Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

And weave but nets to catch the wind

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously yesterday, about the internet. One thought is to be celebrated, two at the same time is a rare occurrence.

Firstly it occurred to me that this thing that we are feverishly blogging onto; this thing we confidently upload the 9,999th recipe for cheese-and-tomato-quiche onto or inform as to the 999 household uses for lemon juice; this thing we publish our ground-breaking scientific treatises onto; on which we proclaim our political and religious fervour; on which we write our life stories and record the least and most interesting details of daily lives – would be the major, if not the only historical ‘source’ in years to come.

I imagine them, our historians, a thousand years hence – maybe tiptoeing the scorched remains of some nuclear disaster; teeming half-blind in some low-lit underground city or maybe – just maybe – cavorting joyfully in some green paradise containing faithful genetic reproductions/fanciful re-imaginings of all the creatures our own generation is hunting to extinction, polluting or crowding out of existence.  Here a snow leopard. There a unicorn.

But how those future professors and  graduate students will enjoy studying us, and what an unprecedented amount of material they will have to work on! Not for them, fragments of a scroll found in a cave. Not for them the copperplate of workhouse records, faded to brown. Not for them the clue in the place name, crumbled walls beneath the soil, letters complete or redacted. They will have…this.

That is, if this still exists (second thought). Will there still be electricity a thousand years hence? Will people still know how to write code? Will the phrase “Error 502 Bad Gateway” mean any more to them than it does to me? Who knows what technologies we are capable of destroying, in our foolishness.

We have done it so many times before, that’s the trouble. In 48 BCE (troublesome E – what’s that for?) or thereabouts someone, possibly Julius Caesar, set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most wonderful libraries in the ancient world. In those days knowledge was stored on papyrus scrolls. They burn nicely. What arcane material might have been recorded on those scrolls? We will never know.

Books have been burnt for as long as there have been books, and idiots who think that freedom of thought and the paper it is written down on are one and the same thing:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.”

And on a smaller scale – Jane Austen’s precious letters, redacted or destroyed by her well-meaning sister Cassandra. Interestingly, Jane herself may have helped Cassandra decide which passages to excise. In an age when letters would have been read aloud to the family, Jane would underline those passages which were for her sister’s eyes only, and Cassandra would skip over these when reading. There is even a mention of this system in Pride and Prejudice. What trust people must have had in one another.

austen

And yet information continues to be passed down, and presumably the way this happens is via human memory. Even if something is later destroyed, some or all of it will be in somebody’s head, and that person will tell others. Ideas, no matter how many times we burn or redact them, will move from person to person. As long as people can whisper to one another in corners an idea, once had, will never be destroyed. Or if it was destroyed someone, somewhere, eventually, would have it all over again. No matter many barrels of dynamite are employed in reducing it to rubble an ancient temple, once built, can never be destroyed. The reverence that built it survives: it has been, therefore it is. A poem, once written, exists, even if nobody ever, anywhere, reads it. It is part of the fabric of the universe.

 

 

 

All higgledy-piggledy

If you had lived hundreds of years ago, what kind of work do you think you would have done? What job would you have wanted to do?

In case anybody wonders why I’m relying so heavily on ‘prompts’ at the moment, it’s because nothing inspiring is happening in my real life. Well, there’s the saga of Mum – but that situation is becoming so ghastly, it’s passing into the realms of the un-writable and the unreadable. It’ll pass, eventually – by its very nature it has to resolve itself within the next decade or so (decade – what am I writing? I can’t bear to think decade.) but in the meantime who wants to be depressed? Not you – and not me. No siree!

mole picnic

I suppose I might share that the postwoman turned up in a rabbit hat yesterday, with earflaps, eyes and whiskers. She must have a cupboard full of such hats which don’t, for some reason, seem to contradict her uniform. Everyone round here is a trifle strange – they do say there’s inbreeding – but not in a deliberate or amusing way. I find the hats a comfort.

