Living in the Past

I dreamed of London for years, if not decades, before I got the courage to make the leap across the world.

London is both better and worse and bigger and smaller than what I imagined, but mostly it is just different. I think this is because the London of my imagination was made up not so much of movies and tv series as it is with a city like New York, which I can imagine so vividly and visually (although probably just as inaccurately).

Rather, my vision of London was influenced by my reading and studies: Tudors and Shakespeare at High School, the Roman period in Classics, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and Chaucer in English, along with writers Romantic, Satyrical, Poetic, Political, and Diaristic. Even the fantasy worlds of old friends Lewis and Tolkein got in there, and I’m sure I expected a little more Dahl about the place.

Because of this conglomeration, and because London is not so constantly and pervasively televised as many American cities, I would say I had a muddled, mixed-media, mixed-time-period vision of the city. And perhaps I still do, and perhaps that’s actually in a way accurate.

The history here is so layered, it’s easy to miss it with all the modern life going on in front of or on top of it. One of my favourite things about walking around my current swanky skyscraper work area is to take a short cut through an alley and stumble upon an ancient-looking church or theatre or Dickensian building nestled between two glassy office-worker tombs. It’s very reminiscent of Up, and I love that these relics are still hanging on, presumably guarded by National Trust Protection.

But one unhappy commenter recently made a claim about England on this blog that made me think about how we (Kiwis, Londoners, or Kiwis in London) view history. The point he made, among other dodgy claims, was:

“…most importantly we dont have inter fighting over land claims as you do in NZ.”

Hmm… I have two rebuttals to this point.

Firstly, I think ‘inter fighting’ is rather overstating the situation over land claims in NZ. The Waitangi Tribunal is in place to try to rectify the wrongs that were done in the process of European settlement, and to give each claimant a voice. This is not a perfect system, and not everyone can be satisfied all the time. However, I’m proud that we at least have a system, acknowledge past errors, and attempt to redress the problem. This is not something that can be said for every country subjected to colonisation.

Secondly, umm… I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time in many classes learning about a whole lot of inter fighting over land that went on in England: Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, Normans, Catholics, Protestants, Tories, Whigs, Royalists, Parliamentarians, and it looks like we might almost be able to add Europeans to the list, if the current political attitude towards Immigration is anything to go by.

This made me wonder why this commenter didn’t see his country’s older history as his history.

In NZ, we only have a few hundred years of European (and therefore written) history. Abel Tasman briefly landed in a deadly encounter in 1642, and James Cook did a tikitour about the place in 1769. After a bit of trading guns, food, and sex, and the resulting Maori Wars (between Maori, but with the aid of European Muskets), the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 and settlement began in force.

Even putting aside this very Euro-centric version of history, Maori have only been in NZ for around 750 years, according to recent radiocarbon dating. Seeing as there was only one type of mammal native to NZ, and this a bat, it conjures images for me of leafy, ferny forest undisturbed by human hand and dominated by the calls of tui, kea, kakapo, pukeko, and kereru, with Toroa winging over clean oceans and Moa lumbering around the bush.

This means that the history of NZ is short, and modern, and fairly well-documented. It is heavily influenced by modern world-events, but also very separate from anything happening earlier, and naturally isolated by its watery boundaries. It is certainly not as interwoven with other countries and as intricately layered as that of England.

For me, this has always made the longer histories of Europe absolutely fascinating, and I think a part of why I was drawn to my particular fields of study: Classics because the Ancient Greeks and Romans were a couple of the oldest ‘modern’ but ‘dead’ civilisations, that rose and fell before Maori ever landed on the shores of Aotearoa; English because I found it fascinating to read the progression of words through time and what people thought worth writing about during the long eras before my country knew the written word or the written word knew my country. Shakespeare, for example, died before a white face ever came in sight of the long white cloud.

I guess I also feel like England’s history is my history, too, since the vague memory of my ancestry originates in the UK, and not from that long ago really, in the scheme of things.

