For a change, I have been way out east, rather than way out west for a couple of days this week, and took the opportunity to see a very old friend, Rob, a musician normally resident near Nîmes in the south of France, but briefly back in the rather less enticing Essex Riviera to sort out his affairs after the death of his father. We hadn't met in a very long time -- thirty-five years really is "long time, no see" -- but we've stayed intermittently in touch, and the friends you make in your youth are a sort of elective family, aren't they?
In fact, those ties are often rather stronger than the ones we have with our "real" family. Certainly, in my case, the family bonds are pretty feeble by comparison. I was always an easily-overlooked and ignored oddity and outlier in our family. A late second child, a decade younger than most of my familial generation, and an uncle by age 11, I was only interested in mysterious, useless things like nature, books and art. A bit of a changeling, in fact, if not quite a black sheep, whose birthdays and achievements usually went unremarked by the wider family. Perhaps it was felt that I was an annoyingly precocious little so-and-so; perhaps I was. Perhaps everyone was too busy raising and cooing over new babies; undoubtedly. Or perhaps it was that we were a scattered and uncommunicative family; that, too. But, as a consequence, and like many bright but introverted children from families with modest expectations and aspirations, I was profoundly lonely until I finally met other members of my real tribe at secondary school. A couple of whom were teachers. But mostly they were oddballs like me, and a few who aspired to be "mad, bad, and dangerous to know".
So, there was a night catching up with the tribal gossip, legends and lore over red wine and whisky until 3 a.m., which is way past my habitual bedtime, these days. As seems almost inevitable, one of those curious "degrees of separation" links emerged. It seems that one of Rob's best friends in France is Kenneth Segar, sometime scholar of German language and literature at Oxford University, and now retired and based in Italy, but who still maintains a second home in Rob's town in the département du Gard. This is remarkable because, although as an undergraduate I studied English, I had chosen to do a special paper on Goethe for my final year exams, and -- my college at that time lacking a suitable tutor -- it was to Dr. Segar at St. Edmund Hall that I was "farmed out" for tutorials. He schooled me well, and I got one of my better marks on that paper. Which, in fact -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- I was the only student to sit that year, or for several years, so the paper had to be printed especially for me. What was I saying about being an outlier?
The next day we visited Colchester Castle, a little hung-over, as it seemed a harmless way to pass a few hours. Within the "castle" (actually the largest Norman keep ever built in Britain) there is a substantial collection of fascinating archaeological loot, bling, and detritus, mainly from the Roman occupation and Dark Ages, all very nicely displayed and interpreted. Confusingly, and perhaps deliberately so, there are many exhibits -- generally beautifully-made modern reproductions -- with the unusual label "Please Touch". Eh? This is exemplary and fun, though I can say that trying on a replica solid steel Civil War helmet is hazardous and not to be recommended with a hangover.
As for these two pictures, it was there in Colchester Castle, in a remote corner of an educational suite of rooms, that I saw some remarkable theatrical rehearsals taking place. Or, at least, so it seems to me now.
I fear we shall outsleep the coming morn
As much as we this night have overwatch'd.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
[N.B. for those puzzled by this post's title: it's a mashup of the egregious "scripted reality" TV programme known popularly as TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) and Jeanette Winterson's tale of her bizarre and lonely adopted childhood, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Though Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) might have been appropriate, too].