I could tell you that I spotted what looks like yet another stray cat, eating the slimy remains of somebody’s takeaway from a plastic tray on the pavement. I keep putting food out in the cat-kennel (big enough, in fact, for an Alsatian, should a stray Alsatian happen along). I keep trying not to look out of the kitchen window; keep hoping not to spot another imploring furry face and mangy little body. The house is alive with cats as it is. Just getting to the kettle involves a kind of wading motion.

I could tell you that I thought of walking down to the one and only shop to get a newspaper, but it was too b***** cold. Really it’s arctic here. And yet sunny. Which somehow makes it worse. Last night the wind did its usual night-banshee thing, prowling around and tearing at the wooden fence-panels. It usually manages to demolish most of them over winter. In spring the fence-panel men come out in force, hammering and splicing; whistling gaily. Bonanza!

So, I found this prompt in a blog called The One Minute Writer, published on a rival platform which I suppose needs to be nameless – in the same way as the BBC maintains the fiction that its rival terrestrial station, ITV, is some kind of foul myth or rumour. It’s an old one – you have to trawl pretty determinedly to find an interesting one. Not like The Daily Post, where the odds of striking gold are about 50:50.

It’s vague, isn’t it? I mean, it would depend how many hundreds of years ago. Are we talking Neolithic, Medieval, Victorian? And are we talking man or woman? If we’re talking woman – well, it’s likely to be something to do with house-cleaning and child-rearing, isn’t it? Or stone-picking in some frozen field or other. Whether in a cave on a mountainside, a hovel in a cobbled street or a mansion in Berkshire. Same old, same old. Cleaning – or supervising the cleaning of others. Farm work, maybe. Babies. More babies. More still. Maybe a bit of embroidery and letter-writing. Or there’s the nunnery. So first, choose a time and a gender.

I used to think I’d like to have been a wandering minstrel, going from castle to castle and making up songs as I tramped. So, this would be Early Medieval (and male). I used to worry so about not-writing, in my teenage years, having learned that for much of time most people wouldn’t have been able to write, and that before William Caxton and the invention of the printing press, even if you had written something nobody but your close friends would have had sight of it – as a handwritten copy circulated amongst your friends. Oh no, I anguished – I could even worry hypothetically – whatever would I have done if I had been born in those days? How could I have borne to exist? But then I realised that the written word was only one form of story-telling – music and ballads and told-tales were another. I would have remembered the stories I made up as I trudged along high moorland pathways amidst gorse bushes, forded streams barefooted and slept in brambly ditches. My memory would have been sharpened and trained from infancy – everybody’s would.

And I would have liked the wandering – the open air, the lack of roots or ties. If I couldn’t be a minstrel perhaps I could be in a gypsy troupe, going from town to town to do – juggling and stuff – in the marketplace. Or, closer in time to the present day, a higgler. There is a short story by A E Coppard called The Higgler. Higgler is another version of the pedlar. It’s someone who travels around the countryside selling things door to door – household necessities, ribbons – anything he can find a market for – which he would carry in a back-pack or on a cart. In the story, a struggling higgler falls in love with Mary a girl he meets on his route. The girl’s mother offers her to him in marriage, together with a small fortune – but he wavers, becomes suspicious and loses both Mary and the money.

Now, bother all that. I’d just like the wandering around part. Seeing different places, being alone a lot of the time, living from day to day. That’s at the heart of it, maybe – not having to think beyond today – not having to plan. Having very little – no bills, no dwelling place, no ties, no responsibilities. Bit like that feeling you get in motorway service complexes – floating between lives, no history, no draggy old personality (that anyone knows about) – just existing for a while. The refuge of the roads.

Mr Toad – maybe I should have been Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, with his motor car and his beep, beep, beep….

Mr Toad

 

 

VISITING THE CASTLE

In this courtyard, overborne and

Cramped by shuttered rooms,

The leaded panes grown cataracts of light,

Moss grows between the stones

And a marble fountain plays.

It is small, unremarkable,

Nobody in here to view it, just a sparrow

Thirsting in the furnace of July;

Nobody in here and yet

The bowl is full of coins.

