An Eskimo dad sat in an igloo, reading nursery rhymes to his little son. Little Jack Horner/sat in a corner/ eating his pudding and pie. He put in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum/ and said what a good boy am I! It’s a good rhyme. To which the puzzled little boy replied: Hey, dad, what’s a corner?
The Greeks built magnificent temples but there were so many pillars holding up the roof, there was not much room inside. So they transacted their business outside. They sat in doorways and porches, out of the glare of the sun. They knew about corners and all the other great questions of life. I have no doubt that on many occasions, the friends of Socrates hid around corners when they saw him approaching, with all his questions. Socrates had no small talk, an essential qualification for corner-boys. The image left to us of Greek architecture is rows of beautifully proportioned pillars on dusty hillsides, where the gods once sat and laughed at mankind. Sometimes the pillars and columns lie in their component parts, shattered and scattered by earthquakes or the relentless force of gravity. Tennyson’s Ulysses says: Yet all experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades forever and forever, when we move. To which his companions may well have asked, ‘What the hell is an arch?
The Romans take the credit for discovering The Arch. The principal is that of two drunks staggering home from the alehouse. They are locked together in mutual amity and esteem, at the shoulders. The weight is thrust downwards and sideways. The footing may not be too secure. Take one away and the other inevitably falls down. The arch is a balance of all these factors. It enabled the Romans to span valleys with aqueducts and viaducts and send armies to dominate the known world.Through this arch, in the Colosseum, you can see some of the remains of Nero’s house. After the expenditure of staggering amounts of treasure and the lives of countless slaves, he was able to say that at last he could live as befitted a human being, in a decent house. The dome is simply a development of the arch. Framed in the arch you can see tourists, who have come to gawk at the place where the Romans enjoyed recreational slaughter and execution.
What tributaries follow him to to Rome, to grace in captive bonds, his chariot wheels? Caesar drew bigger crowds than this. They came to cheer and to marvel at the plunder. The victors processed through triumphal arches, along the Sacred Way. The prisoners were sold into slavery or set to die in the arena on festive days. Admission free. This is the arch of Constantine, not the worst of the emperors. He went for three arches together. He used spolia, salvage, bits of older arches and sculptures, a man after me own heart. You must put a road through it and then walk under it, pointless but no doubt symbolic of something, perhaps birth or rebirth. Everyone likes an arch. We got one by accident.
It began as a bird house on a pole, not Doric or Corinthian, just a wooden pole from John Kingston’s hardware. I’m sure if we had requested an Ionic column, he would have had a couple out in the yard, but we are humble folk, unlike the Caesars. We have never conquered anyone and put them to the sword. We planted a clematis to take the bare look off the pole. The clematis throve and spread. It became necessary to get an arch to support the sudden growth. You can see how conquests can grow into empires, bringing further responsibilities. The arch was a spindly metal thing but it served for a few years.
We had to put a road through it. The clematis was in sore need of a haircut. (Ronald Reagan’s hilarious Irish joke: What Irishman stands outside your back door all winter? Paddy O’ Furniture. Boom, boom!) The arch turned deciduous. We tried spolia , a bit of wavin pipe, a strut from a lobster pot, cable ties. I couldn’t reach the top to give it a good cut. In the triumphal arch building trade, it is necessary to have a good head for heights. A philadelphus shrub grew up to take the weight on one side. The arch existed only in theory. The philadelphus, groaning under the weight, refused to flower. A plan was required. We went to Woodies to buy a barbecue and came home with a sturdy, build it yourself, wooden arch. Construction time 30 mins. The diagram showed two stylised human figures. Their heads, appropriately, were not attached to their shoulders. The plan: construct the arch (30mins) and slip it under the clematis (5 mins).
However, after an hour or so constructing the arch, it became necessary to shorten it, dig some trenches and remove the supporting spolia. The mass of clematis began slowly to sag towards the ground.We became aware of a blackbird sitting on her nest in the depths of the vegetation. She was no more than two feet from the ground. She fled with loud protests to a nearby fence. We couldn’t leave the nest—and the eggs within reach of cats. We set about lifting the entire mass and inserting the arch with the minimum of disturbance (3hours). A sturdy spouse, as indicated on the diagram, is essential, in the absence of slaves. We secured it and waited in some apprehension. She came suddenly, back to her nest. We waited some more. She didn’t forsake it. She is still there, in the thicket, sitting patiently.
She came out this morning for her breakfast. Now, that was a triumph worthy of an arch. The haircut will have to wait.