As I am travelling without my family (a research trip to Versailles) I have bagged myself a window seat. For once I don’t have to peer over two people’s laps when the plane takes off. As the earth drops away the dismal landscape around Heathrow merges into a bigger picture. The outsize car parks, acres of concrete and scrubby fields dotted with ponies quickly shrink into something that resembles a circuit board. Now I see West London, now the whole of the sprawling city, and now, as it snakes through the capital towards the sea, a living map of itself, I see the Thames. I live close to the river not far from Hampton Court Palace where the Thames cradles Bushy Park in a tight curve. As the plane banks, I strain, before it is too late, to locate my suburban neighbourhood.
The plane starts its descent towards Paris. As the past versus the present is currently uppermost in my mind, this aerial view reminds me that you can ‘look down’ on the past in a way that it is not possible to do with the present, in a way that you certainly can’t do with your own life. When you’re in the thick of things it is rarely possible to get enough distance for an unobstructed viewpoint – and sometimes you need a visual aid. Sarah Bakewell recently described Montaigne’s essays in terms of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity.” The motives for writing and reading historical fiction are varied and numerous but I wonder how central (and conscious) is its function of mirroring our present. Even if we accept that the coherent ‘mapping out’ of the past is a mirage (history’s cartographers all have their own agenda: the closer you get the less the lines appear to join up), isn’t it nevertheless true that the aerial view history affords is our best bet for picking our way through the muddle of the present before it, too, becomes the past?