The Past is Another Country…

…they do things differently there (L.P.Hartley )

Almost 20 years ago I was a care-worker, paying visits to support elderly folk who were, for various reasons, unable to cope on their own. I would provide support in a number of ways – cooking, washing and dressing,and cleaning, for example.

One man I visited quite often would talk a lot about his younger days – as is natural. He had a wealth of stories, and I always told him he should get someone to write them down. It is the ordinary person’s stories that are frequently the most interesting, and the ones that we usually don’t hear. Famous politicians, sports stars, movie stars…well, they write autobiographies, or have them written for them, and we hear all about the other famous people they knew and the hotels they stayed in…yawn, yawn, yawn.

But we hear far less about the family in the village 80 years ago, their day to day life and how the outside world impacted upon them.

Below, there is a photo of London Road, just outside of Tunbridge Wells, taken earlier today.


My client told me that during his youth, he would walk back along this road after an evening out in town, describing how there was nothing but open fields on both sides for much of the walk. Looking at it now, it is hard to picture that, since I have never known it any way other than how it looks now.

But prior to this, in his childhood, he lived in the village of Groombridge, on the other side of Tunbridge Wells, and he told me how, as a schoolboy during the First World War, he and his classmates ran out of the class one day and across a field, to see a German Zeppelin airship that had just been shot down.

It is stories like this, that are the genuinely interesting stories that come out of the past.

And for my large Work In Progress, the past really is a foreign country. Much of it is set in Persia and India, in a time frame that covers some 300 years up until the late 19th century.

Now, I was about to write that if it is difficult for me to picture the main road near where I live as it was some 50 to 75 years ago, then it is far more difficult for me to picture the places in India and Persia where and when I have set my novel, but then I realised that this is not actually true.

And so this post is now taking a turn that I had not expected when I sat down to write it.

The Indian capital at the time was at Fatehpur Sikri, which today is just the remains of those buildings – it was only occupied for some 22 years, and then abandoned. I have visited the site and walked around it, and it is quite easy to imagine it occupied by Akhbar, his court, and the general population.

I have never been to Persia (modern day Iran), so my impressions are formed only at second hand. And much of what I have read consists of works about the 1500’s, and I am familiar with many of the paintings of the period, so again it seems almost natural to imagine it as it was then.

And then when I have travelled in India, as well as in the Middle East, I have spent a lot of time visiting the old parts of the towns and cities, and many rural areas where life follows the same patterns that it has for hundreds of years, and so, again, it seems more natural to picture the settings for my book in those time periods that concern me.

Finally, researching these areas, I often come across old black and white photos of places of interest to me, and since I have not been there, they are the only impression of these places that I have.

Of course, Tunbridge Wells in the Victorian era is much harder for me to visualise. All of the modern buildings get in the way of my imagination. All of the roads are surfaced with tarmac, the open spaces have largely gone, and many parts of the common that used to be open and windswept are now covered in trees.

On a slightly different note….

As a project, I occasionally take photos in sepia of the area around where I live, as though they might have been taken about 80 years ago – around the time that my elderly client was walking along the London Road, winds blowing across the fields either side of him, and the only light from the moon. Each photo that I take has something in it to show that it was taken recently though, rather than a long time ago, such as a modern vehicle, a modern street lamp, road markings, or modern windows. The shot below is an example.

Holden Pond

Easy to feel that it might be taken in 1930.

70 thoughts on “The Past is Another Country…

  1. Mick, I had chance to read diaries of my great grandfather, he would only write about significant events. Having read them I can still visualize life in early 1900’s but for average person today current movies set in old times is only what they imagine. I don’t think these movies are perfect depictions. I have also ran through old pictures, it’s quite an eye opener to peek into past -clothes, buildings and surroundings and how people used to dress up! From what I know, an average person is hardly interested in history. And writing diary is virtually unknown in digital world! Enjoyed reading this post. Hope to read more from you Mick!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Arv. I suppose the average person is no more or less interested in history than they used to be. On the one hand, there is so much competing for their attention, these days, whilst on the other it is so easy to google old photographs and information. There is, for example, a Facebook group who put up historical photos of Tunbridge Wells, my hometown, and discussion threads, who have almost 8000 members.

      As for dairy writing, it is probably going out of fashion, but I think quite a few people keep online diaries or journals. It’s not the same, though.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. You’re right! We have too much distractions specially the digital one
        Everything is available online….almost. yes there are online options for writing diary, but I doubt there are many takers. we have moved on as a society. Today we would rather share things on social network rather than making it a personal affair like diary!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes. I fear that most ‘diaries’ are scattered and random entries across social media. I don’t think that the authors will have much chance of ever looking at them as a collective whole. – although who knows what the future technology will bring!

