A wild slim alien


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The hill of broken amphorae

The rescued amphora fragment was just a broken pot; but one that lay at the bottom of the sea for 2,000 years. Likelihood is that it comes from a shipwreck, and that in itself would be a tale. But then there are all the individual stories which brought the people on board to that disastrous moment. Who survived, who perished, what else was lost besides oil or wine? Great loves and small progressive steps forward, manacled slaves, families plunged into poverty at a stroke?

I’ve never been to Rome, but if I ever go, I know which place I’d visit first. Forget the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel, I want to stand on Monte Testaccio. A mound of pottery fragments which when whole held olive oil, it’s a mile in circumference, 35 metres high, and comprises an estimated 53 million amphorae, all once handled by people with tales to tell. Through the soles of my feet I’d absorb those oily stories: matriarchs cooking their way through the loss of sons in foreign lands, traders losing everything as a result of shipwreck, and the pot smashers and stackers who raised up that mound fragment by fragment – horny-handed Romans daily risking cuts from terracotta shards as they broke up the amphorae.

The stories don’t end with Rome ceasing to dispose of its pots there. The hill was the scene of jousting in the Middle Ages, while in the nineteenth century Stendhal visited and it became a place of festivity upon which the saltarello was danced. There too Garibaldi defended Rome against a French attack. On Good Fridays it even stood in for Golgotha.

Time made something beautiful out of what started life as a tip. It’s hard to envisage that time will do the same to our rubbish dumps, but it may.

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Glass-bottomed boat

Amphora

Tanned and muscular, Mario could not have been more Greekly masculine; but he was infinitely patient too, and his boat was glass-bottomed.  It allowed you to see what would otherwise not be seen, down to the depth beyond which the human eye could not penetrate.  Through panes which light and water rendered jade, I saw starfish, octopuses, loggerhead turtles, a mysterious underworld of shoaling and sand and rock and weed and murk.  The prism of the glass was our fish eye, and we were an underwater creature with an excess of limbs.  When I raised my head I saw Ionian blues and sun-baked land and cliff faces carved into irreproducible forms by wind and water.  In their lee we dived and swam into caves lit from below by the sun striking through the water to reflect off white sand.  Mario’s boat took us places we would not have otherwise gone.  From the depths he retrieved the handle of an amphora, unseen by human eyes since the time of the gods.

Looking through the glass, I thought of Momus, the god of raillery and mockery, who wanted windows set in the breasts of men, the better to see inside their hearts.  If I wasn’t already awildslimalien, I might have called this place Glass-bottomed boat.  For here is where I lay open my heart and let you inside my mind; where also I try to see inside the breasts and foreheads of others.  Of course I can’t see inside of everyone; I’m no Greek god.  But if I have anything of a gift for seeing where sight alone doesn’t take you – into the idiosyncracies of the relationships of others, across boundaries of sex and species – then I feel I should make use of it, and give back what I have been gifted.

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