Sitting on my shelf at home is a book, bought at a booksale two or three years ago, I am looking forward to one day reading: ‘The Pleasure of Ruins’.
We are staying in a medieval apartment a few hundred metres from ancient ruins of Rome, and we have spent today looking at them. We saw great marble pillars fashioned at the time of Christ, inscriptions which have lasted centuries, the skeletal remains of the grandeur of an empire, the bricks and broken stones of it.
As a child, I thought I was fascinated by archaeology, but more than that I was fascinated by ruins. Today I realised the photos in books about ruins present an idyll which is not otainable in the real world. The viewer of ruins is an explorer cutting through the overgrown forest to come across the ruins, the first to lay eyes on them for centuries. From a perfect angle, in beautiful light, the ruins shimmer and fill the viewer with a kind of longing which is hard to explain.
The idyll of ruins is the quester contemplating the fate of Ozymandius in solitude and silence. The reality of Rome’s ruins is the viewer in a sea of tourists, all straining to have their ruins experience, or at least a good photo of them. The reality is iron bars and fences and signs and relentless sellers of novelty toys and souvenirs.
This is just an observation; the truth is that today my inner-six-year-old was elated, which is to say my whole self was elated, because I have never lost my love of ruins. (All three of my novels are partly about ruins. In ‘The Fur’, it is a whole state in ruins, the beauty of abandoned towns and houses in a plague. In ‘House of Zealots’, the ruins are obscured, but the whole novel was inspired by the mood of living in a rundown house from 1950 which was one step off being abandoned to squatters, a contemporary ruin. In ‘Immortalities’ the ‘ruins’ are the archival remains and traces which individual lives leave behind, waiting for the quester to piece them together. I wonder how different my interest in ruins would be if I lived in Europe where the ruins are ancient?)
I had my moments of contemplation jostling among the tourists, my moments of connection to the past. In fact, it was an overwhelming dose of ruins – it seems too much for one person to be allowed to experience in one day.
Wasn’t it the Romantic period when the beauty of ruins was recognised? (I will find out for sure when I finally read that book which awaits on my shelf back home.) Faux ruins were created, and others ‘improved’ to make them more picturesque. It is an instinct I fully understand. I hope they do not attempt to restore too many of the grand crumbling monuments and buildings I saw today – it is more poignant to see them as time has rendered them. Recover and preserve, but not to make them shiny and new. Leave the weeds growing out of the old bricks. Leave them with their sense of centuries which we cannot have ourselves.