Sunday, 20 March 2011

If Time Travel tourism became a reality, what would you like to experience?

My son asked me the other day whether I would like to have lived in the past (I suspect he thinks I already do). It’s a question I’ve often pondered (it’s up there with my Desert island Discs selection, that sweet moment when the oldest batsman ever to have represented England cracks yet another six at Lords to clinch an Ashes series, and, of course, my Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Screenwriter).

As I pointed out, the real problem would be that I’d probably have been dead by this age – several times over. Secondly, if one were to be whisked into the past with one’s modern sensibilities intact, there’d be a whole variety of stenches to get used to – body odour, open sewers running down the street – as well as the filthiness of sheets and unwashed hair and lack of baths: in fact, a general question mark over basic standards of hygiene (I may have been warped by reading Swift’s deeply coprophobic poetry for A level). The pain wouldn’t be much fun either – just imagine what most operations would have been like, or having to cope with the chronic gout I’d have no doubt suffered from. Then there’s the distinct possibility of not being able to earn a living and starving to death. And having to kowtow to one’s betters (of which there would have been an awful lot) would be difficult after living in a non-deferential modern democracy.

Without one’s modern sensibilities, the exercise would be pointless – for all I know, I might be living in the past (or the future) right now.

So, on the whole, the answer would be… no thanks!

What would be exciting, though, would be Time Travel tourism, i.e. being whisked back to witness specific events, and being whisked home again before being able to contract cholera or syphilis or break a leg, or even having to go to the lavatory – but, given some of my choices, the last might prove a bit difficult to avoid.

So, on the verge of sleep last night, I began listing the people and events Ifrom the past  would choose to experience, whilst retaining full current awareness, and provided with a universal babelfish (no doubt a variant of the Translator Phone Google is developing). Here, in no particular order, are the items on my dream (strictly pre-dream) list I could remember when I woke up:

Attend the first performance of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1876, and be a guest in the Wagner villa at Tribschen on Christmas morning 1870 when Mrs. W was woken by a small ensemble on the stairs playing the Siegfried Idyll, written to celebrate the birth of their son; joining Boswell and Dr Johnson for a few hours on their tour of the Highlands and Western Isles (preferably with the good Doctor in a loquacious mood) or enjoying a few pints with them at the Cheshire Cheese; be present when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, just to see if we missed anything; attend the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; sit in on a Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett scriptwriting session for Sunset Boulevard; attend a soirée at Whistler’s Chelsea studio; visit William Blake in his cottage at Felpham and hear him in full mystical flow; been in the House of Commons gallery on 18th June 1940 for Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech; attended gatherings in the Cambridge rooms of both F.R. Leavis and Wittgenstein when they were at the height of their powers; take tea with Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District, and attend one of Coleridge’s London lectures or walk with him on Hampstead Heath in later life, when he had become the “Sage of Hampstead”; attend the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia in Gloucester Cathedral; enjoy an hour’s psychoanalytic session with Jung – immediately followed by one with Freud; queue up with everyone else for an issue of the Strand Magazine containing the latest Sherlock Holmes story; ride with Marco Polo across the High Pamirs and be there when he and his party were first ushered into the presence of Kublai Khan; be present at the official unveiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings and of the first public viewing of the Pietá; be in London on VE Day – and when news of the victories at Waterloo and Trafalgar came through; be at Sun Studios in Memphis on the day in 1954 when Elvis and Scotty and Bill created their version of “That’s All Right, Mama”; attend Queen Victoria’s funeral; attend the first performance of Macbeth at the Globe; be on set when Orson Welles extemporised (allegedly) his “cuckoo clock” speech in The Third Man; be present at a  Private Eye editorial meeting during the Profumo scandal; stand on an Oslo quayside and wave to my father as his ship set sail for Canada in 1925…

That’s as far as I got.

I’ve no idea if this is an illuminating exercise – and it wasn’t much help when it came to getting to sleep - but I enjoyed it. Do feel free to share your own version.


