When does the past begin to be interesting to us?
I don’t mean history.
I am not talking about Tudors and Stuarts and all those wives of Henry V111. Nor that litany of Medieval kings or various wars and battles and disputes: Crimean War, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Corn Laws and Luddites and the like.
I’m talking about our own personal histories – the ones handed down to us by previous generations.
Because it seems that for years such detail is of no interest to us at all. The lives that our grandparents and great aunts and uncles and their parents lived are a source of yawning boredom rather than curiosity when we are young.
Even the domestic detail of our parents’ lives – information about where they lived, went to school, the holidays they took or didn’t take, the conditions of the places where they worked, the food they ate, the clothes they wore – do not seem to fascinate us at all as children. We stop listening or merely feign interest. Why would we want to be taken to see the house or street where they grew up? Or, even more tedious, why would we want to hear all about which shops used to be on a certain high road, the name of the butcher or sweet shop or baker or draper? Self-obsession marks childhood and adolescence – it’s our lives and our futures where our focus lies at that stage, not what came such a very long time before.
And then suddenly they are gone – the people who tried to entertain us with the stories of their pasts.
Slowly, inevitably, one by one, the generations slip away.
And we realise that we did not ask enough questions. Showed insufficient interest or concern for the lives that were lived by the people we loved. The lives that our very existence depended upon.
If only I’d thought to ask – why didn’t I write down what I did hear – why didn’t I listen more carefully?
So instead of having access to the lived histories, we search the internet instead. We go to museums to try and find snippets and revelations about the people close to us who we did not bother to ask when we could.
This week, I met my friend of longest standing – let’s just say we marked our half century of friendship well over a decade ago – at the Imperial War Museum and it was the WW2 galleries where we spent all our time. Not so much for the historical facts which we naturally have a fairly firm grasp on, but for the domestic picture of the times – the clothes, the coupons, rations, shelters, impact of city bombing, copies of newspapers, advertisements of the time and more. And really, what it came down to it, what we were looking for were hints and clues about our parents – about those war time years which impacted so fiercely on their lives in a myriad of ways. Ways which we could have asked them far more about if we had thought.
Our recent experience of the virus, of lockdowns and deprivations and alterations from our normal way of life has no doubt made us look back on the war years on the home front that earlier generations experienced with even greater empathy and an admiration for their endurance and stoicism.
Historical novelists obviously have to steep themselves in research in order to write authentic novels. My novels are set only in the recent past, but even so there is a need to catch the flavour and tone of an earlier era. For example, the novel I am currently writing is set in 1983 – a year I remember well – but my protagonist, Lily, was born in 1932 which means that she was a child during WW2. And as she was living in Islington in my fictional world, I have had to look into war time conditions and devastation in London N1 at this time. (she is evacuated for a while!)
And as for Lily’s father – Walter Page – who has died just be.fore the novel opens, but whose shadow is felt in Lily’s story- well, he was born in 1892 so a positive late victorian I can see that a visit to the Victoria and Albert museum may well be the next venture for me and my friend, Carol!
There is a wonderful poem by the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, called People:
No people are uninteresting.
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.
and later in the poem:
Not people die but worlds die in them.
And it’s these worlds that, once we are older with fewer years ahead of us than lie behind, we want to know. To tap into what lies behind us.
Perhaps we should all write memoirs and hide them away until a day in the distant future when our children and their children might want to know answers to the questions they didn’t think to ask.