          Liked by 2 people

        1. Quite varied, Arv. Hard to pick any particular author, but settings in Victorian England, 20th century Europe, any time in India – they all particularly appeal. But having said that, most of the historical work I read is not fiction.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. BTW, I’m yet to hear from fellow blogger on his book printing experience. although he has written it on his blog, it’s in Hindi. Do you have resource to convert it into English? Online??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately all of the online translators I’ve come across seem to really struggle with Hindi/English conversion. I suppose they are just too different. English to French, for example, they handle very well, probably because the actual languages have more in common. But if you send me the link, I’ll give it a go and see what happens!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re absolutely right Mick! It’s the stories of ordinary people that enthrall me the most…I’ve spend many hours listening to my great grandmother’s experiences….they are treasures to cherish!
    And the sepia works really well:)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? Thinking about how things might have looked or been in the past. And not just in a romanticized way. Here in the States there’s a tendency to talk about the Good Old Days, but we tend to leave out the part about like black men hanged from trees, women without agency, and workers without rights.

    I guess that’s human nature, to sort of gloss over the bad stuff so you can think about the pleasant memories. But if we forget entirely, we lose the lessons.

    Anyway, that’s a little tangent from out of nowhere. Guess who’s procrastinating at her desk today😝

    But, you’re right: we need the stories of everyday people. Those are the kind that can teach us something.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh we all do it in a romanticized way, Monica – it’s called nostalgia!
      We do need those stories. Amongst the history books we have at home are one or two that dig up the stories of ordinary people, rather than kings and bishops, and they really are the more interesting tales. They are the ones that we can relate to, after all.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Interesting how adding a bit of tint to a B/W shot can imply age. When I was back in the midwest for my nephew’s wedding, their reception was in an old dance hall that had a long history. I tweaked a picture of it for B/W, slight sepia, slight softening and sure enough it made the hall look old-timey.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sadly, we don’t often realise what stories the old have to tell us until it’s too late. My grandmother, born in the 1890s, told me many tales about growing up in NZ, but nowadays I wish I’d also spent more time with her sister and other relatives of her generation.

    And of course I was too young to think up the questions that could trigger fresh memories, so I tended to hear the same anecdotes over and over again. By the time I was old enough to really appreciate what I was hearing, some relatives were too old to tell me much; others were dead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Unfortunately, I had the same experience. My grandmother lived with us when I was a child, but I know absolutely nothing about her childhood, or even her earlier married days. And now it is too late, as there is no one left who could tell me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My mother always wished she’d known more about her grandmothers. I’ve tried to fill in some of the gaps from the official records, but I wish we had more first-hand stories, even though family traditions are often at odds with the recorded facts. It’s made me realise what a gap there can be between fact and opinion, and what a chancy thing any study of the past must be!

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I lived in Gurgaon in the early 1990’s. It was open, wooded and cooler than Delhi. Gurgaon borders Delhi.

    Now, we have groups of residents who lobby and fight hard to protect the remaining wooded areas from the builders who have converted much of this place into an ugly concrete jungle. They would strip away every tree, every leaf to build, ruin and make money

    It’s a tough change

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You reminded me, Mick, of how I would so often try to encourage my mother into writing her biography. Back in the sixties she was a typist, and I offered to buy her a Remington, or Imperial, as she’d have been quite capable of using it despite her frailty (she was mentally sharp ’til the end). She always replied to me that her story wasn’t interesting enough – and this was a woman who lived in South London during the blitz years, and spent years in Singapore as the wife of a serviceman – but of course, to myself and other family members, her personal recollections would’ve been priceless. She passed away without ever attempting to write, but it’s such a lost opportunity to the rest of us.

    As to places and nostalgia, then I notice within myself a peculiar sensation whenever I revisit the small town in the Home Counties where I grew up. It’s a subtle thing, totally irrational and sort of on the edges of consciousness, but I feel as if the people now populating the town, wandering along the High Street, somehow don’t ‘get it’; they don’t realise what the place is which they now inhabit – because to me, it’s something different; it’s the shops that once were there but no longer are; the steam trains that no longer run beneath the bridge that bisects the High Street, the Ford Consuls, odd Humber and the marching bowler-hatted commuters. It’s ridiculous, I know, but there is that subtle sense that the newcomers have turned the place into what it is not.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, we have a sense of place, Hariod, for example where we grew up is one of the places that we belong, even if we don’t live there now, but we also belong in time; in that case, the time that we were in that town. And in the case of where we live now, that time is now. When I pass through a town that I lived in 45 years ago, which has changed almost beyond recognition, I feel, firstly, that I am in a totally different place, one which has nothing to do with me, but then I may recognise it as the same, if I go to a building that I recognise, for example, but I then feel that my time there has been buried, like a strata of debris in an archaeological dig.