Having studied so many of the things that are around me now, being a curious person, and perhaps not being from here, should in theory make the history stand out from the modernity more so for me than it might for someone who either wasn’t interested, or had been surrounded by it all their life. But even after a fairly short time here, I find it far too easy to walk past a palace or historic building or just a remarkable Tudor house by the tube station – too busy staring down at my phone, or avoiding fundraisers, or just not able to stop in the flow of foot traffic.

Reading Samuel Pepys‘ Diary in Dunedin, it was easy to imagine the Great Fire engulfing the city in flame and fear. But standing in front of the towering Monument to those who died, I do a 360 and all I can see is the 21st Century. Walking around Seven Dials today, I knew that this was once a squalor so dangerous that Dickens would only enter with a guard of three policemen in order to get fodder for Oliver Twist, but I could only see the quirky bakeries and windows of kooky bling. Even a big historic tourist attractions like St Paul’s has burned down (repeatedly), and been rebuilt, and been bombed, and rebuilt, and is an entirely different structure to that of over a thousand years ago.

But if the St Paul’s in front of me is not the St Paul’s that first stood on the site, that doesn’t make it any less impressive. In fact, its layered history makes it all the more interesting, and the same goes for the rest of London. I just need to rekindle the imagination I used to recreate it from afar, and I will see the people and places and events from all over history that live here on top of each other and side by side.

And while some of them have faded away, or burned down, or crumbled, without even a blue National Trust tag to mark that ‘so and so lived here’, others are celebrated and preserved, on the streets and walls, in the museums and galleries and historical houses, and paraded along on walking tours. Many of them are free, many of them are obscure, many of them are weird, but they’re all part of the living history of London.



5 thoughts on “Living in the Past

    1. shapelle Post author

      Ha well fellow uber-geek LD and I went PRE-pub on my bday when they had a Christmas theme on, and while it was certainly interesting, we walked out wondering, where were we? what was the point? did we miss something? That’s not an anti-recommendation of course – I love anything that makes you think and talk about what you’re looking at, and it certainly did that.

  1. shmennikins

    I love the ogre/onion-like layers of London – that you can walk past a building that has a Tudor frontage (recently reno’d by a large bank) built on an Edwardian structure, itself utiilising an existing Georgian site, which was built on the ruins of a pre-conquest storehouse, and not know any of it, necessarily. And the difference in scale – that you can be drinking in a pub with a fellow Kiwi and have them suddenly go quiet as they notice that the wee sign above the bar casually mentions the pub’s had a licence since before James Cook put to sea. No big. It’s not like that makes it particularly old…

    I also love the way the lanes and strange streets (like Seven Dials!) make it feel like a very organic city, rather than somewhere where settlement and cilvilisation was ordered and planned. People and buildings just grew up, shambolically and as of need, like mushrooms.

    Bah, geeky land lawyer part of me also needs to point out that, in terms of ‘inter fighting over land’, the Crown only ever gives back land it owns but isn’t using as settlements. Like, land taken for roading, or schools, or defence buildings, but now unused. Theoretically the Waitangi Tribunal could order the ‘resumption’ of legal title of privately owned land by the original owners (i.e. give it from who owns it now to who owned if before the jiggery-pokery/confiscation), but they don’t use that power. And the truth-and-reconciliation part of the tribunal means even the Corwn’s staunchest opponents (like Tuhoe) engage with the process and have come to respect it. I’m super-geekily proud of the Crown’s attempts to acknowledge and atone for its treatment of Maori, and Maoridom’s willingness to work with them to achieve harmony (accepting on average something like a 90% land loss) and move forward into a more truly equal future.

    1. shapelle Post author

      Very good geeky land lawyering of you! As I always say, I know a little bit bout a lot of things, can talk about any thing, but not an expert on many things. What you’ve cleared up about the process backs up that ‘at least we’re trying’, and as you said, all sides are (generally) engaging with the process. It’s not like we’re firing rockets into neighbouring districts or beheading politicians. Peace and props and progress!

  2. Pingback: Looking up again | 1in12million

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