Thursday 20 June 2013

'Keeping History Fresh' by A L Berridge

It sounds horrible to ‘keep history fresh’, as if it were a loaf of stale bread. To me it's particularly repulsive since learning that ‘50 years’ is the magic age for the Historical Novel Society - which means that I too fall under the definition of ‘history’ and need to start checking myself for incipient mould.

But memories fade, all things decay, and there are times history needs a bit of help. 
Archaeologists can rescue whole towns from the past, while restorers work wonders with paintings, sculptures, or a handful of pottery shards to teach us how our ancestors lived. From this one vessel we can learn about the Greeks’ art of painting and pottery, the way they stored wine, the gods they worshipped, the clothes they wore, and the equipment they used in battle.

Yet there’s a shameful part of me that isn’t as excited about this as I should be. Perhaps it’s because I already know these things, perhaps because Ancient Greece isn’t ‘my period’, or perhaps it’s just a failure of my imagination. To me, history being ‘fresh’ isn’t so much about facts I can learn, but about what it can make me feel.

I was reminded of that this weekend as we began a grubby little archaeological dig of our own – the Herculean task of clearing out our ceiling-cracking loft. Working inward from the ladder was like progressing through layers of history preserved in glacier ice. Back in time they went – old EastEnders scripts, my first television pass, teaching notes and old ‘Comprehension Tests’, love letters, signed programmes of school plays, and finally at the bottom just this:

Our loft is dry with insulation, and my sellotaped labels curled and floated with the limpness of cellophane, but the glue that fixed these crushed tissue flowers stayed firm. The paper insert was in place and intact, and although the pencilled words had faded with age I could still make out the words ‘To Louise – From Class 5 and Mrs Terry.’

I was in hospital with TB in my first term at infant school, and would have been just four years old. Too long ago to remember, but the sight of that card brought it back in an astonishing rush. The cartoons on the walls of the Children’s Ward at Addenbrooke’s, the taste of synthetic orange juice, the wonder of the first encounter with a ‘bendy straw’. The card was dusty, but I closed my eyes and felt my nose tingle with a familiar smell of disinfectant.

An artefact can do that if it’s kept ‘fresh’. Had the glue failed and the box yielded only a green card and a scattering of faded tissue, I might still have remembered what it was, but I would never have relived the story behind it. 

But the experience was my own, and history is only ‘fresh’ when it can speak to people who weren’t there, couldn’t know, and probably weren’t even born. To find those things I had to wade further into the jetsam of time and investigate the boxes of memorabilia from my parents’ house. Here were cracked photograph albums with white writing on thick black paper, wartime culinary implements for bashing recalcitrant vegetables into submission, and a filthy assortment of ornaments clearly retained for sentimental rather than financial value. One revolting black object revealed itself to be a plain wooden tankard of my grandfather’s, and considering it unusual enough to deserve exposure I brought it down into the daylight to ‘freshen it up’.

And hesitated. A year after my father died I showed my sister how I’d polished the ashtray that always sat by his desk, and still remember her disappointment when she saw how it had changed.
This shiny copper object bore little resemblance to the grimy thing my mother had difficulty wresting from my father’s clutching hands even for long enough to flick it with a duster. In this case, it was the dirt that was the history, and by ‘freshening it’, I’d destroyed it.

My sister isn't alone in thinking that way. Age has its own cachet, and cabinet-makers deliberately antique’ their furniture while clothes manufacturers ‘distress’ their jeans, but when it comes to history then antiquity is even more crucial. We need to know that what we’re looking at is old – which means we want it to look like it

Re-enactors are familiar with this dilemma. If we use a shining clean vessel visitors will mutter that it doesn’t look authentic – but if we use a dirty one we’re doing an injustice to history. Our ancestors may not have had our attitudes to personal hygiene, but they washed their clothes, they washed their pots and pans, and even the English word ‘clean’ derives from Anglo Saxon. People in previous centuries arguably took better care of their possessions than we do, because they were much less easy to replace - and we must be true to the historical mind as well as the historical props. 

Olivier Hofer of 'Hortus Bellicus' - a re-enactor who's got it RIGHT.
But my tankard isn’t going on public display, it’s probably less than a hundred years old, and I had no sentimental memory of it, so without more ado I set to work with beeswax and Brasso. And before antiquarians faint at the idea of modern and potentially damaging chemicals, I should mention that Brasso has been with us since 1905…

If I’d known I was going to blog about it I’d have taken a photo before I started, but I didn’t and I didn’t, and can only say that after an hour’s work the tankard finally looked like this:

It’s a lovely thing, but it was more than aesthetic pleasure that gave me the sudden little tingle of history. As long as I’d known it the tankard had been a dull object with a band of dark brown metal round the rim, but now I was seeing it just as my grandfather had done. Obviously he wouldn’t have deliberately purchased something ugly, but now I was seeing it through his eyes, and to do that I had in some way travelled through time. That - to me - is what freshness is all about.

