I’ll bet you recognise this quotation. I was firmly convinced I knew it by heart, and yet when I looked it up in Hartley’s novel I saw that I’d got it wrong. I'd thought it was ‘The past is another country’ (and to be honest, my version still sounds better to me!). Out of curiosity, I looked it up on Google, and found that many others have made the same mistake. I think perhaps it’s been conflated with another familiar quote, from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, which is something like: ‘… but that was in another country, and beside, the wench is dead.’
Whatever – it’s an example of the shivering sands of memory: we think we
know things, but we don’t. But I think perhaps the point I want to make is almost the opposite one: that we actually know more than we think we do about the way things were in the past. Let’s look at the assertion made in the second part of this quotation: ‘they do things differently there.’ Is it true? Did they do things differently in that other country which is the past?
In many ways the answer is outstandingly obvious: of course they did things differently there. They didn’t have mobile phones, for a start. But in terms of how people thought, what they cared about, how they related to each other, what they were afraid of, how they felt about life – in those terms, were they so very different from us?
My first historical novel was Warrior King, and it’s about Alfred the Great. When I go into schools and talk about it, this is the story I tell them about how I came to write it. I needed to check the story of how he burnt the cakes, I say, just for a detail in some other story I was writing (Finnegan’s Cake, since you ask, about a time-travelling dog. Still inexplicably unpublished, still available…) Obviously, the first thing I did was to turn to Google. Then I realised that the location of Alfred’s unfortunate early attempt at Masterchef was Athelney, which is only about forty minutes’ drive from where I live. I thought that Athelney would be to Alfred as Tintagel is to Arthur. At the very least there would be a bakery or a cafe called Alfred the Cake, and an array of books about the only monarch in British history to be called ‘the Great’ – so off I went.
But there were no itsy witsy shops with punning names, no explanatory pamphlets. Just a discreet plaque, an unimpressive Victorian monument – and an astonishingly evocative landscape of water and willows and glittering birds, which could hardly have changed in the eleven hundred odd years since Alfred fled to the Somerset marshes to take shelter from the Vikings.
It’s an extraordinary story. We know what happened – we know that he emerged to defeat the Danes, and then made a peace which lasted long enough for him to create a country which was stronger and safer for his people. But people then didn’t know that this was what was going to happen. He had only a few men with him – ‘a small troop’ as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it. The Vikings had conquered every other part of England apart from Wessex, and with Alfred out of the way they ‘over-rode and occupied the land of Wessex, and drove many of the people across the sea’. Surely no-one would have put money on Alfred’s chances of surviving, let alone managing to gather an army together and emerge from the marshes to defeat the Northmen.But he did. A number of things intrigued me about this. One was the drama of it: this was a real turning point – if Alfred hadn’t managed to pull it off, England would have been ruled entirely by the Danes, and today we’d be living in a different country and speaking a different language. Another was that here was an extraordinary leader – remarkable and unexpected in many ways which I haven’t space here to go into (read the book!) – and yet today, very few people know anything about him. And yet everyone’s heard of Arthur, who didn’t even exist!
But the other thing was – what was he like? What motivated him? (Apart, obviously, from the understandable wish to stay alive.) He was the youngest of five children, four of them boys. He was clever, sensitive and thoughtful. Would he ever have expected that he would become king? It seems unlikely, given his place in the family. Was he prepared for it? What went through his mind during those weeks when he was holed up in the marshes? How did he manage to persuade other people – and himself – that he could defeat Guthrum, despite all appearances? Where were his family, his wife and children, while all this was going on?
And then I wondered about the ordinary people. What effect did the endless series of battles have on them? Did they care about who ruled them, or were they too busy trying to survive to even think about it?
I wanted to explore what life was like for all these people in that other country which is the past.
They were faced with very different situations and dilemmas, but I don’t think they were so very different from us. I think it’s possible to imagine how they felt, what they thought.
But of course, I could be completely wrong. Now, how is it you can you never find a time-travelling dog when you need one…?