"YOU’RE NOT LORD BYRON, ARE YOU?"
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
What we learn of history is dependent upon the prejudices of the historian. A Jesuit told me that at school, but he didn’t last long in the order. Later he taught philosophy at Oxford and carried an atheist’s ticket. This memory makes me think of a rippling sea. No, a lake. It’s Lac Léman, and I’m at the Castle of Chillon, years ago, with my old school-friend, Summers. In the dungeon is a celebrated graffito by Lord Byron. I read about his graffito in the guide book. It actually boasted about it: ‘Lord Byron wrote his name on a column in the dungeon in 18…dot…dot…’ The castle was proud to have his signature. On a column, in the dungeon. Lord Byron or George Byron or Byron – I forget which. Anyway, it was there, and the castle authorities were so proud of this signature that they’d stuck a little frame around it. A framed graffito, making it stand out from the others, which is helpful because the walls and columns are covered in graffiti. And, unless you read them all, this frame is the only clue to where Lord Byron’s signature is. (You can almost hear the bureaucrat ordering it at the ministry: ‘One graffito-frame, for the framing of Scottish milord’s signature.’) It’s an important tourist item, this Lord Byron graffito: it makes money. He put it there because he wanted to add his signature to that of François de Bonivard who’d been held prisoner in the castle a few centuries earlier. Lord Byron, a celebrated graffitist, comes along, wallops his name on the column and moves on: it’s a matter of respect. Next century the authorities stick a frame around it. What could be simpler? The thing is, though, what do you do yourself when you visit? Perfectly normal, it seemed to me, to add my own signature – in a humble way, of course. I didn’t know much about Bonivard, but I’d been a fan of Byron’s since the age of fourteen, when the Jesuit told me he died of the clap in Greece. My task was clear. With Summers’ help, I found an empty patch of column at the bottom, round the back. I felt good about it, that it was the right thing to do: history demanded that I got involved and kept the cogs oiled. You have to know how to enter a historical moment, and the way to sieve its intensity. I’d had a healthy respect for graffiti ever since I saw the Emperor Septimius Severus’s name gouged into one of the two Colossi of Memnon years earlier, while Mohammed the donkey boy made a very improper suggestion to me. ‘Why not?’ he reasoned. ‘All the Frenchmen do.’ I beat a hasty retreat and didn’t really get a decent look at Septimius Severus’s handwriting. Now, at Chillon, I took out my knife. And, here I was, humbly adding my name to the throng in Chillon, when I was distracted by an extraordinary tutting sound. ‘Tuttttttt!’ it went. You wouldn’t believe it was possible to get the sound of so many ts into one syllable, with hardly a trace of a vowel. ‘Tuttttttttttt!’ The force of it made me turn round. It echoed through the dungeon and flew about like a bat. ‘Tutttttttttttttt’ A middle-aged couple were standing in the shadows, scowling at me. Half-lit as they were, I felt they could have been from anywhere in Europe, disapproval personified. One of them had made the sound: impossible to say which, as a sound like that knew no gender. But it had a cosmopolitan ring to it which said, ‘You and Summers are vandals’. Summers rose to the challenge. ‘It’s all right,’ he said charmingly. ‘Lord Byron did it.’ One of them replied, I forget which, in a North of England voice: ‘Well, you’re not Lord Byron, are you?’ This had a terrific logic to it, and I wondered if Lord Byron had experienced the same thing when he’d gouged his name on the column. Perhaps a passing Walloon had gone ‘Tuttttttt!’ at him. ‘It’s all right,’ Lord Byron would have said. ‘François de Bonivard did it.’ ‘Well you’re not François de Bonivard, are you?’ Perhaps it even happened to Bonivard as he lay there in chains, scraping his name onto the column. He probably outraged a fellow prisoner who was due for execution next day. Maybe someone even had a go at the Emperor Septimius Severus, or perhaps Mohammed the donkey boy’s ancestor tried to get him to do something improper up against the Colossus, saying, ‘Go on, all the Phoenicians do.’ History’s a curious thing. I don’t know much about it. What I do know is that without it, and people like Lord Byron, that Swiss bureaucrat would never have had to put in a request for a graffito-frame. It was probably the most exciting event of his career. And I, who have spent a lifetime chasing after the memory of emperors and poets, would have had far less to think about on my travels while dodging people like Mohammed the donkey boy with varying degrees of success.