my crutches made that impossible. We sat in silence watching the waves break gently upon the shingle as the oil tankers made their way up to Immingham. Then the clouds swept in, the once blue sea turned grey and drab and the crabs called us to tea.
Back in my rooms I was greeted by a roaring fire and a fresh loaf and butter in the kitchen, along with a note from Anna reminding me I still owed her for the whiskey. Ah! Dear Anna, and to think that us fuddy duddy old men had, when poor Finlayson passed on, nearly voted against having a woman as a Porter.
I would make fresh toast when the fire died down then spread it liberally with butter and greengage preserve, followed by a tot or two of whiskey. But first I must examine my purchase. It was a slim tome printed on glossy paper. Clearly no child had ever been near it, or one of those infernal people who insist in underlining sentences, usually with wavy lines thus rendering the line below unreadable.
‘The Circus’s of Europe and the Middle East.’
Professor Adrian Martin
‘Professor of Antiquities,’ Liverpool University
Associate Professor of Tropical Medicines, Bangor University, North Wales.
Thus was Adrian Martin described upon the inside flyleaf. I had met him many years before at some now long forgotten conference, but by sheer co-incidence was due to meet him again the week after next. I was researching the early, somewhat confused and obscure period of ancient Ethiopia and I knew of his expedition all those years before to the exact region I was interested in.
He had published a paper and I was hoping he might be able to help, as there were bound to be details he had ommitted, there always are – we academics can be a secretive lot, jealously protective of information we might regard as important, if not relevant at that particular point in time.
He was an interesting man. His early career had been haphazard to say the least. He had qualified as a medical doctor, mainly to keep his father on his side as he was at that time totally dependent upon him for his income. But his real interest, his consuming passion, were the great amphitheatres and circuses of the ancient world. An interest sparked as a school boy by a history master who himself was engrossed by them.
Having caught the bug, within days of him qualifying as a doctor, he joined, as their medic, an expedition to Ethiopia to further excavate the Temple at Yeha, thought to have been built around 700BC. During that year-long jaunt he became knowledgeable of the diseases endemic in the area and to which the expedition’s men and women folk had no natural immunity.
As he was a personable young man, undoubtedly intelligence and rather unusually endowed with a great deal of practical common sense, the two not always being natural bedfellows, he was invited upon a number of expeditions and thus his knowledge of antiquities and medicine grew side by side.
Upon the death of his father, Adrian then in his mid forties, inherited the entire estate and became overnight financially independent and determined to totally pursue his interest raised all those years previously by that laconic school master.
Over the next fifteen years he visited all the great amphitheatres of the world and despite the grandeur of such Coliseums as in Rome and Lyon was never forgetful of their original purpose. They were circuses built to entertain the masses, more often than not with spectacles of great cruelty and nearly always for the personal political gain or gratification of the sponsor.
He had spent months in Rome minutely examining the Coliseum and was spellbound by the ruins of the world famous ‘Circus Maximus’ – although he wondered if ‘infamous’ was a better description – of the staged chariot racing so vividly bought to life in Ben Hur. He had then embarked upon the expedition that nearly cost him his life and forced him to turn his attention to ruins closer to his home town of Warminster.
I travelled down by train, a rather long-winded cross-country jaunt, but better that than travelling into London and then out again.
His wife Cicely greeted me, warning that he was in a great grump no doubt due to the pain of his broken back.
“Poor man,” she had whispered to me upon seeing the questioning look upon my face for it was the first I had heard of his new circumstances. “Poor man, was thrown from his horse which had put it foot down some wretched rabbits burrow.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Yes, it wouldn’t have been so bad but he was on the high plains of Outer Mongolia at the time. He went to research the great grass mounds that are believed to be ancient sporting arena. Took three months to get him home, even in this day and age.”
“That wouldn’t have helped his back I suppose.”
“No, it didn’t,” was shot back at me, “Foolish man said he was in a hurry to get home as he had seen a structure that reminded him in almost exact detail of our own Stonehenge, said he ‘wanted to look into it.’ Silly man will be a cripple for the rest of his life, ‘a ruin caused by a ruin,’ is how he now describes himself.”
He was indeed in a huge grump, not only because of his back but also his wheelchair had sprung a puncture which couldn’t be repaired for a couple of day. “Ever tried shifting one of these bloody things with a flat bloody tyre? Bloody nigh impossible. Tried one of those electric things but it wouldn’t fit through the doors and Cicely wouldn’t hear of knocking this old place about. Can’t blame her really, been in her family for four hundred years. Oh, sorry old boy, whiskey?”
