The past and other foreign countries

Much to my wife´s endless despair and frustration my personal library of books, DVDs and music keeps growing and expanding in our apartment, but this is one issue between us that I have difficulty apologizing for!

I know that books, films and music can be easily downloaded onto our electronic gadgets, (what Ute would prefer we collected!), but, call me “Old School”, there is something comforting about owning and holding in your hands things that give you pleasure.

Yes, books do consume space, but it is this very thing that gives me a sense of belonging with and to these books.

For reasons I cannot quite define I find I remember the contents of a book more if it is hard copy on my shelves than if I read that book online.

Of the many books I collect and that capture both my attention and my imagination are books on history.

I particularly enjoy reading histories that are so well-written that I can imagine myself right there, in that place and time.

Two books I have recently obtained are brilliant for their ability to project a person of the present day into eras gone-by.

James Wyllie, Johnny Acton and David Goldblatt´s The Time Travel Handbook: 18 Journeys from the Eruption of Vesuvius to the Woodstock Festival transports the reader back to the greatest spectacles in history.

Dip your hankerchief in English King Charles I´s blood after his execution(1649) or watch Vesuvius erupt (79 AD).

Join Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in 1520.

March on Versailles with the French Revolutionary women of Paris in 1789.

Sail with Captain James Cook to Tahiti (1769) and Australia (1770).

Spend time at Xanadu with Marco Polo and Kublai Khan (1276).

Accompany Charlie Parker at the birth of Bebop in New York City in 1942 or with the Beatles in Hamburg in 1960.

Take part in the VE Day celebrations in London (1945) or the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).

Wylie, Acton and Goldblatt treat historical events like travel destinations, provide the time traveller with suitable clothing for the era visited and even offer prosthetics and make-up if your skin tone and physiognomy are markedly different from that of the locals.

There are stringent health checks so historical eras are not devastated by modern viruses and by the same token to avoid having the traveller bring to the present a deadly form of the Black Death or the Plague.

Wylie, Acton and Goldblatt prepare the traveller for his leap back in time with language and residential orientation to ensure that the traveller can blend into the past without drawing special attention or altering the past.

So, don´t expect to take “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” with Neil Armstrong, or join Brutus in the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Reading this Handbook makes one actually wish that such a time travel agency existed.

As brilliant and creative as the Handbook is, Jon Mortimer´s The Time Traveller´s Guide to Medieval England is even more powerful for its ability to make the reader not just study history but actually feel that you are living history in that moment, as if yesterday was now.

Imagine you could travel back to 14th century England.

What would you see, hear and smell?

Where would you stay?

What would you eat?

How would you know if you are coming down with the Plague?

It is a dusty London street on a summer morning in 1377.

A servant opens an upstairs shutter and starts beating a blanket.

A dog guarding a traveller´s packhorses starts barking.

Traders call out from their market stalls while two women stand chatting, one shielding her eyes from the sun, the other with a basket in her arms.

Wooden beams project out over the street.

Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath.

Suddenly, a thief grabs a merchant´s purse near the traders´ stalls and the merchant runs after him, shouting.

Everyone turns to watch.

For you, standing in the middle of all this, everything is happening (as opposed to it having happened).

L.P. Hartley once wrote:

“The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.”

These two time-travelling tomes have got me thinking about actual present day foreign countries.

What problems do people in other countries have?

What delights have they found?

What are they themselves like?

What is it like to live their lives?

Why do they do what they do, in the ways that they do?

Why do they believe what they do?

How do they greet each other?

What is their sense of humour like?

Mortimer suggests that to understand your own century you need to come to terms with at least two others.

What we have in common with the past is just as important, real and as essential to our lives as those things that make us different.

We might eat differently, dress differently, use different technology, be taller or fatter and live longer, but like people of the past we know what grief is and what love, fear, pain, ambition, enmity and hunger are.

But couldn´t the same be said about other countries today?

W.H. Auden once suggested that to understand your own country you need to have lived in at least two others.

People are people and human like you, wherever you or they may be.

When we understand others we begin to understand ourselves, for such is the stuff of everyday life.

Once we begin to understand, once we begin to gather knowledge and experience, then truly do we become worthy of our shared humanity.


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