26th December 2013: It’s mid-winter, and London is deep in darkness, wind and rain. It’s the time of year when the house fills up – sleeping bodies in every room – and me with a cup of coffee, reading through the long, dark, early mornings. And it’s also the season for timeslips when in the darkness time seems to wrinkle and the past gets awfully close.
I am reading ‘Jack Maggs’ by Peter Carey, a convict’s story set in London in 1837. (And from the very first page you know you are in the hands of a master, because 1837 may be the past for us, but for the book’s characters it’s bang up to date. London has discovered gas light. ‘This light had shone all the way from the Elephant and Castle: gas light blazing and streaming like great torches; sausages illuminated, fish and ice gleaming, chemist shops aglow like caves with their variegated vases illuminated from within. The city had become a fair ground . . . a man from the last century would not have recognised it; a man from even 15 years ago would have been confused.’)
In the early morning darkness it is very easy to believe in Jack Maggs and Victorian London.
So now I am thinking that museums are only one of dozens of ways in which we reach back into the past and remember it. We also know it and remember it through novels, film, dance, music, food, gardening, stories – the list is endless. And endlessly interesting.
Maybe we will cover them all next year?
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