Not my picture, but I think it's the same tree and tower
It can often be hard to achieve. No-one could fail to be moved by a visit to Auschwitz, for instance, and I remember the sick, clammy horror of it to this day, but it took over an hour before I was really able to ‘let it in’. We were in a first floor dormitory with a crowd of tourists and a rather ghoulish guide, and I let my gaze slide away from the bunks and out of the window. 

There was beautiful blue sky out there, leaves of trees big enough to have existed in 1945, then off to the right I saw the chilling structure of a guard tower and felt it like a jolt in the stomach. I’d seen them before, we’d already walked past two of them, but now they were terrifying and I understood why. I wasn’t looking ‘at’ Auschwitz any more, I was looking out from the inside – and seeing through the inmates’ eyes.   

But the real walls exist in our minds. There are lots of ways we can gain virtual first-hand knowledge of the past, but they won’t bring us any closer unless we can respond from inside the same age. This video, for instance, shows hair and headgear fashions of Edwardian girls, but we’re not thinking ‘How wonderful, how cutting-edge’, we’re giggling at the ridiculousness of the outmoded styles. We’re looking at, not looking with, and so remain firmly outside.

Which is (at last) where writers come in. When our imaginations take us inside our own characters, then we too are doing our bit to ‘restore’ the past – and it’s a frightening responsibility. It’s much harder to portray an accurate mindset than it is to show accurate clothes, but a writer who gets it wrong can do as spectacular damage as the well-meaning pensioner of Borja who famously turned a painting of Christ into something resembling a deformed monkey.

It’s still worth trying. I’m currently struggling with it in my latest Crimean novel, where a private soldier’s letter home leaves directions about the ‘china shepherdess from Brighton’. We all know the things, ghastly, simpering, mass-produced fairings, but this is 1855. The whole idea of owning something purely for the sake of ornament was new to the ‘working classes’ where every possession needed to have a purpose. The first cheap ornaments strived to do both – the china cow that was actually a ‘creamer’, the pig that was actually a money box, the coachman that was actually a jug – but to own something for no other reason than to stick it on a mantelpiece and admire it was to be like the gentry, the aristocracy, the Queen. To write this properly I had to see the naff shepherdess as somehow desirable and precious – as it would have been through my soldier’s eyes.

But I still have to communicate that to the reader. I can just tell him, of course, but emphasizing the differences between 1855 and 2013 doesn’t bring him closer to the age, it shoves him further away. There’s only one way to bring him ‘inside’, and it’s the simplest, most important tool in any writer’s box. I can make my characters as historically different as I like, as long as I also make them recognizable as people, and appeal to the universal humanity that binds us all.

It really is that simple, and it applies to every form of restoration in the world. The greatest impact of those reconstructions of Richard III’s face isn’t that we suddenly know what the king looked like – it’s that he has a face at all. He’s a bloke, someone we could know or speak to, someone just like ourselves.
Or again, among the many miraculous restorations at Pompeii, is there anything to touch the power of the resin casts of human remains? 

They’re people. People who lived and loved and felt pain just as we do, who lay down to hide their heads from the mass of burning lava that has given them this extraordinary immortality.

But it is immortality, and that’s at the heart of any attempt to keep history alive and fresh. We’re immortal too, part of the same human story that connects us to these long dead Pompeians, and will one day connect us to those yet to come. Tap into that stream, and we can see history as part of Wordsworth’s own ‘Intimations of Immortality’ – with all ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream.’


Mark Burgess said...

Good stuff, Louise. For personal things I think it's always difficult to strike a balance between what John Piper called 'pleasing decay' and trying to ensure the next generation don't throw the stuff away as rubbish. We're restoring a clock at the moment, the maker's name all but gone from the rubbing of fingers setting the hands. The dial has been restored but only enough to look loved; the clock's history is still there.

Mary Hoffman said...

Marvellous! That tankard repaid your attentions wonderfully and I, for one, would not have preferred the blackened object, however much history it carried.

We live in a listed building and have had much contact with local Conservation Officers. There is an interesting discussion to be had about what should remain untouched as part of the house's history, even when rusting and falling apart, and what sympathetically replaced.

Joan Lennon said...

50 years and it's considered history? Blimey.

Sue Purkiss said...

A very thoughtful post. It reminded me of something i found of my father's it was an old packet of Park Drive cigarettes, which had fallen behind a radiator in our house - there were still a couple in it. They reminded me so much of him, and I put them on the shelf inside our fireplace (an old one, in a recess). And do you know what happened? my husband smoked them! And he doesn't even smoke!! Words were spoken, I can tell you...

Tom Bowling said...

Great stuff, AL. As ever. Since you're the only active one of this group I know, I want to take the opportunity to ask a question which others in your group may chance upon. I teach a university module on History and the Historical Novel, and I would like to find some historical fiction - preferably by female authors - which features the quotidian life of women in the 1776-1815 period. It could go wider. I can find no end of texts from the time, but a more contemporary (to us) take on ordinary women's lives in the age of revolutions escapes me. I'm sure Im missing something, but responses gratefully received @
John Milne/Tom Bowling