the crosby mask

First published in The Herald on 18 September 2010.

Parliament has begun again: the Prime Minister brought us back for an extra two-week session. A number of my male colleagues have returned on crutches and in plaster casts. I have sat in debates on everything from the constitution (fixed term parliaments) to Equitable Life. I gave a speech in a five-hour debate on troops. The committees are active: cross-examining Cabinet Ministers and interrogating the head of BP about the oil spill. I’ve had an average of ten meetings a day: from discussing a sports hall in Cumbria and seeing a group of fifteen Irish travellers, to serving as an officer in a committee on rural services.

But it still feels a little strange to come down to parliament from Cumbria. Things may be controversial here – like some of the new community projects in Eden; or difficult – like trying to work out a good future for Newton Rigg; or involve many groups and companies – like installing broadband for rural areas. But they are concrete – you can see the effect. In parliament and in particular in the debating chamber the ritual and the tradition is so strong that is often difficult to see the result.

The best thing about going back turns out to be the people. I hadn’t always liked what I saw of politicians from the outside. But I find them, in reality, relaxed, impressive and human. There doesn’t seem to be any standard model. My friend Philip is a GP who wants to be an astronaut. Nick was the director of a paint business. Bob was an infantry colonel. I talked today with a farmer, a Serbo-Croat speaker and an SAS veteran. One MP can recite a two hundred line poem by TS Eliot. About thirty of them seem to have written books. Others have deep practical experience as businessmen or teachers. Almost everyone seems to be hard-working, punctual and reliable. None of this is, of course, any guarantee of being a good politician – but it makes for good colleagues. And some of them, thank goodness, are very funny – which takes courage in a place where everyone is watching what you say – and does wonders for keeping all of us sane.

I am now on my way back to Penrith for our broadband conference. This afternoon, however, I saw a piece of Cumbria in London: the Roman helmet which was found this May by a metal-detector in a field by Crosby Garrett. Although it is two thousand years old and the top was found in more than thirty pieces, the face seems perfect, bar a slight dent, like a dimple, on the tip of his nose. The patina on the bronze back is like old green cracked leather, the mask shines white. It was worn only for ceremonial cavalry displays. At first I thought it odd that such an expensive luxury had been brought, two thousand miles to the frontier and wondered whether it was an eccentric exception. But a hundred years ago, another was excavated in the Scottish border and two hundred years ago, one was found in Lancashire. They have flat tops while the Crosby Garret helmet has a great foot high rearing Eastern cap, topped by a griffin. The others look fierce and impersonal. But this is troublingly human. The small lips are slightly parted. The face is a little fat with a soft chin. Thick unruly curls escapes from under his cap. He looks very young –  little more than sixteen  – but very serious. One wide eye is focused on the scene in front but the other seems to look into another world. He is more like a priest than a warrior.

When the other Roman cavalrymen cantered onto the field to join the display in their own shining metal masks, they would have noticed this one. Were they impressed? Or would they have thought the wearer was showing off? Much must have depended on who wore it. It is tempting to assume that he looked like his mask: a very young, perhaps slightly over-protected, son of Rome sent out with this fancy expensive gear on his first trip to the frontier. But why should the wearer resemble his mask? He might have been a wizened veteran commanding the fort at Brough; or serving with the cavalry by Carlisle. Why is it topped by a cap from what is now the Iranian frontier? There were it seems Syrian Archers then at Kirkby Thore, so was the owner also from the Middle East? Or was it just fashion? Or a joke? And what does all his incredible expense and fashion: these bizarre costumes for ritualistic horse maneuvers – suggest about life not far from Crosby Garret two thousand years ago. And what made him leave this very expensive thing behind? Who folded it and placed it face down in the Cumbrian mud? And most importantly how are we going to try to keep it for Cumbria?


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