I live on the edge of the Empire. Indeed there is a centurion at the end of my street still guarding in silence the ancient frontier. Most believe that those pesky Romans only made it as far as Northumberland and, giving up the ghost, built Hadrian’s Wall. But, no, twenty years later in around AD 142, they pushed on northwards into Scotland and then, I like to think, met their match. The match however was probably not an indomitable Scottish people with their faces painted blue, but rather the even more indomitable Scottish weather.

When they had gone as far as they dared, they built another, less famous wall, named after a less famous Emperor, Antoninus Pius. Unlike his predecessor’s, Antonine’s wall was a rampart built of earth, turf and wood, but a fearsome barrier nevertheless. A gouging ditch, or vallum, is all that remains of the wall in places, while in others there is no trace left of the line at all. Occasionally this ditch is still 12 m wide and 3 m deep. As you drive from Glasgow to Falkirk and Stirling you will find yourself crossing back and forth across the ‘wall’ and the train to Edinburgh ploughs right through it.

On my side of the wall we are free of imperial rule, but we do not enjoy the protection of empire or their roads. On the other side of the ditch lies an uninterrupted view stretching to the coasts of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. On my side, there are only the lowland hills of Scotland, but there is also a smugness that this is where they were forced to stop.

Frontiers matter and knowing where the line is can make the difference between knowledge and ignorance; style and folly. In truth, even when we know there is a line it may be difficult to discern, just like my Roman wall today. When we are learning to write, we spend a lot of time trying to navigate the line between good and bad—between the dull and the overblown, the crisp and the limp. We may be able to identify when the line has been crossed when we are reading the work of others. We may know that a literary crime has been committed, but we may not be able to define at what exact moment the line was crossed. And when we write ourselves, we seem to have even greater difficulty walking the line, stumbling off it into the gutter like a drunk under test. To save you from yourself, never underestimate the value of a trusted reader. A fresh, objective pair of eyes can tell you where you’ve got your feet wet and can help you back on the kerb.

As in writing, we can also end up off track in our thinking. The business of discovery is one that requires a lot of effort and occasional inspiration, but here too there are lines that should not be crossed. In our enthusiasm we may stray into the realms of conjecture, unjustified by any supporting evidence. We may also allow emotion to temper our inventiveness and steer us away from rigour.

Paradoxically, however, acknowledgement that there is an edge may make us more adventurous. A line need not be a limit, but a guide. There is ample distance that can be travelled to the edge and we should make full use of the space we can fill. Fear of the line should not limit our approach to it—huddled at the centre our view will be obscured, our horizon smaller and ultimately our thinking diminished.

I live on a line, but that line today is blurred and all that remains are the memories scarring the land, and that statue of the centurion. He stands looking towards his Empire, not to the unconquered hills behind. I often think he must be sad and homesick and suffering the damp pain of cold in his sandalled feet. A Roman’s garb is far from adequate for this part of the world. Stationed here, on the edge of his world, he must have wondered what exactly he had done to deserve such a posting. Spain, the Sorth of France, Turkey—even the fleshpots of Rome itself—were all in the recruitment brochure. And he gets Cumbernauld. But, here he stands, guarding an empire that has long since fallen, perhaps unaware of the news from Rome, but eternally aware of a line that must not be crossed.

© Allan Gaw 2014

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