NEARLY 40 YEARS ago, I was researching the life and work of a relative, the Victorian novelist Mary Linskill; daughter of a Whitby jet worker and jailer. To do that properly I had to become a member of the Whitby and District Literary and Philosophical Society, which gave me access to Mary’s hand-written diaries in the Yorkshire fishing port’s small museum.
A spinster, Mary Linskill was not immediately successful as an author and, while maintaining every appearance of respectability, she was very often faint with hunger.
On one occasion, she records in her neat hand, she was playing harmonium in her local church when she collapsed on to the keyboard, with audible consequences. Well-meaning people rushed forward to help and she was given brandy to drink, which – on an empty stomach – rendered her instantly squiffy. So, there she was, a straight-laced Victorian spinster, starving and now also drunk in church during a service.
Her record of the incident made me smile, and since I was in Whitby it occurred to me that I might go looking for the harmonium. The incumbent vicar proudly showed me the brand new Wurlitzer-style electric organ they were then using in the church. When I told him that it would have been a bellows-driven harmonium, he thought for a while and then took me into an outhouse where he threw a tarpaulin off a battered old beast of a harmonium – and there, in front of me, were the yellowed keys onto which Mary had fallen.
What surprised me was the intimacy of the moment. An hour before, I’d had Mary’s diaries in my hand and was chuckling at her wonderfully self-mocking account of an embarrassing incident; and now I was there, looking at the keys and – in my head – hearing the discord she had made with hers.
That feeling of being intimately connected to a real person from a century before did not leave me easily. In fact, it grew as I wandered around the picturesque harbour town and past the place where she died at the young age of 50 in 1891. That sense of intimacy stayed with me for some weeks.
A little later, I read Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor – a post-modern novel in which Ackroyd skilfully weaves together the stories of a modern detective investigating murders in East End churches with the construction of those churches by the occultist Nicholas Dyer in the 18th Century. The story is excellent, but it was the idea of that intimate connection between past and present that resonated with me; the fact that times were somehow interleaved and co-dependent.
There is a view that landscapes absorb and reflect the energy of the people who live and have lived in them; that, in some sense, these places – especially urban places – are time-layered and that if we are sufficiently open minded and observant we can connect with these historical energies.
This is the realm of psychogeography: the idea that locations can affect our emotions and behaviour.
Noted psychogeographers include some of my favourite writers: Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and the remarkable Robert Macfarlane, whose book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a tour de force.
I also discover – from Tate Britain’s website – that the term psychogeography was invited by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955, who in his turn was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur – the urban wanderer.
“The reimagining of the city proposed by psychogeography has its roots in dadaism and surrealism,” Tate Britain says, “art movements which explored ways of unleashing the subconscious imagination.”
Well, I don’t know about that. What I do know is that right now I’m researching Georgian Mayfair, Soho, St James’s and Piccadilly for an idea I have, and that as I come across real – and often eccentric – characters from the past, I find they have their equivalents in the present: a shirtmaker who daily dresses his dog in the same pattern of shirt he is wearing when he takes him for walks; a flamboyant woman who also walks the streets of Mayfair with a green parrot on her shoulder because her pet gets lonely at home.
I know too that, getting lost in the research, I have found characters I like from 250 years ago, and who might have been friends of mine. Their laughter and joy in each other’s company is still there somehow – in my head or in the urban fabric of London, or both.
Or perhaps, as the ‘block universe’ theory suggests, past and present co-exist and they are forever together.
In his book, Objective Becoming, MIT professor Brad Skow argues in favour of the four-dimensional ‘block universe’ theory, which suggests that time does not pass at all but what we think of as being the past simply exists in another part of spacetime – we are, to use his own expression, temporally scattered.
“If you could look down on the universe,” he says, “you would see things spread out in time as you see the universe spread out in space. You could see that things are one way at earlier times and different at later times, but you wouldn’t say the universe as a whole is changing.”
Everything changes, and nothing changes at all – because it’s all already here.
Excuse me. I’ve got some thinking to do.