Thursday, 8 July 2010

Five Fantastic Routes into the Past by Leslie Wilson

My first route into the past is 'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley. For those who don’t know it, it’s the story of a girl – in the early years of this century – who goes to stay with an aunt and uncle in an ancient farmhouse in Derbyshire, Thackers, which used to be part of a manor belonging to the Babington family. The narrator, Penelope, who is delicate, finds the fabric of the present day wears thin and she slips through it into the sixteenth century where she makes friends and – inevitably – one dangerous enemy. She gets caught up in a plot to help Mary Queen of Scots escape, and falls hopelessly in love with the younger Babington boy, Francis.
I think what makes the book really come to life is Uttley’s own intimate childhood knowledge of the area she writes about. Not that I want to ignore the brilliant storytelling,wonderful cadences of her writing style, the quicksilver, easy-sounding dialogue, the characters who walk off the page. But what delights me most in the book are the descriptions, precise and beautiful as a Book of Hours; the garden with the warm scent rising from the herbs in the sunshine, of the kitchen, with Aunt Tabitha kneading a huge trough of creamy bread-dough; the marchpane Thackers that Penelope makes in the sixteenth century which, foreshadowing the doom of the family, is the farmhouse of the early twentieth century, with the shields broken, part of the building become cowsheds, no longer a manor, because Babington suffered the horrific traitor’s death for his later plot against Elizabeth the First, the one that’s in the history books. This is the book that made me into a historical novelist, that made me want to go ‘through the door’ and inhabit times not my own.

There was a poem, too. Kipling’s The Road Through the Woods>. I read it in Come Hither, a magical anthology that was at my primary school. I adored that book and have got it for myself now.
‘If you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late..
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew..’
The old road has been shut, and now it’s lost beneath the coppices and the heath – probably somewhere around Ashdown Forest. But in one sense, the road is still there, and anyone who has the imagination can go through the gate and look for the traces.

Old Guidebooks take you through the door, too. When I was writing my novel for adults, The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, I used The Hong Kong Guide 1893, reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1986. Here I could not only discover the principal sights for tourists to the colony, lists of hotels, schools, places of worship, and the Peak Tram, but find out the legalised tariff of fares for Chairs, Jinrickshas and Sampans. It cost you ten cents to take a chair for half an hour within the city area, with two bearers, but you could book one for the whole day for a Hong Kong dollar. A sampan for an hour would cost you ten cents. The Peak Tramway, at that period, went every quarter of an hour between 7.30 and 10.30 a.m, only every half an hour between 11.30 and 2.30; after that you could get it every quarter of an hour again. It closed down for the night at This are the small details that show you the kind of life your characters led. Then there are the adverts: looking at them somehow transports me back in time, Nice to see too, that perfumes, medicines, and mineral waters could be bought, then as now, from Watson’s the Chemists.
While I was writing The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, I didn’t visit Hong Kong at all, but relied on my memories of Western District – where were still, at that time, plenty of old Chinese streets - and the endless supply of facsimile editions and books of old photographs that publishers – mainly OUP – had obligingly printed. I walked the old city in my head and, the first time I visited the place after finishing it, I looked across from Kowloon to Hong Kong side and saw – for a few moments - a transparency of the old city superimposed on the modern high-rises.

In 1995, just after my father’s death, I went to Vienna with my husband, who had a conference. I went round on my own, and one of the things I did was to visit the Michaelergruft, the crypt of the Church of St Michael, just outside the Hofburg. There was a private party going round, with their own guide, so the official guide told me and three other people I could go with them. I don’t understand quite how this happened, but the private guide didn’t seem to know that there was electric lighting down there, and supplied his party with candles. Now the attraction (or not, depending on your proclivities) of this crypt, is that it creates ‘air mummies.’ The bodies that were deposited down there didn’t decompose. Of course, it was a dreadful thing to do, to take candles and drip hot wax on the mummies. I didn’t have one, so was absolved of guilt. I remember the soft fawn dust all over the place, the dust of bones and powdered dried-out flesh, the ridges on the floor which were bones, because some of the bodies had just been shunted through a chute from the street. And the bodies! There was a nobleman, in his wig, his nice shoes, his coat, knee-breeches and stockings, and his perruque peeling away from his scalp. There was a naked corpse, knees bent, and a wide hood of skin like paper inside which there was once a weight of fluid and a foetus. I suppose the baby’s skeleton was still inside there. There was a young woman in a ruffled dress and high-heeled shoes, clutching a cross. Their faces were mild, dreamy; they seemed to dream the time away, in the colourless dark, and they’d lost all colour themselves, they were dove-coloured, dim. And yet real. They had personality. They spoke.
It was the candlelight that made them so powerful, though. I went there again, with my daughter, on a subsequent trip, and it wasn’t the same by electric light.

My last route into the past is a book by a man called Louis Paulian, called La Hotte du Chiffonnier, and as far as I know, nobody has translated it. I read a couple of extracts from it in a coffee-table book about nineteenth-century Paris and managed to get hold of it through Abebooks. It’s about the informal refuse collectors – or rag-pickers – or scavengers – of that time. Paulian was an official who, like the wonderful Henry Mayhew in London, cared enough to go and find out about such people. It tells you about the mechanics of recycling a hundred-odd years ago, how the contents of the bins were separated by the chiffonniers, bones went to the glue factory or to be made into buttons, bread was either eaten by the chiffonniers themselves, or fed to animals, or, if it had lain in the gutter so long that the beasts rejected it, was roasted and sold to Quartier Latin restauranteurs as breadcrumbs for cutlets. The dust was sold in grocers’ shops as ‘chicory.’ Hairs were made into sieves through which fruit syrup was poured Rags were made into paper. There are pictures of the machines the recyclers used, and of the men and women on their rounds, with their hooks, baskets, and lamps. My husband being a specialist in waste management with a particular interest in the ‘informal sector’, I have mined the book for historical information for him, but one day I shall use it for fictional purposes.


John Dougherty said...

Great list, Leslie - such variety, and lovely insights into your own work, too.

Pedants corner: I haven't read A Traveller in Time, but I imagine it's set in the early years of last century? I can't imagine it's full of disc-shaped flying cars and tinfoil suits, which is of course how life is here in the future.

And my own suggestion for a route into the past - obvious, perhaps, but: Tom's Midnight Garden. Need I say more?

catdownunder said...

And Meriol Trevor's "Sun Slower, Sun Faster"?

Charlie Butler said...

John, didn't you know that Leslie lived in the 1590s? She only comes here for visits.

Leslie Wilson said...

I just have century-lag, so I guess you're right about only coming here to visit, Charlie! But more likely it's the 20th I still live in. It means I don't have to aspire to an i-phone...

Katherine Langrish said...

Ah, Meriol Trevor! Yes, almost unobtainable now.
Lovely, fascinating post, Leslie.

Anonymous said...

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michelle lovric said...

I love old guidebooks too. There's a 1906 one on Venice that says a gondola trip from the station to your hotel should cost 50 pence. Magari!

I don't know what will happen when the dust clears on the London Library's building works, but above the old issue desk there used to be a shelf full of 19th century guidebooks that were a real treasure trove.