Despite it being just past eleven in the morning I thought it prudent to accept. Over a light lunch I questioned Adrian about Ethiopia and the temples, but he could help me not one jot. Still it had been worth a try and as it turned out, was still to be a productive visit.
He had sat quietly, obviously thinking when a sudden rain squall rattled the old window frames, breaking his reverie. “Look old man, you’ve built a solid reputation for good research and I’m stuck here. What about a collaboration? What I have in mind needs access to all the proper libraries, the stuff you won’t find on Google and the likes. You know, real libraries, real books, old dusty manuscripts. Librarians with their encyclopaedic knowledge that can save one hours of searching.”
“Well, I’m at a complete dead-end on my Ethiopia project, so a change might do me good. What do you have in mind?”
“What do you know about Stonehenge?”
I must admit to being slightly nonplussed as I had expected, with no real reason I suppose, that the research would involve something a little more esoteric. “Oh, just the usual, never really been interested, Druids and all that I suppose.” I watched his eyes light up, his posture become firmer, as if his broken back had suddenly mended.
“Don’t believe a word of it old man, that Stonehenge was built by the Druids. Construction is thought to have begun in about 2600BC and the first known reference to Druids is in 750BC! So more than likely some wondering Priest of that religion who had been up to no good in his native Wales, had come across the disused Henge and thought it a good idea to adopt it. Make a bob or two, endow it with mystical properties and all that.”
“I mean it has a magical look about it doesn’t it? An air of mystery, remains of bodies found in graves that no one can explain other than with supposition. More whiskey?”
“Er, no thanks Adrian. Have to give a lecture first thing tomorrow to some visiting Prof’s from the States. Need a clear head. By the way, by sheer chance I came across this a couple of weeks ago.”
“Well well, my little orange book.” He took it from me, handling it gently, greeting a long-lost friend “Well, well, my first publication. I misplaced my copy years ago you know.”
“Please keep it then, it belongs here, more than in my rooms.”
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to cadge it from you. Didn’t think any of them were still around. My thanks Simmons, my sincere thanks.”
“But back to the Henges. Thing is you know, old boy I only know of one other Henge like ours and that is the one in Mongolia and that was definitely not a place of worship. It was a circus, for entertainment and of the skilful sort, not the bestiality of the Romans. My hosts showed me some old scripts and they were old and I know ‘old’ when I see it.”
“They were covered with drawings of horses being ridden by acrobats doing headstands and the things we watch today, of jugglers, fire eaters and what looked like tightrope walking between the lintels. There were elephants clearly and possibly tigers. There was also balancing acts, you know human pyramids of six maybe seven men on each others shoulders, but it looked as if these were performed upon the high stones.”
“But the intriguing thing old boy was that the scripts – made of leather – also showed a recognisable sketch of what we now call Europe and Asia. On it were marked four sites, one was clearly the one I was at, the other very close to the location of our Stonehenge, a third out in Siberia and finally, one on the Tibetan plateau under the shadow of Everest.”
I must admit to being somewhat thrown by this information with questions whizzing through my mind. Were these structures identical? If so, who had built them in such widespread locations? Was there a commonality of the sites? A geographical one for instance? And why? Why in all the yearly publicity of the goings on at our own Henge was there never any reference to the others?
If proven that these four sites were connected, a whole raft of previously regarded respected academic theories would be blown into a cock hat! And many a learned ‘expert’ would suddenly find themselves with egg upon their faces and reputations in tatters!
He must have seen the questions on my face, smiled at me, the contented smile of a man who knows he has just landed an ally. “Big isn’t it old boy? Another tot?”
My lecture to the visiting Americans went well, despite a slight preoccupation on my part concerning the conversation with Adrian. Back in my rooms I sat quietly, just letting my mind wander as the thoughts came and went. I enjoyed the challenge of research and had learned not to be impatient when carrying it out. Equal measures of research and thinking time, make notes, plenty of them and then make sure not to lose them!
The obvious starting point was the College library, which if the truth be told I hadn’t visited for some months. The Librarian was a rather severe looking young woman I had not met before. But upon my explaining what it was I wanted, she had smiled, handed me a pair of white cotton gloves explaining that those items hadn’t been touched in years and might therefore have a little dust upon them. Particularly the maps.
I felt a frisson of excitement that I had not felt for seemingly decades, a new line of research! Could the Henges really have been no more than Circus’s for the highly skilled entertainers of the day? And if between us, Adrian and I could prove that to be the case, not only would it guarantee an academic furore of the mightiest degree and those are always splendid to be part of, but would provide a grand finale to my otherwise unspectacular career.