      And it was a real shame that you could not persuade your mum to write down her memories. Most people don’t realise that their memories will be really interesting to succeeding generations.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. We are so lucky to hear stories about the past from people who actually lived through them! Sadly, we don’t always realize it at the time. My grandmother talked a lot about the world she grew up in, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t always listen as carefully as I should have. But at least I remember some of her stories now, and that’s a gift.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The apartment building where I live now and many of the other buildings around it were only put up in the last fifteen or twenty years, but I already find it a little difficult to remember what it used to be like. Places can change so very quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I love those stories too – the ones that would be lost, if not for those who repeat them and carry them forward. Whenever I visit a museum it’s always the personal items that seem to speak to me, the minutiae of lives lived.

    And I enjoyed the fun turn your post took! One of the things I love most about writing is that we get to, for a little while, inhabit another world or time 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Helen. Those personal items are the most interesting. Again, it’s the real people, rather than the famous ones who lived sheltered and artificial lives. the ones who survived hand to mouth.

      And I’m not sure about a fun turn – it rather caught me out! I had no choice other than to just carry on as I did, or scrub it and think up another post!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shail. Yes, we hear dozens of slightly different versions of the lives of kings and presidents, bishops and generals, but I think the real fascination is in finding out how all of the real people, the ones who had no safety nets or servants, no reserves of food when the harvest failed, how they managed to live their lives and survive.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, I’m wary about giving advice, but I’d like to think it needs leisure to get the most out of it – but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

      Yes, the descriptive writing…a potential minefield for the author, especially with historical fiction. There’ll always be someone who spots some discrepancy and pounces on it!

      Thanks, Jackie.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. PS Farhad who works in the office and who I have yet to write about is from Persia…. I could tap him for some opinions. He has a fascinating set of pictures when the Shag was in power. Women in dresses and sitting on the beach…..very western. very cultured. In fact he has some fascinating stories to tell….( he still calls it Persia)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh No…. I think he did more for his country that the current ” management!” I know he was greedy and a bit of a despot but I think the people there lived a better life than now. Naturally for women, time has stood still or even retracted. re my typo… H will probably be spitting feathers. I rather like the cache of the Shah

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Before I became disabled in the 1980’s, I, too, used to care for an elderly lady who was born around the turn of the century, and we had some fascinating conversations about my hometown (now a big city). We talked about her childhood days there when she lived two streets away from me. We often sat over a cup of tea, looking at old, black and white or sepia photographs of herself when she was young and where she, her parents and her grandparents grew up; all local. It was so interesting to see how much things had changed over the years. Apparently, where my house stands now, was once a huge apple orchard with the river (still there) running along the side of it. All that is left of that now is a few large fruit trees on a high bank at the bottom of the garden. The railway line (built in the 1880’s) which went over the river is still there and in fact, now runs past those actual fruit trees.

    Freya is no longer with us, of course, but I still value the times we had together, seeing how much has changed in and around the city in which I currently live.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have abiding memories of lots of fruit trees close by where I lived as a child. there was a farm nearby, which had orchards of apples and plum trees – I did my share of scrumping there, being chased off more than a few times.

      Nowadays, it is a huge housing estate.

      The past is fascinating, of course, because it is now more out of reach than even the furthest planets!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Mick,
    This is my first visit to your blog; I was just looking for something on the net and landed here. Happy to find out a great WordPress blog… 🙂

    Just as you’ve said, I also think the stories of the ordinary people are the most authentic ones with interesting facts of the bygone era. I find history intriguing; whenever I visit a historical monument or something, I try to imagine how the people used to live there, their society and culture…it gives me quite a thrilling sensation.

    Enjoyed reading your post. Loved your blog… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jools

    Lovely piece. My first novel is set in Turkey (present day). I found it very useful to return to the area (which I had visited many times before, though not for several years) to immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells. I took loads of photos, particularly at Ephesus, but also of many ordinary things and places. Most significantly – and it proved very helpful to adding sensory detail – I carried a notebook with me and wrote endless observations on sights, sounds and smells. Most of it didn’t make the book, but plenty did, and I was satisfied that it brought specificity and context to many scenes. It’s definitely worth the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

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