You could say the past begins just now — five minutes ago. That’s one way of thinking about it. You could say, indeed, that not to have the past is a nightmare: to suffer ‘memory loss’ (a component of dementia) is to live in the eternal present. Four small envelopes dropped on to my doormat once, many years ago. My mother had written the same letter four times, stuck down the envelope and added a stamp four times, gone to the post box four times, all in one day.
It was L.P. Hartley who said, in the prologue to his novel The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Why has this become so widely known and endlessly quoted? More than, say, those of T.S. Eliot, who wrote in ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his ‘Four Quartets’:
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.
Hartley uses the present tense to refer to the past, but the implication of his comment is nonetheless that the past is a mystery, or even (given the British tendency to insularity, never more visible than now) that it’s to be avoided. There is no greater condemnation of a work of art than to say that it has ‘dated.’ Of course, once copyright is out of the way, as with Shakespeare’s work, you can make sure it never dates by changing it, or setting it in any time or place that you want. Above all else, it must be made ‘to speak to us now.’
Sometimes it seems we have become obsessed with the present: a kind of self-inflicted dementia. There was that mocking phrase a few years back — ‘Oh that’s SO last week [month/ year].’ Perhaps we must concede the triumph of fashion, but fashion is a ubiquitous and malleable notion: we use it to show both approval (‘so fashionable’) and disapproval (‘it’s no more than a passing fashion.’) But perhaps our work from the past does belong in its own time; it is indeed ‘different’ and needs therefore to stay in that foreign country. We might even think it’s better left there because we’ve made better work since! On the other hand, it’s possible to write something that is ahead of its time — and surely then it deserves to be revisited.
When I’m screwing up newspaper for the stove I sometimes reflect on the labour that has gone into it all: layout, text, images. That’s a cliché, but when authors pass a bookshop with an ‘Only 50p’ basket, do they think ‘OMG, is mine in there?’ With circulation falling, printed newspapers seem to be sliding into history. Books, as printed objects, may eventually follow: though currently sales are up, in the university library where I have been based, the students are rarely to be seen anywhere near the shelves. The email you just sent is still there in the folder and that makes sending it again unlikely; in fact everything is still there in our computers even if “deleted”, as the police know very well. Does material posted on the internet remain forever? Data floats around us like motes in a sunbeam: it feels as if we are in a digital world where everything remains present whether we like it or not.
To bend Eliot towards writers: ‘All our present work and all our past work may be present alongside our future work.’ Though technology is significant: in my own field of film and TV, a work that is not digitised is increasingly likely to be abandoned unless someone can be found who wants to pay for it to be scanned, and that can be expensive if repair work is needed. Books, as solid pieces of paper and card, may become subject to the same iron laws, needing to be digitally available to survive.
The digital world could approximate to our inner world, where, I would argue, the past and present float in one unified space. Our bodies are constantly rebuilding themselves (though I’m not sure mine is any more) and so we aren’t the person we were thirty years ago. But of course we are that person, though we had not experienced then what we have experienced since. We are different now in the sense that we have been affected by events and as a consequence, it’s probable that we remake the past constantly because our perception of it changes.
And here is the irony: I think I’m defying the fashionistas when I refuse to see my own work from years back as dead and gone, and when I dream blissfully of seeing all ten of my filmed works landing on the doormat at once. But it’s the media giants who agree with me, as long they are the only ones that make money out of it. They want to offer everything that ever was, is now and ever will be, for free, amen. As Gillian Welch puts it so well in a song from her album Time (The Revelator):
Everything is free now, that’s what they say Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
And she’s left pondering the possibility of working in a bar.
My interest in exploring the issues raised in this article comes from having a career that dates from 1978. Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself attending screenings of films I wrote a long time ago and also seeing a theatre play restaged. Whatever medium we prefer, our work is an event, not just an object. Opening that book again, seeing a film screened again, when there’s a public reading of that poem again, something happens: not only are memories evoked but the work is experienced anew. We may find our work has had effects we’ve known nothing of: my film Remembrance inspired one man to join the Navy, he told me thirty-five years later at a recent screening. Viewing it again, he felt that it ‘captured that mixture of humour and melancholy that is the naval social life.’ Such unprompted reactions can be more precious than any number of reviews.
And the revisited work will be seen by people encountering it for the first time. It comes labelled as ‘from the past’ but that might add to its potency; it might be regarded as having been rescued. A producer I know was invited to talk to young film-makers in Moscow and he screened some of the politically challenging work that was being shown on British TV in the 1980s. They were astonished, having not known such material existed. Young film-makers in the UK now might be equally astonished, and perhaps encouraged to fight against the decline in what is being offered now.
This brings me nervously to the suggestion that something from the past might be better than some of what we have in the present, that it might even find a place in the future. This is not a popular view — there have been many comedy series on TV about old people moaning. Understandably, we think change must be good, we want to be positive… But fashion itself goes in cycles, and Giambattista Vico proposed early in the 18th century (in Scienza Nuova) that history itself is cyclical, a notion that inspired James Joyce when writing Finnegans Wake. For example, the way decisions were once made in TV by producers, before power moved upwards to highly paid executives, may one day return. Just as, to move to the political level, nationalisation may return.
Hartley said ‘they do things differently there’ not ‘they do things badly.’ It may sometimes be true that revisiting old work is a trip abroad when staying at home would have been the wiser choice. Or it might be there’s a work from the past that had huge hopes attached to it that were dashed: understandably, then we hover at the border, reluctant to cross. T.S. Eliot’s poem continues, a few lines later:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Ah, the might-have-been… If you write something ahead of its time, as I did once, it fails because people are not engaged by it. But let’s not dwell on that. Revisiting past work can bring comfort, reminding us of past successes; it can inspire us to create more work in the future. Above all it’s a reminder that everything we produce – films, plays, poems, novels and short stories – has a continuing existence in the world, beyond our own.
You might also like:
Kevin Clarke speaks with Frances Byrnes about playwriting as an essential dramatic apprenticeship, completing his education as an adult, and how his dramatic subjects choose him, rather than the other way around.