Days of future past

History would have it that we’re all prisoners of our own era, but common sense suggests there’s a bit of the time-traveller in all of us, says Hugh Pearman

Funny the things that get you thinking. Such as the fleeting reference in a biography of Thomas Hardy to the effect that he was much taken with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Hold on a minute – would that be Hardy the novelist, he of Tess of the D’Urbervilles? The same. But although former lit-crit students like me have long enjoyed the curious fact that Hardy may be categorised as a 19thcentury novelist but a 20th century poet (he died in 1928), the Einstein reference still came as a surprise. It’s as if Queen Victoria had been photographed boarding an Airbus A380.

But it’s not so odd. Hardy, himself an innovator, was aware of radical Modernists such as TS Eliot or Ezra Pound, and novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Why should he not pick up on Einstein as well? The great scientist’s views on the non-linear nature of time happened to suit Hardy perfectly. An old man, he had recently remarried but was reliving his past through his poems, notably his youthful courtship of his now-dead first wife. He embraced Einstein just as, when younger, he had enthusiastically embraced bicycle technology.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Consider designer Raymond Loewy, who won fame by working on steam locomotives, but ended up designing space stations for Nasa. Or Frank Lloyd Wright, contemporary of old-school British architects Edwin Lutyens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who emerged from the Arts and Crafts movement, but who, by the end of his life, was designing nuclear-powered, mile-high skyscrapers.

All of our lives contain miniature versions of such stories. My children never believe it when I tell them I wrote with a dip pen and inkwell at primary school. That was Victorian technology, and even they know I’m younger than that. But it’s true. The ballpoint pen may have been invented by Laszlo Biro before World War II, and popularised with Marcel Bich’s Bic version in the 1950s, but it did not reach my little school until well into the 1960s. I can still remember the intense excitement when the biros finally arrived.

Nor do they really believe my story of dropping pine cones down the funnels of steam trains from a local bridge. The trick, I explain, was to time the drop precisely between puffs, so that you’d see your pine cone transformed into a steam-powered missile, shooting high into the air. That’s true, too. Steam engines were still in common use when astronauts were circling the earth. And long after the little steam shunting engines went, my local station remained gas-lit, right up to the time it closed in 1985. This was not some remote rural village: it was a busy town close to London.

Looked at this way, there’s nothing remotely odd in Hardy appreciating Einstein. What it tells us is this: real life does not fit into the pigeon-holes of design historians. Real life contains huge technological and chronological overlaps.

In real life, some still regard Modernism as a dangerous heresy, despite the fact that it has been around for more than a century. And people who drive carbon-fibre supercars build fake 18th century stable-blocks to garage them in.

So be suspicious of those allegedly authentic room-sets in museums, or backgrounds in period TV dramas. Apart from a few wealthy types, nobody has ever lived wholly in their own period. I don’t, you don’t. Never mind dip pens – they’re a lot less useless than an old computer.

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