Like many others, my imagination has played a central role in my life ever since I was a young boy, and recently, in connection with my recent work, I’ve been thinking about that role and how it has changed as I’ve grown up. As a child, I lived much of my life within imagined worlds; fictional countries which I would map and for which I would create entire histories. I would inhabit these places, hidden from everyone else, and while I walked, I would be walking not in the real world, but in my mind. I can still to this day remember one particular map in all its detail; the mountain ranges, the plains, the forests which were always a particular favourite of mine. I can even list the names of the towns and cities (Aquidos, Anasrehlon, Varimeere), yet while this ‘place’ has remained unchanged, whilst my imagination as a place is only a little different (one might say that the country I created was a map of my mind) the uses made of my imagination have altered. As a child I imagined the imagined, as an adult I imagine reality, and often the unimaginable.
Going back to my childhood, my imagination provided me with a means of escape (not that I needed to escape anywhere – I was fortunate enough to have the perfect upbringing). I’d always wanted to see the world unspoilt, an Arcadian vision without cars, planes, pollution, machines or any trace of the modern. And in a sense, this is I believe, what first fired my interest in the past. As a child and well into my teens – and perhaps early twenties – my interest in history ended at the late 17th century, certainly well before the Industrial Revolution, when the modern world began to develop and my vision of a rural Arcadia began to collapse. In some ways, my imagined world was a pick of the best bits of the (somewhat idealised) past; the ancient sprawling forests, beautiful timber-framed houses. When I looked at an old pair of 16th century shoes, a bottle from a 17th century tavern, I was picturing their place in a comparatively unspoiled landscape.
Of course, as a child, my impressions of the past were, as I said, somewhat idealised; they were little more than romantic impressions of an untamed idyll. In reality of course, the past, at least on a human level was, I came to understand, far from romantic; life was short, harsh and often brutal. So as I grew older, and while I still used my imagination to find my way back into the past, I didn’t imagine the imagined, but rather, as I said earlier, the unimaginable: the reality of the lives of others.
In recent years, this change in emphasis has seen the boundaries of my interest in history widen to include the twentieth century; in particular the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the slaughter of World War One. Yet although these very difficult subjects are far removed from the invented landscapes of my childhood, my memories of maps and the stories created within them, provide an interesting, and I believe vital counterpoint to my understanding of such subjects. One of the problems with studying the Holocaust (and indeed World War One) is not only the sheer scale of the suffering, but also the fact that often the victims of both are, in the eyes of history, just that: victims. To say otherwise, i.e. to say that they weren’t only victims, is not to take away from the terrible suffering they endured, but rather to emphasise it, to focus our minds; they weren’t only victims, they were people with lives both behind them and ahead of them; pasts that for many were happy. They all had childhoods, and perhaps imagined their own fantasy worlds. Many, caught up in the Holocaust, were still inhabiting them – they were still of course, children.
As I’ve said, as a child, I would walk and imagine myself in my invented landscape, but as I grew older, although I still walked and imagined myself elsewhere, it wasn’t within an invented world that I walked, but rather a real world; that of my home town, Oxford’s past. Of course one might argue that this past was a much a fabrication as the map I drew as a child, but nevertheless, it was constructed from fragments of the past – drawings, paintings, descriptions in books, photographs. I could never know for sure what things looked like, or how it must have been to walk through the city’s streets (for example during the 14th century) but my imagination did its best to conjure a picture. Of course, as well as those things listed above, there are parts of the city which are contemporary with the past and these buildings and streets are particularly important when looking for that which has long since gone; just as I have found in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ieper.
One man who did so much to capture Oxford before much of its past was demolished in the late 18th century was a German artist and musician called John Malchair. His drawings are amongst the most beautiful and indeed haunting images of a city I have seen, particularly his views of Friar Bacon’s study, an unusual edifice which was sadly demolished in 1779.
One particularly poignant drawing (below) shows the remaining arch, when all above it has been taken down.
In my mind, as I walk, I suppose one might say I am often trying to rebuild Friar Bacon’s Study. Walking as a means of remembering then is important to me although it does throw up interesting philosophical questions (which I’ve touched on before) namely, what is it we are remembering when we ‘remember’ events which we ourselves have not experienced. As Paul Ricoeur asks in his book, ‘Memory, History, Forgetting,’ ‘Of what are there memories? Whose memory is it?’.
The invented world I ‘walked in’ as a child was a fiction, an amalgam of all the fragments of an unspoiled landscape which I could see in parts around me. And, in a sense, when ‘remembering’ the past of Malchair’s Oxford, the Great War and the Holocaust, I am creating a fiction of sorts – a world created from fragments; photographs, drawings, letters and documentary evidence. The past becomes my imaginary world.
So what is it which separates the past and my past imaginary landscapes? It is this: it is the theme of this residency; Residue.