  1. After considering this invitation,one's thoughts initially turned to ancient and not so ancient battles.However as by the terms of the brief one is unable to change or alter history,there would be no point in telling,for example,Von Paulus that his tactics at Stalingrad are deeply flawed.
    Indeed unable to fear death and thus experience heroism albeit vicariously("And gentleman now abed..shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here") this would just become a trip to witness gore and horror-not for me.
    I would instead prefer to stand beside Leonardo preparing to paint 'The last supper,'if only to whisper in his ear "Leo,you know a thing or two about painting,but tempera on top of gesso may flake."
    Or to be in Caravaggio's studio when he was working on the astonishing 'Supper at Emmaus.'
    Or I could kill several birds with one stone and experience my beloved London at my favourite time of the year(Nov.) in my favourite period(Victorian) undercover of darkness,"night the early dirty night,the sinister,noisy,hopeless night of South London."
    Except it would'nt be south but east, in the year 1888 and I'd be standing on a street corner at Hanbury St. Spitalfields or any number of dingy streets in that locality,in a familiar pose-clutching a pot of Bass taken out of theTen Bells-although it could also have been from The Alma,with ones face swathed in a heavy scarf the better to filter-out a sulphurous pea-souper,and wait,and wait.
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 08:33 AM

  2. 1. Am I the only one to detect something clammily voyeuristic about this time travel business, pornographic and sentimental?

    2. Are there no traders on this blog? Why doesn't someone want to travel forwards in time, find out who wins the next Grand National, come back and place a thumping bet?

    3. Is time travel necessary? Scott intuited years after the event why that poet fellow, Coventry something, wrote his poem. He grasped the dynamic of mixed reproval, love and guilt that went into its composition. No time travel needed, just a mature and sophisticated understanding of humanity.

    4. My hidden velleity? Freud. Freud and Schopenhauer. Someone once pointed out to Freud that his taxonomy of the human psyche bears a marked resemblance to Schopenhauer's and Schopenhauer thought of it first. Freud was furious and said he'd never read Schopenhauer. In his circles in Vienna, that is deemed to be impossible. Everyone had read Schopenhauer. I'd like to go back and check under Siggy's bed to see if that's where he kept his copy of Schopenhauer.
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 12:59 PM

  3. Pub quiz time:

    1. When his parents went on their European Tour, they took young Arthur (Schopemhauer) with them. He spent six months at school at an establishment relevant to this blog. Where?

    2. Always unlucky -- he came up against Hegel when he first became an academic and couldn't get any students to attend his lectures -- Schopenhauer bid for the contract to translate Feuerbach's book on theology from German into English. He lost. Who to?
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 01:39 PM

  4. Forgot to say, quiz rules, no calculators, no mobile phones, no time travel.
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 02:23 PM

  5. D.M. I know the school was based in Wimbledon and was not to young Arthur's taste but I am not sure if it was one of the forerunners of KCS. The rumour that his arrival coincided with the start of Carew Hunt's teaching career has never been disproved.

    As to no 2, I'll leave that to the more philosophical Gronmark blog element.
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 08:21 PM

  6. As to the time travel question, probably Nuremberg 1927 with a loaded pistol and the flux capacitor fully operational and ready to go. Or sitting in on the Beatles recording In My Life so I could say "Not that it's any of my business but I really don't think the harpsichord solo is anything other than an irritation that detracts from the impact of the rest of the song, Mr Martin."
    Monday, March 21, 2011 - 08:31 PM

  7. 1. It was 1803 when young Arthur did his time in Wimbledon, Blake had 24 ears to live, still, and it would be 26 years before the Duke of Wellington founded King's College, London. There was no sign of KCS. He attended Reverend Thomas Lancaster's Wimbledon School for Young Gentlemen and Noblemen in Eagle House, next to the Rose & Crown. According to Christopher Janaway, the experience scarred him for life ...

    2. ... as did the experience of losing to George Eliot in the competition to translate Feuerbach.

