Time's tables turned

I don't know why it is, but I never seem to have been particularly captivated by archaelogy. It isn't the digging: a deal of that gets done under the happy banner of "horticulture," with plenty of purpose and satisfaction. No doubt if my spade turned up a Roman coin or two I would be suitably thrilled, but perhaps I'm not endowed with the right kind of fantasy, alas.

The palace of Knossos in Crete, even, didn't really take off in the imagination until the two of us sat down on a warm hunk of wall and read the delightfully fictitiuos essay in the guidebook we had with us. Its author was eloquent on "the scene around the central court four thousand years ago. Tiers and tiers of Minoan women -- their doe-eyes outlined and shadowed with green malachite -- talk with great animation. . . . In the great courtyard there is music. . . . Flowers are thrown into the ring. . . . Acrobats cartwheel across the strewn flowers. The high priestess and her attendants consult a pit of sacred snakes. . . . The bull-leapers vault into the air. Until then we'd thought we were looking at a lot of old pots and pavements held together with 20 th century cement, at newly painted red pillars, ang gaggles of dutiful tourists with large cameras and not a doe-eye to share between them."

No, I'll never be a Sir Arthur Evans and have the tenacity and vision to reconstruct a civilization when all that can now be seen are olive trees on a hillside. Nevertheless I do find I have a certain astonished fascination for the way we humans build and destroy, define and populate and make self-contained and cosy some nonplace until it actually achieves its own heart and identity.

And then for the way it can either grow, change and evolve or be completely wiped out, leaving no obvious trace.

One can only admire someone like w. G. Hoskins, author of "The Making of the English Landscape."

Who can look at nothing but an ancient elm, standing by a wide ploughed field , and state with inarguable authority: "A string of villages were founded in Saxon times on this narrow belt of water-bearing sands between the porous chalk of the hills and the impervious gault clay of the vale." There are others who could look at an ordinary city street, I except, and see medieval noblemen hallooing after a unicorn, or at a supermarket and remeber the horses which used to graze beneath the chestnut just where Lorna McFash is punching out Mrs. Crumble's week's supply of groceries on the cash register.

Remember? Well, of course, you don't have to be in your teens to start that kind of thing. Nostalgia has dawned on me suddenly. In moving from a remarkably unchanging and stable rural area into a city --tling crossroads between the decaying remnants of the Victorian industrial boom and an unclear future of light industry, unemployment and hopeful tourism -- I have moved not so much through space as through time.m

In Crete, a more profound feeling of time-difference -- the nearest I've ever been, I think, to experiencing another aeon, charmed and thrilled me one afternoon as we stopped our hired car on a hill. Throughout the wide, tree-filled valley all we could hear was that sound which, in its distant-closeness, makes change seem the most inconceivable thing in the world -- the lazy, continual, "tonkle, tonkle" of sheep bells and goat bells. Why is that sound so ineffably peaceful? I felt not so much "where are we?" as "whenm are we?" this deep atmosphere of stilled time made even the rural Yorkshire in which I have lived for a decade seem positively alive with change.

After our visit to Crete, we came home to Glasgow. We'd only been away two weeks, but in that time two whole rows of tenements in a familiar part of the West End had been reduced to heaps of rubble -- and most of the heaps had also been cleared away. Where have all the people gone? What is going to be done now with the naked stretch of ground? Some remain exposed, wind-swept wastes, unkempt ground not even fit for the parking of cars. Others are patches of flattened dust with entrances and exits. Still others, though, are being covered over with that ameliorating cloth of the ground, green grass.

Now thism appeals to my fantasy. Grass. I think these spaces should be turned into fields again,with crops or with sheep and cows and shouting farmers and growling tractors. After all, the rehousing program has grabbed and spoiled great tracts of farmland on the city's periphery. The tablets should be turned, cities should be divided into the smaller villages they originally were, with countryside between.

Oh yes, and then the archaeologists or landscape-historians of the future will have the pleasure of scanning a horizon of good Scottish potatoes and neeps and remarking, "A city was once built here in Victorian times -- on this narrow belt of water-bearing sand between the hills and the vale."

And, who can tell, perhaps their utterances might be softly interrupted by some far-away sheep bell, wafted across the silent space by a brisk Glasgow wind?

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