A sense of proportion
In “Mrs Dalloway” when an unhappy young woman takes her shell-shocked husband to a clinic, the psychiatrist declares that he is not mad, he just lacks a sense of proportion. Virginia Woolf is generally considered a grim heavyweight novelist but personally I have always found her work irresistably comic and full of exhilarating caustic irony, of which this incident I quote here is a prime example.
I bought this copper Roman coin in the Spitalfields Market in 1997 to remind me to keep a sense of proportion. It only cost £2.30 and, with the millenium approaching, I wanted a thousand-year-old item to give me a sense of chronological perspective. When I took it to the British Museum, they told me it was in fact fourth century, made here at the time of the Emperor Arcadius and of very little value. You can see Arcadius’ head on the coin in the picture above, he was among the earliest emperors to rule from Constantinople, a minor emperor. I was delighted to learn that on the reverse is Minerva, the goddess of wisdom – this suited my aspiration well.
Most interesting, was to discover that the piercing of the coin at the back of the head was original. The custom was for lovers to wear them as tokens of affection, keepsakes. Since then, I have worn it round my neck every day on a leather thong and never ceased to wonder who wore it here in Britain all those years ago and what was the story. This coin and I have now have innumerable stories that I would like to tell the original owner. I was wearing it in New York on 11th September 2001 and again in Holborn on 7th July 2005. There was the time I stepped from the ocean on a remote beach at the western end of Cuba in 1998 to discover the wallet containing my money, cards, passport and tickets was stolen. The only coin I had left was this one.
At the time I bought the coin in the market, they were excavating the Roman cemetery in Spitalfields that now lies beneath the new development. The antiquarian John Stow described how in 1576, in a brick-field near the Spital-churchyard, there were discovered Roman funeral urns, containing copper coins of Claudius, Vespasian, Antoninus Pius and Trajan. It is possible that my coin was from that cemetery.
In 2006, I added the two gold wedding rings that my mother had worn up until her death. One was her own wedding ring and the other was her mother’s. I have never worked out which is which but since my grandfather was a bank manager whereas my father was an engineer working on the shop floor, I assume that the thicker one was my grandmother’s and the other was my mother’s.
These rings are a powerful reminder of how I came to be, my personal relationship to the passage of time as I understand it, through the succession of generations in my family. Wearing the rings beside the Roman coin affords a broader perspective, setting family history against the span of history itself. The function of these keepsakes is to help me hold these thoughts in mind, to sustain me in the constant human struggle to maintain a sense of proportion.