News from the Forum: What did we ever do for the Romans?

LEADENHALL Market is a bit subdued these days, barely kept afloat by the reporters and occasional camera team who head there to update us on the pandemic-driven decline of the City of London.

Covid-weary hacks seeking insights from lippy millennials about the government’s latest indeciferable directive will naturally gravitate to Soho’s Old Compton Street around closing time.

To gauge the response of equally lippy retailers, however, they’ve taken to heading for Leadenhall, the grumbling ground zero of the Square Mile.

Sky, the BBC and the Standard have all visited and the Daily Mail has been round at least twice, latterly to chronicle the backlash over the government’s “chaotic new rules”.

It’s an appropriate place to sound out the vox populi since the market and its surroundings were at the dead centre of Roman London. If there had been a Radio Londinium around during the 2nd century Antonine Plague, no doubt its hacks would have headed to the neighbourhood.

Now, THAT was a pandemic! It swept across the empire from the Middle East and killed up to a third of the population in areas hardest hit. Londinium, a port and an important garrison, was particularly vulnerable.

The population declined as many fled. But for some it was a plus. Wealth became concentrated in fewer hands and the rich built ever larger and flashier town houses. The locals took to worshipping Apollo, the god of medicine and healing.

It was bad timing for a pandemic. The Romans had only a few decades earlier put the finishing touches to a new Forum, the second largest north of the Alps, with a basilica taller than Wren’s St Paul’s.

And, of course, it had a market, although it wasn’t yet called Leadenhall. If Roman remains elsewhere are anything to go by, it would have been heavy on fast food and takeaway.

You can almost imagine the intern from the Daily Londinium being sent down there to hear the lentil stew and spiced wine seller griping about the impact of the latest imperial anti-plague measures on walk-in trade.

There are remnants of the Roman age all over modern London, including bits of wall in the cellars of Leadenhall, most of it buried under centuries of subsequent development.

I’m just about old enough to remember the excitement when builders dug up the remains of a Temple of Mithras. Mind you, there wasn’t much else to get excited about in 1954 London.

The temple remains are now displayed in the bowels of the new Bloomberg building in Cannon Street. Worth a visit, although maybe a bit too son et lumière.

Underneath the Guildhall are the remains of an amphitheatre where up to 6,000 people could go to watch animal fights, gladiators and public executions.

Given the extent of this cultural treasure house, it’s amazing how little the Romans intrude into the London psyche. Maybe it’s because, unlike in Rome itself, or Nime or Trier, most of it is underground.

London goes weak at the knees when it recalls the city of Chaucer, Pepys or Dickens. But when it comes to the Romans, the attitude is very much: “What did the Romans ever do for us?”

It’s as if the poor old Romans were not so much forebears as interlopers, even though they founded the city and named it long before England was invented.

Then, as now, a lot of the inhabitants came from somewhere else. There were native Celts and Africans, Germanic mercenaries and slaves, Syrian merchants, Jews and early Christians (the latter tended to get lumped together), maybe even a few Italians.

Multicultural London, demonised by the self-imagined descendants of those Johnny-come-lately Anglo-Saxons, is definitely not a new phenomenon.

The Empire declined, the legions left, and London was abandoned. But, centuries later, once the continental newcomers had settled in and overcome their early obsession with Chelsea, they repopulated the Forum.

Leadenhall resumed its role as a central market. The poulterers and cheesemongers moved in. In the 15th century London Mayor Dick Whittington (yet another incomer) took a lease out on the place.

Its present incarnation is the handiwork of Horace Jones, the 19th century architect who also gave us Tower Bridge, a pastiche of a Scottish baronial castle that is London’s current identifying icon.

In normal times, Leadenhall is a hangout for Lloyd’s insurance brokers who work just around the corner. I confess it’s not my favourite market. There are a couple of decent pubs but there are too many chintzy shops and not enough poultry and cheese.

Anyway, it’s likely to overcome our present travails. There was an extended shutdown after about 400 AD but Leadenhall is still with us despite the grumbles.

Stop press: I’m Covid-negative. No, I didn’t ask for a test. No, I didn’t need it. At a time when families are being sent on 500-mile round trips to get a swab, I got mine unsolicited through the post.

It’s for some government-backed trial or other. I’m happy to help out, but a mate who did a rival trial got a 50 quid voucher. What did I get? Zilch!

Murder in the cathedral: Praise the Lord and heed the Rule of Six

HOW are you coping with the Rule of Six?

It would be a great book title, wouldn’t it? Maybe an early Agatha Christie, or a lost manuscript by Conan Doyle, or even one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series if you count their part-time friend Jo.

It definitely beats the other updated diktat: Hands, Face, Space. I doubt that would sell many copies.

Before that, it was Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives, slammed by PR experts as unhelpful, vague and open to interpretation. So what’s next? Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-Daisy?

As we approach the half-year anniversary of anti-Covid measures, at least it’s good to know the great British public remains united – if only by their widely shared confusion.

In the interests of that same public I decided to stick my nose out of the door to check that everyone was abiding by the new rules. Within yards, I bumped into a group of a dozen or so co-workers outside City Hall receiving a briefing from the bloke in charge, no doubt about social distancing in the office.

