A few days ago I was struck by a deeply melancholy thought. It happened during the morning rush hour as I stood in a crowded Tube train. A feeling of complete detachment came over me. I was aware of the jolting motion of the carriage passing through the darkened tunnel and all the people hemmed in around me. They all seemed to be wrapped up in the cares of the here and now. People who had given time and careful thought to the clothing they wore. Presentable and business-like. Some were absorbed in copies of the morning Metro. Some were busy with whatever functions of their mobile phones would still work underground. Others were already at work with pen and sheaf of business papers or reports, a few typing on laptops. Some were students studying. A group of suited business men and women stood close by, discussing impending business meetings, financial strategies and sales forecasts in voices raised over the familiar rattle and whine of the train as it hurtled along its tunnel. Suddenly, everything that was going on around me in that carriage seemed so intense and involved, so vitally important, and so utterly of that particular moment. It gave me pause to wonder, and the following thought occurred: Who in a hundred years time would know or care what any of us did that day?
I realise that such a thought could certainly carry a weight of despondency or even despair. An existential stab leaving a bleeding wound of solipsistic nihilism. But the thought arose more from my concerns with the past rather than the present. And this is perhaps one of the profound pleasures that the pursuit of history can engender. The past we are told can teach us about the here and now, and perhaps it can even tell us something of the patterns which may very well shape or create our future.
The prompt to my sudden detachment and its portentous reflection upon the present moment in that crowded railway carriage was in fact derived from a particular project of research. Research can be (and almost always is) an all-consuming enterprise. It fills one’s waking thoughts, both conscious and unconscious; and it can even invade one’s sleeping thoughts as well. This research project is concerned with retracing and piecing together the story of a life lived almost a hundred years ago. And at that particular moment my mind was focussed on – if not exactly a time, then certainly a place which coincided with my own world. That place being London.
When I got off the train and ascended the stairs of Temple Tube Station, I was stepping out into the streets which the subject of my research had mentioned in his autobiographical writings. This was the city in which he had passed some of the formative years I was then focussing upon in my research. In his half-finished memoir he had mentioned Drury Lane and several of the theatres thereabouts. Drury Lane was a street I was about to walk up, just as I always do each day, on my way to work. Naturally, my eye often scans the buildings as I go by, trying to guess their age from the style of architecture. That particular day, as I did this I found myself wondering which of them might have been standing when the subject of my research had himself wandered along this pavement.
My life it seems has been centred upon such a contemplation of the past. It’s the essence of a wider field to which I’ve devoted myself. The past, and ways of looking at and discovering the past, are what I chose to study at school and university; and it is what I’ve since been employed to do, working in a museum. Archaeology is the painstaking piecing together of the past from fragments and interpretation. By comparison, research into the more recent past one would think might be a lot easier, or at least a lot less vague. One would think that plentiful archival, documentary evidence from the century just ended would make creating such a picture of the recent past a relatively simple thing – but the truth is, my present research has shocked me at the fact that this isn’t at all the case. Archaeology has taught me that whole worlds can pass into near complete inexistence, but my present research has taught me that worlds vanish far faster than I had assumed.
The life I am looking at is only some three generations or so back. That is to say the generations of our grandparents or our great-grandparents. It’s a very particular threshold of history and I acknowledge that the parameters and limitations which apply here may not apply to future generations researching our own time and our lives. The early years of the twentieth century witnessed a number of significant advances which mean we are able to hear and see the distant past for the reality it once was in recorded audio and film. It has given us a quaint and perhaps wistful sense of what we think the world would then have been like. But it is a mirage. We can’t know what their world was like in the same way that we know our own, not in the same way that we perceive ourselves, standing each day in the Tube carriage, overhearing others discussing the dynamic imperatives of their day-to-day business and social lives. It is something that history in its relation to the here and now cannot deny. All reality is lived essentially to be lost.
The life I am researching is one that was lived in the time of colonial ambition and the daily reality of an established empire. It was a life which partook of that ethos and actually implemented its ethic as part of our government’s diplomatic service. My research has lead me to look in depth at the world of that time from the personal viewpoint of this person who intimately inhabited it. After leaving London, the imperial capital, he went to China. He lived the foreigner’s world of China in the treaty ports, as they were then known. The semi-colonial settler society of Shanghai, the “Paris of the East.” These were people forging a world of their own, for good or ill as posterity now reflects, far from their native place – in someone else’s nation. But they too, like the people in my railway carriage, thought their business and day-to-day lives were dynamic and important. They spoke of things as though they really mattered and always would matter. Little did they know that by the mid-point of their century, the certainty of that future and their faith in progress would be radically shaken up and almost entirely shattered.
|Sheltering in the London Tube during an air raid in World War Two|
As I say, whole world’s can vanish, and sometimes very quickly. The lives of individuals even more so. In fact, it is a wonder to me that anything of ourselves lasts at all. Just think of the countless generations of our distant ancestors of whom we know absolutely nothing. It’s remarkable to think that any of us might be remembered beyond the immediate generations who knew us. In the course of human history, for the great majority of people, the significance of their personal lives is lost, not in the passing of an age, but in an instant. It is a sad and melancholy thought. Who in a hundred years will know or care what any of us did today?
Or is it? – Perhaps it is if you are preoccupied with the search for historical facts or insights into the lives of people long since passed. Or, perhaps, if you are concerned with your own prospects of immortality, particularly in our own time when the hankering for our own personal “fifteen minutes of fame” has seemingly never before been so widespread nor so ardently desired. Perhaps not though, when one considers all those generations of anonymous ancestors who have lived countless lives before us as part of that continuum of the self which has culminated – at least at the present time – in us personally and the lives which ultimately we lead only for ourselves. And there are advantages in anonymity.
The contemplation of history, I find, can be as interesting and even as enthralling as all that history itself contains. To return to an essential point from an altered angle, without history we can’t truly know who we are or where we – and the world we live in – might be going. Who does not delight to hear our grandparents speak of their own early lives and in our hearts and minds to compare and contrast ourselves to them at a similar age? And with present technologies changing at such a fast pace we can now all say that we remember the world before the invention of such and such a … [fill in the blank, as you wish].
History is in some senses the leap-frogging of memory. The time-machine equivalent of the theory of the six degrees of separation. Our grandparents told us of the early years of the last century, and the great events of their time – the two world wars, for instance. But we forget that their grandparents before them – as Thomas Hardy once marvelled of his own grandparents – could tell of the wars of the Napoleonic era. Worlds do disappear perhaps faster than we realise, but we can also reach back further than we might have suspected if only we took the time to stop and see. More so even if we take some time to stop and perhaps make only the smallest record of ourselves and the life we are living for those who are as yet still to follow; those who may well one day – in a hundred years perhaps – want to look back and find us, who may in time seek to know something of a world which has all but vanished in its turn. In that sense, then, my morning’s melancholy commute, has perhaps – for a moment at least – transformed a Tube train into a time machine. Perhaps one day it may well help to transport someone back to our own time – I can’t help wondering, what sort of world they will imagine it to have been?
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