In his excellent book, ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’, David Lowenthal writes:
“Among the Swahili, the deceased who remain alive in the memory of others are called the ‘living-dead’; they become completely dead only when the last to have known them are gone.”
Having read this, I began to think about Henry Jones, my great-great-grandfather who took his own life in Cefn-y-Crib in 1889. For all intents and purposes, he had, until I (and another distant relative) had begun to research him, been ‘completely dead’ in that anyone with a knowledge of who he was would also have passed away. For many years therefore, he would have existed as a name, inscribed on his grave or recorded in various documents such as census returns. He would have been, apparently, nothing more than that.
Now however, he is part of my family tree, ‘reconnected’ – albeit abstractly – to his own loved ones and those who came both before and after he lived. But a list of names, connected or otherwise is only a part of the story. As Tim Ingold writes, in his book ‘Lines – a Brief History‘:
“The consanguineal line is not a thread or a trace but a connector.”
The line connecting Henry Jones to his forebears and descendants tells us nothing about him. As Ingold explains; ‘Reading the [genealogical] chart, is a matter not of following a storyline but of reconstructing a plot.’ What I want, as far as is possible, is the story, the narrative as it was written at the time.
As I wrote in my essay ‘What is History?‘:
“Human beings [Ingold writes] also leave reductive traces in the landscape, through frequent movement along the same route… The word writing originally referred to incisive trace-making of this kind.’ By walking and leaving our reductive traces on the ground therefore… we could be said to be writing or drawing ourselves upon the landscape – writing or drawing our own history.”
It was only when I visited Hafodyrynys in May 2008 that Henry Jones became – for want of an expression better suited to the 21st century – in the words of the Swahili, ‘living-dead’ again. It was only then, as I walked around the village where Henry Jones lived, walking the same roads and pathways, that I began to read – as far as was possible – a part of his story. I knew the dates of his birth and death (I’ve since learned of his suicide) but these are plot points. Only when retold as part of the story do they start to make an impact, and that story can only be read in the places where he walked.
As I walked, I felt as if I was both recording my own story on the roads and pathways around Cefn-y-Crib, whilst reading that of my ancestors, in particular my paternal grandmother, who lived as a child nearby in Hafodyrynys and who passed away a few months after my visit.
A quote from Christopher Tilley’s ‘The Materiality of Stone, Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology’ illustrates this point:
“The body carries time into the experience of place and landscape. Any moment of lived experience is thus orientated by and toward the past, a fusion of the two. Past and and present fold in upon each other. The past influences the present and the present rearticulates the past.”
As we walked (I visited with my dad and girlfriend, Monika), we would phone her up and tell her where we were, and I couldn’t help but feel that we were walking directly within her memories. Time it seemed had collapsed for a while.
As I wrote as part of an investigation in the Old London Road at Shotover:
“Thinking about it now one can take that analogy and think of it [the road] instead as piece of tape which runs and runs and runs and which every step upon it is like the recording head changing the ground, changing the particles on the tape just a little. And just as we record when we walk so we also play, play the ground which passes beneath our feet. We can hear very distantly the thoughts which came before us.”
So how do we read or hear these ‘stories’, written into the ground and the landscape so many years before we were even born? One clue comes in the following extract from Christopher Tilley’s book, ‘The Materiality of Stones, Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology‘.
“The painter sees the tree and the trees see the painter, not because the trees have eyes, but because the trees affect, move the painter, become part of the painting that would he impossible without their presence. In this sense the trees have agency and are not merely passive objects. Dillon comments: The trees ‘see’ the painter in a manner comparable to that in which the mirror ‘sees’ the painter: that is, the trees, like the mirror, let him become visible: they define a point of view on him which renders visible for him something that otherwise would remain invisible – his outside, his physiognomy, his carnal presence… The trees and mirror function as Other.”
If we take the analogy of the mirror for a moment and return again to my essay ‘What is History?‘:
“In a famous definition of the Metaphysical poets (a group of 17th century British poets including John Donne), Georg Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, described their common trait of ‘looking beyond the palpable’ whilst ‘attempting to erase one’s own image from the mirror in front so that it should reflect the not-now and not-here…’
Just as the trees function as ‘Other’ therefore, so must the sun, the stars, the clouds, hills, mountains, the sea, rivers and so on. Where we are in the world, where we stand or walk, which direction we are facing are all significant features in this respect. We are what we are because of where we are at a given moment. We exist in relation to [these ‘Others’] and are at any given moment defined by them….
Last year I visited Hafodyrynys in Wales, the village where my grandmother grew up. Whilst standing on top of the hill where she played as a child and across which her father walked on his way to work in the mines at Llanhilleth, I looked and saw a view I knew he would have seen. I found it strange to think that a hundred years ago he would have stood there, just where I was, at a time when I did not exist. A hundred years on and I was there when he did not exist. And yet we shared something in that view. We had both for a time been defined by it. It was as if the view could still recall him and even though it was new to me, that I was nonetheless familiar.”
We are defined by the world around us and as such we might be said to be remembered by that world. But of course over time the world changes and where things disappear, so do, to some extent, memories. We therefore have to fill in the gaps. I once wrote something about this during a residency at OVADA in Oxford in 2007.
“In the film, the visitors to the Park are shown an animated film, which explains how the Park’s scientists created the dinosaurs. DNA, they explain, is extracted from mosquitoes trapped in amber and where there are gaps in the code sequence, so the gaps are filled with the DNA of frogs; the past is in effect brought back to life with fragments of the past and parts of the modern, living world. This ‘filling in the gaps’ is exactly what I have done throughout my life when trying to imagine the past, particularly the past of the city in which I live.”
I appreciate that my metaphors are beginning to stack up a little. However, where we can fill in the gaps with our own experience is where we can begin to see the past as it was when it was the present.