Every place has a spirit.
The Romans had a name for it: the Genius Loci. I found a spirit of place whilst pottering around the Corinium Museum at Cirencester.
Youthful, curly-haired, this is the spirit of Sheep Street, Cirencester; that is where he was found, at any rate. But they are all over the old Roman empire, these minor spirits: there’s one in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, a wall frieze in the sacred part of the house, the Lararium. Volcanoes had them, theatres,vineyards, festivals.
These minor Roman deities seem, from this great temporal distance, companionable. They sit on chars or gaze out from colourful friezes in the most benign manner. They are personal to a place, and so they must be deities which are intrinsically homely, mustn’t they? Though crossing one would be deeply inadvisable.
Which makes me a little uneasy, because our Genus Loci must be disoriented and displeased.For five years we have bumbled along in a house which needed work. And our bumbling wore the house down further. And I began to think, oh, we couldn’t possibly have anyone to stay with our dark red carpets and pine cladding and patchwork assortment of floors.
This year the showers began to go on strike. One by one, each bathroom began to give up the ghost, to pack up its troubles and refuse to play any more. It was trying, but even though bits of it were packing up week on week, it was home, and our Genius Loci knew precisely where he was.
But he watched askance as the builders arrived, finally, after much scheming. And these builders, they’re good. They’re great. But they don’t spare the Genus Loci. No offerings to our frazzle-headed, deeply confused deity, and no place for him to go. How shall I count the ways we have confused him?
1.Every bathroom and the kitchen are invaded.
2.The garden is full of stuff: recyclable wood, toilets, basins, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It is not a verdant sanctuary. Though in honesty it has always had its fair share of clapped-out bikes and overstuffed mildewing sheds.
3. The flooring is up so our poor Genius’s chapped feet must walk on concrete, right the way through the ground floor.
4.A log-burner and chimney have sprouted overnight. Freudian, but the genius is much older than Freud and hasn’t got much time for him.
5. The place-dwellers have alienated the Genius’s cat, the traditional pet of the Spirit of Place, who has opted for another place all together.
The Genius coloured a little as they uncovered the fact that our kitchen was partially built on sand. Not my fault, his demeanour emanated. I can’t help the decisions you humans make about your places.
Still, he wasn’t sure about number 6, the new concrete floor. So final, somehow.
7. Walls have disappeared. Rooms that were are no more.
8. A pet window of the genius’s, blocked up inside a wall, has been discovered, marvelled at and removed for scrap.
9. The drive is filled with recyclable plunder: all belonging to our Genius, and being carried off like so many prisoners of war.
10. There is absolutely no way to get a decent cup of tea.
This evening we stood with the bewildered air that is becoming habit now, amongst the boxes of tiles and kitchen cupboard carcasses. And I am sure I glimpsed our Genius Loci at the bottom of the garden, his back turned to our place and his in utter disgruntlement.
And I longed for us all to be friends again.
But how does one mollify a genius loci who has been pestered and remodelled out of his house?