I vividly remember wandering round the town of Nimes in the south of France about fifteen years ago and being completely blown away by the amphitheatre there (pictured above). What blew me away was the way in which this magnificent object had gone on a two millennium journey of creation, obsolescence, senescence, decay and rebirth. And I started thinking of similar patterns of recurrence.
Nimes’ ampitheatre declined (I surmised) because the world had changed so much that it no longer had much of a use for it. In the medieval period IIRC various worthies including church dignitaries set up lodgings for themselves within its capacious walls. Still there was only a roof over the stands – so all that uncovered space over the ground wasn’t much use was it? And its style – well it was horrible! So plain and utilitarian! What was needed was lots more detail – saints carved into walls, gothic arches, that kind of thing. And when that couldn’t be managed, well it was at least a useful quarry for high quality stone (it was even pre-cut!).
But it was a tough old thing and it survived until in the eighteenth century when ancient civilisation made a comeback in fashion (It was pretty fashionable in Italy from the Renaissance a couple of hundred years earlier but perhaps that hadn’t quite made it to the south of France I’m not sure.)
In any event, from there on it was plain sailing for that ampitheatre. Someone had the idea of holding public spectacles within its walls. And remarkably enough the various bits of architecture surrounding the ground could be converted without too much trouble into stands for viewing!
And so with a gap of nearly two millennia the mass entertainments of the Roman Empire were replaced by the mass entertainments in Nimes today – which includes bullfights and rock concerts. And the architecture? One mightn’t say that the relatively clean lines of the amphitheatre are, exactly back in fashion – they’re not exactly modernist, but they’re passably post-modern I guess. And their conjunction of utility and beauty is something we understand.
It occurred to me that these kinds of recurrences happen all the time. Right now our society is moving back into structures that were last seen in Edwardian times. My parents were effectively brought up by nannies – with their parents taking something of an interest. I just had my Mum and Dad. But lots of kids today have nannies whom they see at least as much of as they do their parents. When my parents’ were growing up they were familiar with first class, second class and steerage on ships. Two classes wasn’t enough to meet the needs of the social world as it was. I recall in what is now receeding as the golden age of egalitarianism (the 1960s and 70s) the emergence of ‘one class’ ships and aeroplanes. And I think there were hardly any three class ships.
Today VirginBlue is a ‘one class’ airline, though I expect that’s because of its unusual origins (having begun as a low cost niche player and moved into mass marketing with the collapse of Ansett). And business and first class have collapsed into one class on Qantas. But take a look at departure lounges. There are three very distinct classes. Modern ‘steerage’ involves hanging around in the public spaces of the airport till you’re called. Then there’s second class – the Qantas Club which you pay pretty good money to enter – a joining and annual fee, for which you get to eat, drink, read magazines, watch tele and surf the net. One of the main benefits of joining is that you might see someone with whom you can make that acquaintance or clinch that deal.
But there’s another rung up you may not even know about. Behind doors marked ‘private’ a class of passenger is better looked after again. Better food, better service. And perhaps more to the point better company. Along with CEOs and the most senior managers of large companies all federal politicians are offered access – and so, being human might feel rather a heel if otherwise tempted to make policy decisions that disadvantage the providers of this largesse. They don’t have to listen out for those pesky announcements about their plane departing. The receptionist will discretely come and get them (usually after the others are on board – so they don’t have to wait). The price for all this? Nothing. But you do need to be invited!
Anyway, I was reminded of all this when I saw Andrew Leigh’s blog post drawing attention to a new borrowing from Edwardian times. When an Edwardian gentleman went to jail – like Bertrand Russell during World War One for instance – they always took their books. I think earlier on you might have been ablet to have gotten some access for your servants. In any event gentlemen got a better standard of accommodation than was available to the hoi polloi. Well now Troppo readers – who are disproportionately respectable I am sure – or at least those in California, will be able to buy a better style of accommodation when in jail.
As the NYT reports “For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor . . . and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades.”
And these special facilities are just like the top line departure lounges – discrete. “Many of the self-pay jails operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.”
I guess we’ve made progress. Back in Edwardian times it would have been gentlemen only. Nowadays women also have access to such delights. I’m not sure if they have to be ‘ladies’.