Ovid in Exile by Simon Withers

A swan on water making ripples.
Photo credit: Simon Withers.

Publius Ovidius Naso, known simply as Ovid was a Latin poet of the Roman Empire. Banished from Rome by decree of the emperor Augustus in 8 AD, Ovid spent the remainder of his life in the remote town of Tomis (1). The reasons for Ovid’s exile are uncertain; Ovid considered the cause was both, ‘a poem and an error’. The poem has been identified as ‘Ars Amatoria’...and of the error? I would suggest (for the inquisitive) that it is worth reading the various possibilities on offer.

Whatever the beautiful lie and the terrible truth about Ovid in exile, I have had cause (for some four or five years now) to contemplate my émigré. For three years I have been describing my own state as, ‘the self in exile’, I am living in an open prison without distraction or falsehood. This is a non-place in which I am judge, jury and executioner. Inside these walls and without boundaries I have time to self-reflect and ruminate. Time and again I face myself with the full dreadfulness of my wrongdoings. The more I meditate, so the ceaseless verdict is extended, I am held in limbo and the sentence before me shall be increased. For my want of relationality, my dreadful state, this my present being, this condition and this selfish “I”, “I” who longs to be relative to other yet remains in purgatory and seeks to climb out of this hole. I examine this absurd and destined life to be akin to climbing a mountain, solo and without a rope to be hanged with...I have learned only this much, I shall afford you sufficient rope so that you may hang me with it! This mountain is both a void and a tower; whilst one is climbing one is seeking the summit, one is also plotting the decent!

Many years ago I had the intention of writing a fictitious history of a mountain called Mount Capitalist (2). I had written over twenty thousand words and abandoned the endeavour out of necessity. The title for the book was, ‘Vultures Drop Heavy Roses’ and today I recall that, should I still be at work and providing a spot talk, I would have been delivering one this Friday on the work of Sung Tieu. Utilising this same title the talk would have been a meditation on propaganda and psychological contest in times of peace and conflict.

Where does one start a blog? I have never written one before and recently it has been suggested that, using the photographs of swans that I have been taking since a traumatic September 2019, I should write one. Nottingham Contemporary has given me the opportunity to give it a go...it is appreciated that what I will write and what I produce is very much wanted. I hope that as this blog unfolds the reader may take something from what is presented herewith.

The writing of this blog and the analogous perils of climbing a metaphorical or real mountain are not lost on me...Daumal will be my guide (3)! I should start at the very beginning as Julie Andrews suggests...it would be a very good place to start (4). So said the Devil to Stanley Moon, Just say out loud the magic words to commence...Julie Andrews (5)...however, I am not starting at the very beginning so, as instructed to Stanley by George Spiggot in order to break free of the want. I shall blow a raspberry.

I am caught within two time traps, the exile of years past and now this new sentence, one, which is served upon countless billions of people around the world. Called ‘self-isolation’, I may have cause to speculate as to its impact upon any individual’s mental wellbeing. We are asked through our own volition to show restraint, in how closely we cohabit spaces and how we interact with each other, how we may be able to help, support, encourage and nurture one another in these oh so difficult times.


I have a love of the citation and of the footnotes and to which I thank Edward Gibbon for bringing these to my attention. I will add that, as I was writing the book on Mount Capitalist I frequently had far more footnotes to a page than the main body of text.

1) Tomis would be renamed Constanta by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in honour of the half sister Constantia. Situated on the Black Sea Tomis is the oldest continually inhabited city in Romania.

2) A complex mountain mass in the Pan-European range between Switzerland, Germany and Italy. This range of mountains offers climbers some of the finest rock climbing in Europe. Mount Capitalist has three spectacular and demanding faces up to the summit. A forth route up to the summit, Kuklin’s Ladder has a long unrelenting scramble climb over scree. At 3030m a false summit is reached and from this point the mountain becomes an all-together different beast, requiring a high degree of expertise and experience to reach the summit. It is by Kuklin’s Ladder on the south face of Mount Capitalist that makes the mountain accessible to most climbers. It is to be noted that the south face is deceiving as it has a reputation of claiming a disproportionate number of fatalities to the more severe principle faces of Mount Capitalist. It is not a mountain for novices.

‘You have to respect the mountain, you have to caress it; not climb it like you would climb the stairs in a Parisian brothel.’
(Charlotte Kuklin)

3) See Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal (1952)

4) Julie Andrews

“Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”

Do Re Mi - Sound of Music (1965)

Maria is a free-spirited postulant with whom her love is of music and mountains. Maria is failing miserably at becoming an apprentice nun. Her youthful enthusiasm, lack of discipline and her great sense of longing, Maria is not cutting it as a nun and subsequently is sent away by the Mother Superior to Salzburg...personal and internal conflicts become intermingled with national and international concerns.

5) See the Faustian retelling in Bedazzled the 1967 film starting Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Image credit: Simon Withers

Photograph taken: 01.04.2020

This was the last photograph taken of the day.

The Mute swan is identified as “Swanny B”

Location: The Ironmongers Ponds

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