Pasteurising the Past

I recently visited a very popular historical site near London. It was a place I had always intended to go to, but for some reason it had never actually happened. I’m sure you know how it is. Anyhow, we’d both done a fair amount of preparatory reading and we were really looking forward to it. And it started very well: the car park was actually inside an historic building and we both felt suitably tiny and insignificant as we walked out of the vast enclosed space, towards Admissions and the coffee shop. We bought the new guidebook, which was well-written and beautifully illustrated. Gosh, this was going to be a great visit!

And it started quite well. We went round a couple of exhibitions, and although the noises from several conflicting digital displays was annoying, they didn’t actually drive us out. But our tempers were just starting to get a tiny bit frayed. Then we got to the first of the two displays I was particularly keen to see: a series of timbers that had been revealed in the 1990s, when I was on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee (AMAC), of English Heritage (now Historic England). I was very keen to see these, as I had missed the original AMAC trip, for some reason. When we arrived, there was a huge TV screen with a BBC newsreader blaring forth a commentary. Despite this, we started to look at the timbers, which were still in situ – and very impressive indeed. A few metres away there was another screen, where kids could reassemble the timbers (I think) and then another, where they could do something else digital. Both had loud commentaries that conflicted with the original one(s). So instead of the atmospheric, almost ghostly, display, which I’d anticipated, we were being driven mad by a cacophony of garbled commentaries and flashing screens. To make matters worse, zombies wearing those earphones (audio guides) would drift across whatever we were trying to examine, completely oblivious of our presence. I was strongly tempted to trip them up, but somehow resisted.

I’d hoped to spend at least half an hour with the timbers, but after just ten minutes neither of us could stand it any more – and we made a dash for the exit. I think another screen may have flashed: ‘We hope you enjoyed your visit.’ But I can’t be certain. Although it was still a bit early, we were now both desperate for a bite of lunch and a glass of something hop-filled and soothing. The second place we were both keen to visit was quite close to where we had lunch (which was very good, I have to say) and while we were waiting, Maisie nipped across and booked us into a tour at 1.30, I think it was. It was the only way you could visit, largely I suspect for security reasons, as the place was a major fire hazard.

After lunch, and now feeling refreshed and considerably calmer, we assembled for the guided tour. I was slightly surprised that we were greeted by a lady dressed in Victorian clothes, and warning bells should have sounded. But they didn’t. Such are the anaesthetising effects of good Kentish ales. About a dozen other people arrived and the tour began. Suddenly the lady in the Victorian dress slipped effortlessly into BBC East Enders cockney and we were treated to a hands-on re-enactment of an industrial process. The trouble is, that everything had been sterilised: the materials were clean and bright, whereas in reality they would have been dripping in tar. The lady and her clothes were clean and freshly washed. She had all her teeth, which were gleaming and white. She had no scars, her dress didn’t have a tear or rip on it. Her shoes were clean and well-soled. She didn’t take a swig from a dirty gin bottle. There were no rats. And the place didn’t smell. To be honest, we both found the entire ‘reconstruction’ excruciatingly embarrassing. But why? Surely, in a visual age, it’s better to make an effort to portray the past in three dimensions?

And here were come to the point. Laying aside the fact that I always prefer the vision of the past that inhabits my imagination to some re-enactment, it’s the cleaning-up, the pasteurisation, of pre- or historic times that I detest so strongly. It certainly wasn’t fun to be a Victorian factory or mine worker. Often it was hell on earth. And I wonder what impression of past times modern children are taking away with them after such an experience? I think such misleading impressions add to the complacency of our lives: things weren’t half as bad in the past as we’re sometimes told. Somehow, this adds to our increasing inability to appreciate just how horrible life must be in, say, a 21st Century Bangladeshi sweat-shop. If nothing else, history, and historic sites, should be teaching us how we humans can perpetrate horrors on other people. The recent re-enactments of the Battle of Hastings, that currently feature on News bulletins, never describe what happened to the wounded men – how arrow punctures would have festered. And we certainly aren’t told about the way the families of dead soldiers – on both sides – would have fared in the decades following 1066. All the stress is on those cleanly pressed soldiers on their gleaming chargers. Sorry, but life wasn’t like that then – or now. It’s high time re-enactment grew-up.

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