Last week I gave expression to my inner artisan by painting a flight of wooden stairs. It was a simple job but one fraught with a particular anxiety – the risk of painting myself into the vertical equivalent of a corner. I would be working my way down the stairs so it was essential to ensure that, once finished, I would not need to go up again until the paint had dried. I made sure that I placed the radio I was listening to at the bottom. The news was on and there was a fascinating item concerning a glut of cauliflowers due to the weather having been favourable this season. (Actually, I mused, the colour of my paint could be called ‘cauliflower’– although that description would probably be deemed insufficiently alluring for the purpose of marketing.) In the days that followed, I began to notice that recipes for cauliflower were cropping up in all the media – even on my FB page – to the extent that I was reminded of the saying News is what somebody else does not want to be known. Everything else is just advertising.
A few days later I duly bought a couple of cauliflowers at the street-market in Salisbury where I had been on a visit (is anyone immune to advertising?). The drive back to Manchester via trunk roads is long and tedious so, to add a little interest, I detoured via Cirencester and stopped off at Chedworth Roman Villa (remains of) to view the mosaics and admire the ingenious hypocaust underfloor heating system. A dozen more Roman villas are dotted around the area, Cirencester having once been a major settlement on the Fosse Way, but Chedworth is the most impressive. Roman troops were recalled from Britain, quite suddenly, in about 410 AD and their departure was followed by rapid disintegration of the infrastructure they had built during their 500 years of occupation. The native population, finding itself without a police force, proceeded to strip the abandoned assets, using the stones to build dwellings and consigning themselves to life without paved roads for the next 1500 years. Why would they do that?
Roman administration brought stability but at a cost: by appropriating everything for themselves and making sure they kept hold of it, the Romans presided over a system of extreme economic inequality – such as is increasingly the case in, for example, the USA where one percent of the population owns half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Meanwhile, the mass of humanity struggles to overcome poverty. Roman villas, for all their grace and technical precocity, were the ancient equivalent of today’s private palaces, symbols of a grotesquely inequitable distribution of wealth. For every nobleman living in a villa there were thousands of peasants living in crude shelters so, when the Romans went off to defend their interests elsewhere, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the natives to re-distribute the wealth among themselves.
Some historians argue that unless there are cataclysmic events, such as the Roman evacuation, wealth will remain concentrated in the hands of the few. British history seems to back this up. The last occasions when there was major re-distribution was during the periods of upheaval following World Wars I and II. In recent years, half-hearted attempts to close down offshore tax-havens and eliminate tax loopholes have all met with limited results and the Government’s recently stated intention to legislate for the attenuation of pay packages for the CEOs of large companies will have limited success: legislation cannot eliminate greed. Revolutions and wars are, apparently, more effective agents of change.
It’s depressing. So, while I contemplate whether I would rather remain relatively poor or endure the uncertain outcomes of war and social upheaval, I distract myself by perfecting a supper-dish fit for a noble: roast cauliflower with chorizo.