    PS In 19th century Germany, lecturers were paid by the students attending. No students, no pay. How about that for a Gove innovation? Not just for university lecturers, but for schoolteachers as well.
    Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - 11:37 AM

  8. Genuine thanks to you, Southern Man for bringing up James Thompson’s poem. I had only ever read excerpts before your comment (anthologists tend to pick one section or another), and I hadn’t been much impressed. But you prompted me to seek it out online and read the whole thing – absolutely mesmerising! What an extraordinary work! I didn’t recognise the Sarf London quote, so Googled it – and was ashamed to find it was from Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which is one of my favourite novels – and the only one by Conrad I have re-read – twice, no less! (I’ve enjoyed the Hitchcock film version many times). Conrad was so incredibly right about the character of terrorists – how it’s absolutely nothing to do with the cause they’re supposedly furthering. Joe was such a great conservative! As to what you’re waiting to do while clutching your pot of Bass – let’s draw a veil over that.

    Schopenhauer and Wimbledon don’t really go together – but thanks for that information, DM. I tried reading the gloomy bugger’s essays many times, but had to admit defeat. Then I read Bryan Magee’s very readable Confessions of a Philosopher and he made sense of him for me – but I’ve forgotten what he said and I can’t find the sodding book: something about appearance and reality, I think, and how we can’t help seeing the world the way we do – Kantian, anyway. The spine of “The Essential Schopenhauer” is staring at me accusingly as I write, so I might have to give it one more go. I seem to remember understanding a page or two of Hegel some 35 years ago, but I’m certain I couldn’t grasp a single sentence these days. Convoluted old bastard!

    While I wouldn’t have minded a psychoanalytic session with Sigmund, I certainly would want to go groping under his bed (except in a metaphorical sense). He was a prickly cove, wasn’t he, always so concerned to maintain his self-image, as Jung found.
    Wednesday, March 23, 2011 - 06:03 PM

  9. I really only know two things about Schopenhauer: first, he looked like the old gentleman with the cotton wool hair on the front of the Uncle Ben's Rice pack; and second, he once flung his house-keeper down the stairs [crippling her in the process] for chattering outside his front door and had to pay her a pension for twenty years. He suffered from the psychological condition "Geräuschempfindlichkeit" [sensitivity to gratuitous noise] which is present in most psychopaths.
    Thursday, March 24, 2011 - 10:31 AM

  10. Well let's add a couple more points to the list, SDG.

    Schopenhauer lived in Frankfurt with two poodles, Atman and Butz, a psychological condition present in most antique dealers, and he was so miserable that he once set out to prove that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, rather heroic I think, see pp.129-132 of Christopher Janaway's tremendous book on the old poove,

    Janaway quotes this from Freud ...

    "I have carefully avoided any contact with philosophy proper. The large extent to which psycho-analysis coincides with the philosophy of Schopenhauer - not only did he assert the dominance of the emotions and the supreme importance of sexuality but he was even aware of the mechanism of repression - is not to be traced to my acquaintance with his teaching. I read Schopenhauer very late in my life".

    ... and says delightfully:

    "One almost hesitates to point out that Freud must have known at some level what to avoid reading, in order to preserve this title to originality. In any case, it is pretty certain that the great attention paid to Schopenhauer in academic and cultural life during this period was an important factor in making Freud's work possible, whether he was aware of it or not".

    Janaway quotes Jung as follows: "Here at last was someone who had courage for the insight that somehow the foundation of the world was not in the best of ways". No idea what it means, but it sounds as though Jung was onside and that's always good news.

    Actually, Janaway's book is exceptional. It's clear and amusing, he cuts out the crap ("Schopenhauer's metaphysics is not credible as a system") and he points up the positive contributions ("his picture of the world as full of confusion, passion, and evil"). Well, positive chez moi, and arguably on the Gronblog.


    And what about George Eliot, eh? It was news to me. Did everyone else already know she was rated as an academic?
    Thursday, March 24, 2011 - 01:20 PM

  11. Apologies to Southern Man - I was sure you'd used the phrase "City of Dreadful Night" but my wife points out you didn't - something in your Conrad quote must have dredged it up from my subconscious. or maybe I'm just going going mad!
    Anyway, thanks for the subconscious prompt!
    Thursday, March 24, 2011 - 05:27 PM