The Past Is Myself

 

“The future is nothing; but the past is myself, my own history, the seed of my present thoughts, the mould of my present disposition…. In the past is my present fate, and in the past also is my real life.”

                                                                    ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

 

 

A popular lifestyle guru claims, “You are not your mind. You are not your thoughts. The past is an illusion.”

But I am my mind, and I am the past. I am the heir to the wisdom, joys and heartbreaks of my family. I am the sum of more than thirty years of life and love with my soulmate. I am the guardian of his truths and his literary legacy and his memories. I am my city’s history, and my country’s, and the pasts of those countries of my spirit.

I devote myself to that past because history is the story, teased from the warp and weft of time.

Research matters. Truth matters. Fidelity in interpreting and reporting the facts matters. The spirit of a place matters. There is no substitute for a living landscape, its sky, its lights and shadows, its sounds and scents and silences, its sun and rain, its horizon. Wikipedia is no substitute for contemporary memoirs, newspapers, letters, diaries, plays, novels, estate records, swords, battlefields, maps, ordnance surveys, army lists, order books: no substitute for the prescient shiver when reading the backhanded script of Horatio Nelson’s last letter to his lover Emma Hamilton, written aboard H.M.S. Victory before the battle of Trafalgar.

My dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom, The signal has been made that the Enemy’s Combined Fleet are coming out of Port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hope of seeing them before tomorrow….

Elsewhere, in the log of H.M.S. Desirée, an officer’s blood spatters the page, giving a terrible immediacy to the battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

The music of a period, from ballad to concerto, evokes that period more powerfully than any virtual reality. It is the soundtrack of the past. It is vital to listen to it.

The literature of the past echoes the voices of its people. It is vital to read it.

The objects of the past speak of those who owned them. As ordinary as a flail, as deadly as a flintlock, to touch them is to touch hands with ghosts, for whom the use of these things had consequences. It is well to understand their significance.

The vast tapestry of the years, the dates, the events, were the very fabric of people’s lives. This was their world, from which there was no escape. It is vital to know that world and the seismic shocks that convulsed it.

I see the past. It is my gift. But to evoke the lives of my characters and tell their stories I must know the facts, and report them without fear or favour. With integrity, as people lived and died, so that the past may illuminate the present, and its lessons never be forgotten.