 

Maybe each of us comes alone

And again discovers what queens and princes knew;

Maybe they too, in their moments of distraction,

Trailed their finger-ends beneath the water

And, feeling it cool and simple,

Sighed and threw silver, leaving behind

Battered portraits of their ancestors,

Distorted by refraction

And by motion.

 

I will not throw a coin.

For all their praying, those who threw before

Are no less saved or lost. I would rather just

Recall them, these unknown dreamers, feeling

The benediction in the sun, the wish in the stone,

Their lives and mine

In the sound of

Water falling.

MY FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND…

…was a different kettle of fish. My father, unlike my mother, did not throw novels away in disgust: he simply refused to read them. An intelligent man, he read the daily papers from front page to back, including the financial columns, and would often read aloud (rather too lengthy) passages that he thought would interest us all. He watched the News on TV every evening. He wrote editorials and articles for a cycling club magazine which he and my mother between them manufactured using an electric typewriter, my mother’s precise cut-and-paste/handwritten captioning, and the battered second-hand photocopier that took up most of the spare bedroom. Later he wrote his ‘memoirs’ which succeeded in telling me a lot, and almost nothing. For a working man he had an advanced vocabulary, apart from one time when he asked me what ‘priapic’ meant. Difficult to know which of us was the most embarrassed or amused by my stumbling, circuitous attempts to define this word, which he had read in the newspaper. What was priapic doing in a newspaper anyway?

Yet he abhorred fiction. In fact it went deeper than that – he abhorred history. More than that, I would say he was a History Denier. It never happened, any of it, he used to say. It’s all lies. Once or twice as a teenager I tried arguing it out with him, applying my own immature logic to the situation. With parents, particularly with fathers, it’s never a good idea.

But something must have happened in the past. It can’t just be a blank before we were born. How did we get here at all?

All lies!

When we visited Leeds Castle we mostly stuck to the gardens where there was more than enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours – places to sit down and look at swans on lakes, places to drink tea and eat sandwiches; but every once in a while Mum and I liked to go inside the castle, take another look at Henry VIII’s suit of armour, Lady Baille’s languorous and strangely elongated portrait, her magnificent 1930s shoe collection or – my favourite – the lonely little fountain in the central courtyard. Dad, meanwhile, would sit on the wall outside reading his newspaper. Inside did not exist.

I used to think something had happened to him during the War, aside from driving military trucks across India (steering-wheel so hot it would burn your hands if you weren’t careful) and getting a bad case 0f malaria in Burma (stand by your beds when the Top Brass come round, whether or not you are dying). He showed us a few sepia photographs of himself out there. It was difficult to tell him apart from various other young men in khaki shirts and shorts, hands shading their eyes, squinting into the lens.

The only other thing he ever said when the subject of non-existent history came up was this: when he was at school they had showed him the Atlas, and most of the Atlas was coloured pink. The pink areas, he was told, belonged to the Glorious British Empire. But then when he got to India it wasn’t true. The Atlas – or maybe his teachers – had lied.

Did he mean they lied because the Empire wasn’t glorious? Was no longer an Empire? Because the Indian people he met disliked rather than revered their British occupiers? Because the British were not behaving gloriously? I never got to understand why he told this half-a-story. I am not sure he knew why either but it was obviously connected in some way. Those ideas – it’s all lies… history never happened… at school they showed me the Atlas – always came up together. It was like a kind of short circuit, a closed loop. Was he pointing out that history is written by the victors? But we all know that, don’t we? We can still believe  that some sort of history happened.

My own instinct is that something, or maybe a series of somethings, happened to my father in India. There’s this feeling of betrayal, and rage. The Atlas story must be true – I’m sure schoolchildren were propagandised in this way – but it’s only one element. I get a ‘background’ of real encounters with real people – real situations – real humiliations – maybe real cruelty, his or someone else’s. Neither I nor my mother succeeded in fighting our way through that particular thorny thicket, and now my father has packed up his mysteries in his old kit bag and gone, gone, gone, leaving us none the wiser.

* http://www.leeds-castle.com/home