An evening in Cambridge, a strange phrase in a book, and a man who ran away

Staying in a hotel with nothing to read is not a pleasant experience.  So I decided to drive into Cambridge town centre after work today.

Those familiar with the city will know that such a decision is not idly taken.  The hopeless congestion, caused by two decades of mingled spite and negligence on the part of the city council, means that a traveller risks being stuck in gridlock for an hour.  However I was more fortunate, and 20 minutes later managed to park in the Park Street car park.

It seems that Cambridge does not stop in the evening.  My first port of call was Heffers bookshop, which I was gratified to learn was open until 6pm.  Surely they could sell me a book?

A look in the detective fiction aisle produced nothing.  John Maddox Roberts appears to have ceased producing his “SPQR” novels – the only series on my shelves where I have thrown away the first two volumes but bought all the rest.  Lindsay Davis may still produce her “Falco” novels, but sadly she forgot how to write some years ago now, so they aren’t worth reading.  Stephen Saylor’s “Gordianus the Finder” are too low-life for my taste.

The sci-fi/fantasy aisle was no more productive.  What happened to the books full of vision and aspiration, of struggles that were not wholly vain?  The category has merged with horror, and I have no desire to read the results.

Perhaps something classical will do?  A search in the basement led me to the Loebs, and on display next to them was a curious volume: Robert Knapp’s Invisible Romans, about the lives of ordinary people in ancient Rome.

On the face of it, this was interesting, so I opened the book at random and found myself – inevitably – reading about the woes of a slave’s life.  My eye fell on a familiar quotation, given slightly differently from how I recall it:

Unchastity is a disgrace for the freeborn, a necessity in a slave, and a duty for the freedman.

This was presented as evidence of normal practice; but of course it isn’t.  Seneca (properly referenced, thankfully) gives it as an example of exaggeration, of over-statement to the point of producing mirth among the hearer.

Well, it’s a minor point, and I carried on.  But then (p.137) I read a paragraph describing the routine rape of slaves by their owners which contained the extraordinary sentence:

Nothing in the New Testament speaks out against this sexual abuse.

My first thought was that it must be some time since Mr Knapp has read the New Testament.   But on closer examination I realised that this was awfully like a lawyer’s phrase: something that leaves the reader with the idea that the NT endorses such evil, while providing deniability, to any accusation that this is a lie, by carefully using the words “speak out” instead of “endorse”.   I’d rather not read books that engage in that sort of thing, and so back on the shelf it went.

But while I was attempting to look at the book, another chap wandered up into the same little bay.  After a little while, getting silently in each others’ way, in that embarassed way you do, I murmured apologetically, “Rather small, these bays.”

“Yes they are.  Right, got my three books,” he snapped, and almost ran away, so quickly did he leave!  Poor chap.  Perhaps it isn’t done to speak to strangers in Heffers.

Anyway, I left Heffers empty-handed.   In Waterstones I was luckier – a magazine and a volume of verse fit the bill.  Indeed Waterstones seemed to have better stock, while their unobtrusive air-conditioning was very welcome on what was becoming a very warm evening indeed.  A sandwich from a Subway and I was all set.

But I shall always wonder what that poor chap in Heffers thought I wanted!


Leave a Reply