Asking the Way

By Morpurgo, Horatio | Contemporary Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Asking the Way


Morpurgo, Horatio, Contemporary Review


An inscription found on late imperial gravestones in Rome runs as follows: 'I didn't exist, then I existed, then I died. I don't care.' The epitaph was apparently so popular that it came to be recognisable from its initials alone - some gravestones are engraved only with these.

But can we know how it was understood at the time? Did it express unrelieved gloom or Stoic resignation, or was it something more mischievous, or did it vary? How do we gain access to the spiritual atmosphere of any period, even our own? 'God is dead' is easily said, but whether it was Darwin or Nietzsche or Watson and Crick who killed Him, the meaning of this 'death' is still not clear, at least to the many millions who continue to believe.

The first appeal in such questions, if they trouble us at all, is to our own experience. That experience will usually be more complicated and more difficult to articulate than any of those off-the-peg answers-to-everything available now from good bookshops everywhere. Let me tell a story about what I mean.

I once studied theology in Edinburgh for a year and took a part-time job as the verger of an Anglican church near the university. The vicar, tall, round-faced, in his fifties, was extremely dedicated to his pastoral vocation and ministered, as a result, to a large and varied congregation. On weekdays there were morning and evening prayers, which I sometimes attended.

On the Friday evening in question I left the church after one such prayer meeting: it was midsummer's eve, and a glorious one too. A half-ruined castle is visible from several places in the city - I had had it in mind all year to take a closer look, so I set off in that direction.

The path takes you through a sixties housing project, one which has become a byword locally for poverty, unemployment, drugs. The only route connecting this estate with the imposing landmark nearby was a road with no pavements, solid with early evening traffic.

I passed a sand-pit in which a small boy was playing on his own. I noticed him peering narrowly at me as I approached and for some reason I avoided his gaze. 'Are you a junkie?' he asked matter-of-factly, just as I was passing. 'No,' I replied, stopped in my tracks, 'Why do you ask that?' He shrugged. 'Oh, my sister's terrified of junkies.' he mumbled, and went back to his building project in the sand. It occurred to me then that if anyone would know of a footpath to the castle, official or otherwise, a boy this age would, so I asked him. 'What's the time?' he replied without looking up. 'Six-thirty-ish.' 'The castle's shut then.' 'I just want to get as close as I can - I don't mind if I can't get in.' 'OK. There's a path to get there. I'll show you.' Jumping up, he wriggled his feet into some scruffy trainers, stamped them properly in and we were off- he led the way across a football pitch, then over a wall. 'Is your name Jim?' he asked. 'No, why do you ask if I'm called Jim?' 'That's my Dad's name. He sometimes waits for me up by the castle. That's where we meet.'

If anything like this ever happens again I'll know what I'm getting into, but at the time I saw no harm in letting him talk. He obviously wanted to and his odd questions already interested me more than the castle - they had jolted me out of my ruins-mood and I was grateful. He ended up leading me back to the road I had wanted to avoid, but I let him. He seemed quite at ease skipping along the top of a low stone wall that ran alongside the busy road, while I shuffled awkwardly between him and the cars on what little there was of a verge.

I didn't hear the squad car pull in behind us, but for some reason I turned anyway, to see an officer approaching cautiously, taking mental notes, while another stood by the car watching. Traffic was coming to a halt all around. They asked me to accompany them back to the boy's home.

In short I spent the next three days in custody, first in a cell at the local Police Station and then, after being interviewed by the CID, in solitary confinement at a holding facility, while they searched my lodgings and ran my name through Police computers. …

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