Why on earth are you doing this, Jenny?

Monday, 23 May 2016

How it all began: 

It is the early 1990s. You can tell, because there are four of us in the back seat of a red Ford Escort and we’ve not been pulled over once since we left Bolton. In the front, there is a silence in frosty contrast to the sweaty summer temperature.

My father has decided to take one of his mystery detours. It was already going to be late when we arrived at the campsite, and now it will be well past sunset when we have to start pitching tents and heating beans on the stove. We will be universally grumpy and unmanageable, and my stepmother knows this. But my father cares not, because somewhere round here is what he terms a ‘site’.

It’s unquestionably a relief to get out of the car, away from perpetual elbowing and nudging from the step-siblings. Their eyes are rolling already. We trek to an overgrown megalith, and dad’s eyes widen. He launches into a monologue on ancient Britain, and impels us to place our hands on the stone. “You can actually FEEL the past! It vibrates with history!” he cries, eyes wide and pupils dilated like a druid on belladonna*.

“Can we go back to the car now?”

“Just give it a minute.”

“But nothing’s HAPPENING… there’s nothing to DO here… pleeeeeease can we go back?”

My stepmother joins in the eye-rolling. “Alright, off you go. Christ’s sake, Andrew. Kids aren’t interested in this stuff. See you back at the car.”

She was right about her kids. Not me. I linger. It’s not worth going back right now – the car doesn’t have air-conditioning. I try to follow dad’s instructions.

It is easier without the whinging. In the quiet, I close my eyes and lean on the standing stone. I think about how old it is, about who might have brought it to this place, about what it might have seen in the last millennium if it had had eyes and a memory.

For a brief moment, there is a vibration. Sort of. Something barely tangible happens. It feels as if the stone wants to tell me its story.

This was the moment I realised that history is sticky. It seeps into the gaps between the very atoms of objects, like a very fine treacle, and stays there. It builds over decades and centuries. When we say “Oh, if these walls could talk!” we actually mean “thank god they can’t…the things they’ve seen me do, I’d be arrested for emotional abuse of a brick structure.”

Thereafter it became a habit of mine to see historic places as tactile multimedia interactive installations, and more than once has earned me a stern glare or a pointed cough from a curator or steward (sorry, Caernarvon Castle in particular.) I like to lay hands on walls and windows and floors and wonder ‘what happened here?’ – which leads me to the question which set me off on this journey: do some historical events leave more behind than others? Are some buildings and sites ‘stickier’ with history than others?



*  It turns out my father has form for this. When I first told my mum about the concept for this book she exclaimed, “Blood and sand! You sound just like your father.” and proceeded to recount a humiliating holiday incident in 1980 during which dad lay prone on Glastonbury Tor with his ear to the ground, insisting that King Arthur was speaking to him from within his tomb. 

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