In the 1990s television series Quantum Leap, the central character Sam Beckett (played by the magnificent Scott Bakula) posited the following theory of time travel. A person’s life is like a piece of string; tie the two ends together and the string becomes a loop. Roll the loop into a ball and points in one’s life criss-cross, making it possible to leap forwards and backwards in time.
It’s not surprising the idea of past and present crossing each other for brief moments appeals to me; of time, like a ribbon, curling back and two disparate points in history touching. During my adventures in research there have been plenty of instances when it felt like time had done just that; folded in on itself and my present has touched another’s past. The day I first found Sabrina’s name in the Foundling Hospital Records; the moment I unfolded the Apprentice Indenture that bound her to Richard Lovell Edgeworth; sitting in the National Library of Ireland holding her letters; standing before the slab of stone worn blank in Kensal Green cemetery that marked her grave.
During the past few weeks I have visited both the National Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire and the Red at Night event at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Both got me thinking about how the past and present interact.
One of the criticisms of heritage sites and the ways in which the past is presented is that, in order to be acceptable the past has to be sanitised, neutralised and commodified. The grime and smells, the illness and death, brutality and grinding dullness of our ancestors lives have to be erased from their stories, otherwise heritage just won’t sell – and let’s face it, selling our past is, in some cases, the only way it is going to survive. But to some, this is fraught with danger and the past becomes some sort of banal Heritage Fun Park.
The response to last year’s installation at the Tower of London to mark the start of the First World War is a case in point. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red drew a particular harsh response from the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, who called it “a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial.” Jones dismissed the installation as fake nobility and included a handy link to what he clearly saw as a more appropriate memorial, Otto Dix’s images of the waste and hell of the battlefields of 1914 – 1918.
I have some sympathy with Jones. The First World War was a monumental waste of human life; the culmination of centuries of imperialism, empire-building, one Royal, extended family’s dysfunction writ large and the quieter patriotism of ordinary people put to the ultimate test. It was brutal, vile, dehumanising and devastating and the images of Dix should be seen and not forgotten.
But here’s the thing – people flocked to see Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. It touched a cord; something happened to awaken an understanding in some people, possibly for the first time, of the impact of four years of war, one hundred years previously. Just for a brief moment, the past spoke to the present, even if it was only to visually represent the sheer numbers of British men who lost their lives.
People also flocked to the Black Country Living Museum for the Red by Night event. “Deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless” is a phrase that some might apply to the Black Country Museum, and Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Beamish Living Museum of the North and most other heritage sites in the country. As the evening darkened, crowds flocked to the Halahan Mill, replicated within the museum from the Birchley Rolling Mill at Oldbury, as men demonstrated the skills of dragging and throwing red-hot steel in and out of a rolling mill.
Across the heritage site, smoke from the strategically placed braziers, also blazing bright with light and flame, sent a pall of thin smog into the night air, giving a small sense of the blackness by day and redness by night that the event was trying to recreate.
But it would be nothing compared to the heat, the smell, the noise, and the grime of the real thing. Nothing will bring back those days, because nothing can, for no other reason than the Clean Air Acts have done their job. The past is precisely that; the past, gone, we cannot bring it back as it was; we cannot experience what our forefathers and mothers experienced (would they want us to?). We cannot feel the full sensory experience of a region in the full throes of an industrial revolution (or, as is possibly more accurate, an evolution) or the full horror of the First World War battlefields; all we can do is remember.
But remembering is a powerful act. While we can’t reclaim the past, we can listen to it, we can find ways of reaching out and touching it, briefly. We can try to imagine some of the grimness of life in an industrial town; the hard work, disease and industrial accidents, and be thankful for the progress made to change and make life better. But we must also remember our ancestors loved, laughed, danced and sang. The past was made up as much colour as darkness.
And surely we can find more than one way of remembering the death fields of the wars that have gone before; sometimes through ceramic poppies, sometimes through the war art of men like Otto Dix.
Last year, I attended a memorial service to mark ANZAC day. I stood on Cannock Chase on a breezy April morning, listening as the fallen of that most iconic of wars were remembered. Amazing Grace was sung, The Last Post was played and Laurence Binyon’s words were spoken,
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
I saw an elderly gentleman, the medals lined across his overcoated chest testifying to his service, struggle with his emotions. In front of me lines of British Legion standards were raised, lowered and raised again in honour of the dead. Young men carried some of those standards and in the crowds were teenagers and children, listening and watching. On that Sunday, the past and the present touched and for a fleeting moment, generations met and remembered the lives, death and sacrifices of those who had gone before. Maybe there is no nobility in war, but there is a nobility in remembrance and that can only happened when the past and present meet.
If history does anything, it does this. It allows the past to whisper to us, not of its full horror, or even its full joy, that we cannot know; but of its existence, its stories, its lessons, its part in the on-going chain of life, of which we too are part. We are both the present of today and the past of future generations. If, as a part of history, heritage and remembrance sites do anything, they do this; find places for the past and present to meet, twisting the ribbons of time so the past is not forgotten.