Time, novels and ancient Rome

On Naseeb’s birthday holding time and lighting up his love of books, ancient Rome and our complex and beautiful world.

by Balwant, Naseeb’s mother

It’s daffodil flowering time of year again.  In a previous post we mentioned that when Naseeb was little he would tell people his birthday was when the daffodils come out.  On this which would have been Naseeb’s 25th birthday, and the 4th birthday since he died, daffodils are flowering including under his memorial tree.

Time has warped since Naseeb died.  Often I find myself watching the past whilst trying to exist in the present.  Particularly at tender times of the year like when it’s Naseeb’s birthday, the anniversary of his passing away and the end of the year.  I become subdued and go into a vortex of my own thoughts, whilst the world carries on around me.  Losing Naseeb has been all consuming.  The words of Italo Calvino from his novel Invisible Cities come to mind:

“You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.”

Invisible Cities is a series of conversations between a fictitious Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.  It’s a philosophical work of poetic prose that explores the complex physical, mental and imaginary spaces we can inhabit. 

Whilst watching Manchester International Festival’s (MIF) production of Invisible Cities last summer, I kept feeling that Naseeb would have enjoyed seeing it too.  Actually, I imagined watching it with him.  The production was spellbinding.  It combined drama, movement and dance (Rambert dancers from across the world) and CGI projected onto fabric.  Performed in the round within the architectural space of Mayfield Depot (a former railway depot), with a canal constructed to flow through the stage.  I remembered Naseeb observing, when he worked at Z-Arts on reception, that he could always spot a dancer walking in because their movements are so light they “glide in”.

Naseeb and I shared a love of reading and theatre.  One of the last theatre productions I saw with him was The Last Days of Troy at the Royal Exchange Theatre in 2014.  Naseeb was eager to see it and booked the tickets himself whilst I was at work.  I was impressed when he phoned to say we had seats for that evening!  During the interval, because I was confused about the plot and characters, he patiently and clearly explained to me the story of Helen of Troy as he’d studied classics at school and vividly remembered the stories. 

My beautiful son had a sharp memory, creative imagination and loved stories.  Throughout his life Naseeb always had a book on the go and even though he might have a few books on the go at the same time, he could always remember what page he was on and never used bookmarks.  He thought bookmarks were a faff.  Naseeb started reading at a young age and could read very fast.  So he got through a lot of novels and a variety of genres.  He had a fun and witty sense of humour, one of the earliest books Naseeb loved was The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle.

Growing up, he quickly worked his way through books by writers such as Anthony Horowitz, Eoin Colfer, Garth Nix, Jamila Gavin, Richmal Crompton (Just William series), Julia Jarman, Gerald Durrell, Benjamin Zephaniah, J.K. Rowling, Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Cycle), Trudi Canavan, Isabelle Allende, Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), Paulo Coelho, Joanne Harris (Chocolat during a holiday in France when he’d run out of other books to read), Stieg Larsson (The Millennium Trilogy), Dan Brown, Yann Martel, George R. R. Martin, Bernard Cornwell, Sebastian Faulks, Mohsin Hamid, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, Janny Wurts, Steven Erikson and the Amar Chitra Katha series of over 40 graphic Heritage of India stories.

Buying books together at airports before we went on holiday was a ritual we both enjoyed.  It was also an opportunity for Naseeb to challenge his reading repertoire, being faced with a limited number of books to choose from before travelling. 

One series of books which Naseeb became immersed in as a child leading up to his teens was The Roman Mysteries series written by Caroline Lawrence.  It’s a series of 17 historical novels for children set in the ancient Roman Empire from AD79 to AD81.  I read them during the year and half we were preparing for Naseeb’s inquest.  For me it was a window into an imaginary mind space that Naseeb had visited for a while.  And by stepping into a world that he had spent time in, I was able to connect with a sense of his being without real time intruding. 

The books are about the adventures of four detective children who solve mysteries and have adventures.  The detectives are Flavia (daughter of a sea captain), Jonathan (son of a Jewish/Christian doctor), Nubia (an African ‘freed’ slave girl) and Lupus (a Greek mute beggar boy).  The novels are well researched and illuminate what it might have been like to live in the Roman Empire.  They also explain Roman and Greek mythology and each book includes maps, plans and diagrams plus a glossary of Roman terms, Latin words and historical facts. 

The children live in Ostia Antica which was once the port of Rome.  However over the series they travel throughout the Roman Empire including Rome, the Bay of Naples, Greek islands and through Delphi and Athens in Greece.  They also travel across north Africa and the Sahara desert through Libya, Morocco, Alexandria in Egypt and up the river Nile into Hierapolis in Turkey – where white travertine terraces with thermal springs cascade from the rim of a steep valley.

Our last holiday with Naseeb was visiting Rome for 2 weeks in 2015.  We took a day trip to the remains of Ostia Antica which to me looked like a lot of ruins with a few tangible pieces that alluded to the town it once was. 

I now understand that for Naseeb it would have been a place where his imagination suddenly found endless structures to play through.  So we spent a whole day in this place wandering through every nook and cranny at Naseeb’s insistence when I thought we would most likely only spend a couple of hours!

The mysteries involve theft, murder, assassins, pirates, kidnapping, enslavement, quest for a magical jewel and political intrigue at the highest levels between emperors and senators.  The children witness the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, meet Pliny (a Roman author, naturalist and admiral) and free slave children.

The action in Rome includes the opulent Golden House of Emperor Nero, the opening games of the Coliseum, behind the scenes of gladiator fights, rearing racehorses and chariot racing at Circus Maximus.  As plague and fire sweeps through Rome there is a hospital established on Isola Tiberina, an island in the middle of the River Tiber which runs through central Rome.  There is still a hospital on this island.

The stories explain how Roman cities, society and its households were organised.  The variety of cuisine and role of poetry, music and oratory skills with hand gestures.  The importance of public baths as communal places which had steam rooms, massage chambers and cold pools.  Procedures and etiquette of a Roman court and the work of scribes, especially in the library of Alexandria.  There is friendship, love, loss and an exploration of the challenges faced by girls and women in a patriarchal society.

Reading these windows into a tiny part of what influenced Naseeb’s growing up helped me to catch some  inspiration from his rich insights and unique way of being able to mix realism, imagination and knowledge with playful intuition.  Naseeb was a sharp strategic thinker who observed, thought about and cared deeply for this world.  The year he died we had a dinner party at Easter (2016).  He was convinced Donald Trump would become president of the USA, much to everyone’s consternation around the table.  We all said that can’t possibly happen and Naseeb thought we were foolish for being complacent about Trump being a serious candidate. 

Later that year, after he died and time warped, Trump was elected.  Over the years Naseeb had also talked about Boris Johnson being much smarter than he ever let’s on, when acting the buffoon.  A bit like the Roman emperor Claudius who remained in power for 13 years.  Naseeb had grown up watching Boris Johnson on programmes like Have I Got News For You and his view was Boris is someone to keep a sharp eye on. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and about the values which support stable, caring and equitable societies.  Along with how we have come to know that suicides are preventable and that Naseeb was actively looking for help, as a first year student, at university during the last month of his life.  We have joined the ranks of those working hard to generate change towards prevention for as many people as possible.  In this complex and beautiful world with many physical, mental and imaginary spaces, where sometimes time can warp.

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One thought on “Time, novels and ancient Rome”

  1. A beautiful tribute to a fine young man whose interests and sympathies were wide and deep and which you shared. Naseeb was a sensitive and thoughtful person in his concern for others and for the world. The daffodils around his tree are a lovely reminder of him on his birthday.

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