But the real shocker awaited me just down the road. There I encountered almost a score of Anglican divines rubbing cassocks in the precincts of Southwark Cathedral (today’s picture).

They weren’t carrying shotguns, so they can’t have been hunting grouse, a mandated exception to the government’s Rule of Six. Perhaps they had just nipped out for a fag break mid-service. I was tempted to have a word, but as they were mob-handed I decided discretion was the better part of valour.

Better surely to nip home and study the Rule before laying down the law.

The Cabinet Office has helpfully boiled down its latest catch phrase to just over 400 words. You can apparently still go to a wedding or a funeral or “other religious and belief-based life cycle ceremonies”. Perhaps the Southwark vicars were involved in one of the latter. Or maybe they all live in the same clerical bubble.

I suppose that before we get too animated about transgressions of the Rule of Six, we should recall the Rule of One – don’t snitch!

So keep today’s revelation to yourselves. I don’t want the law dumping on the diocese.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary – yes, you read that right – has said she would call the police to report neighbours she discovered flouting the restrictions. Patel says families should not stop to chat to other families if they bump into them in the street because it was “absolutely minglin’.”

Boris Johnson made it even more confusing by slapping her down as a “sneak” and saying you should first have a quiet word with the offenders. Good luck with that round here! Who’d risk a showdown with the local vicar?

I suppose there’s a bit of the curtain-twitcher in all of us and all these rules have only made it worse. Hands up if you’ve harrumphed at the bloke who sailed into the corner shop without his mask or if you’ve glared at a gang of teens yacking it up in the local park.

None of us is immune. I was in Waterloo at the weekend where a growing flock of cackling henpartyers gathered in force before heading to some mass gathering in The Cut.

Some old pensioner was grumbling into his collar about “thoughtless young floozies…no better than they ought to be…skirts smaller than their face masks”. Then I realised to my horror it was me!

Curtain up: Support your local thespians

DEAR diary. This week I went to the theatre to see the actor Ralph Fiennes in a very short play. My luvvy friends say you have to call him “Rafe” because he’s quite posh, even though he was born in Ipswich.

The play, called Beat The Devil, was at the Bridge Theatre, which like all theatres that have plays with no songs or dances in them, is also quite posh.

It was written by David Hare and was about him catching Covid before the lockdown and what happened next.

They said it would last 50 minutes but it was over in 45, which either means Rafe forgot a bit or was talking too fast. Anyway, it was good fun, although David Hare was quite rude about Boris Johnson.

“A spirited expression of…righteous anger,” the Guardian said. I knew David slightly at what young people now call “Uni”. He was also quite posh and actually quite righteous but not yet very angry. But that was long before he caught the bug.

The seats cost £30 pounds each, which is about 66p a minute. But can you put a price on art? You can’t really value a play or a concert as you would, say, a burger and chips, which is probably why that nice Mr Sunak opted to halve the price of the latter.

That’s all over now of course and many restaurants and cafes are once again empty from Monday to Wednesday. Although maybe that’s just because the bargain-hunting gourmands have finally gone back to work.

Another posh actor, Vanessa Redgrave, who’s also often righteous and sometimes angry, says private businesses should help restore theatre and the arts to what they were before the pandemic.

“We have to save everybody!” la Redgrave implored. “We have to save the arts for everybody.”

Let’s hope that they at least save The Bridge, not least because it’s local, near the south side of Tower Bridge.

It only opened in 2017 and would seat 900 in pre-social distancing days. For the time being they’ve cleared out most of the seats and only 250 can attend a performance, which meant that at this week’s matinée the sea of white hair that usually occupies the stalls was sparser than usual.

Compulsory masks also meant the usual pre-curtain braying was reduced to a muffled hum and there was no crackle of Ferrero Rocher wrappers or sucking of Werthers Originals once the play began.

I’m not trying to say the London theatre always attracts the same sort, or demographic as they now call it, but let’s just say it’s less mixed than in the old playgoing days for which south London was famous.

The Globe and The Rose were just up the road in Shakespeare’s day and they let in all sorts, from the hoi polloi in the open-air pit to the toffs in the gallery.

During the 1606 season the Globe and all other London theatres were closed because of the plague. The crisis spelled the end of Shakespeare’s companies of boy actors and started a trend towards winter seasons held indoors, once theatres re-opened. That gave scope for more intimate Shakespearean scenes and more discriminating, and perhaps less rowdy audiences.

Vanessa’s probably right when she says the arts should be for everybody. Add that to your post-pandemic resolutions.

One of the treats at school was when they regularly took us little south London oiks to the Old Vic, also local. We’d sit up in the gods and giggle through Hamlet or Macbeth or something similar.

And it cost just half-a crown. For younger readers, that was one-eighth of a pound, the equivalent in those days to the price of a pint of beer or a packet of 20 cigarettes.

These days, one expensive minute at The Bridge costs the same as a single cigarette. Don’t smoke then, I hear you cry. But how, in that case, would you manage without the more than £10 billion a year in tobacco taxes?

If you’ve been wondering who has kept the economy going during the lockdown, it wasn’t Rishi Sunak – it was me!