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Aged eleven, I remember being set some homework to write a talk of three to five minutes’ length on “The Future” (oddly, I imagined a world where your TV, computer, video, stereo, camera and other gadgets would be combined . . . that was in 1995 and - thanks to YouTube, iTunes, iPhoto, Photoshop and various other applications - I think we might be there already) yet now I’ve started on this review, the most immediately obvious places I’d time-travel to . . . a concept the younger me always thought would be brilliant if it could only be done . . . all seem to be in the past.
So, letting the child in me run wild, I don’t know exactly what my time machine would look like but - maybe uninspiringly - I envisage something a bit like a lift, with buttons on one panel. The difference with my time machine is, where the display panel just shows one number to indicate which floor you’re on, mine would be split into three sections. One would have four zeros so that you can key in whichever year you wanted to visit, retype it if you made a mistake and then select the BC or AD option. The next section would be set up so that a marker marked any of thirteen points on a dial - you can select a month if you want or go for the thirteenth option, “No specific month” - and a second dial would have thirty-two points marked on it, one for each possible day and an extra for “No specific day”.
Since I’m so passionate about family history and researching my tree (a terrible addiction for which there is apparently no cure!), the first option that springs to mind is to go back and meet my ancestors. Obviously with a family tree there are endless possibilities . . . if I started on the list of people I’d want to ask, “When did your dad die and where was he from?”, “Why did you put three different birthplaces on three consecutive censuses?” and “Why can I trace every one of your siblings except your older brother/younger sister?” and so on, I’d hit the word limit on this review a lot sooner than I want to. But there are a couple of particular places I’d like to visit, which leads me to arrange the details for . . .
DESTINATION NUMBER ONE 8 March 1940 - Aughton, near Ormskirk, Lancashire Why do I want to go? - After getting married with parental disapproval (possibly due to the twelve year age gap), my grandparents were just approaching their third anniversary and had one child, my uncle Joseph. However when he was fifteen months old, Joseph died from what his death certificate called convulsions, “acute oedema of the lungs” (I think his lungs either filled with fluid or perhaps became congested because he was ill) and “dentition” (teething). I did some research and came up with the possible explanation that Joseph, with his teeth coming through, perhaps developed a cold or chest infection that sent his temperature sky-high and caused him to fit. I can’t imagine how scary it must have been for my gran and grandad, especially because he was their first baby and my grandad went to register the death on the same day. I don’t know whether Gran went with him but, if she didn’t, I imagine he really didn’t want to go home afterwards.
What would I take? - A bottle of baby Calpol and some teething gel for Joseph - I don’t know if it would change things, but it’d be worth trying.
DESTINATION NUMBER TWO and DESTINATION NUMBER THREE December 1875 - Wallasey, Cheshire, 1 Oct 1880 - Walton on the Hill, Liverpool Why do I want to go? - My pet name for my great-great-great grandad on one side is “Edward Willday, dodgy accountant and chicken stealer”. The clue as to why is pretty much in the title. On the first of the two dates above he was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labour for stealing what now equates to £46,000 from him employer and (on the second) he got six months for stealing three chickens. I’m not sure why he committed either offence and I wouldn’t go to lecture him in prison - from the bankruptcy reports I’ve found in the online London Gazette I suspect he was clever enough to declare himself bankrupt whenever he got into difficult situations that meant he’d have to pay out for something. What I’d be more concerned with is finding out where his wife and daughters were living and making sure they were going to be OK. In 1875 the couple’s six little girls were aged between nine months and twelve years but on the 1881 census, Edward was in Walton Prison, his wife and five of the girls were living together (two of the eldest helping their mum work as a fishmonger) and the second daughter Polly was miles away in Worcester living with her grandma at a butchers’ shop.
What would I take? - To 1875, a load of baby clothes, a baby bouncer and soft toys so that baby Edith could entertain herself, some games for the other little ones and - for her mother - a few bars of decent chocolate. (I think she deserved them) To 1881, I’d take money (just in case Polly had had to go to her grandma’s because there was no room at home and her mum couldn’t afford to rent anywhere bigger) or alternatively, a couple of mobile phones so that Polly, who was about sixteen, could at least keep in touch with her mum and sisters.
There are also a few other historical places of greater general interest that I’d like to call in on, too, so I want to head back about three centuries to . . .
DESTINATION NUMBER FOUR 7 September 1533 - Greenwich Palace, London Why do I want to go? - Most people know a bit about Henry VIII’s ruthless quest for a male heir, but his daughter Elizabeth I seems to have turned out to be quite a tough lady. Famously known as the “Virgin Queen”, she didn’t get married (although to this day there are people who debate what exactly she got up to, if anything, with Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester) and I’ve often wondered if it was because she realised why her father got through his last three wives so quickly - I’m not counting Catherine Parr because she outlived him. I believe Henry was quite fond of Elizabeth and she’s supposed to have idolised him, but I also have a glaring memory that he got quite stroppy with Anne Boleyn because he’d gone through all the hassle of falling out with Rome and having a secret wedding when she fell pregnant only to be presented with a baby girl.
What would I take? - Initially I thought I’d take Henry a crate of beer and sit him down so he could talk over his reaction to having a daughter but I’m not sure he’d listen so once he’d seen his baby daughter, I’d probably pack Henry into my time machine and take him forward to . . .
DESTINATION NUMBER FIVE 1588 - Tilbury Docks, London Why do I want to go? - Letting Henry VIII out of the time machine first (he strikes me as the kind of man you’d want to stay on the right side of) so he could see Elizabeth’s speech to her troops when the Spanish Armada were preparing to invade. I once used that speech as a model when I had to write a persuasive speech about why Britain shouldn’t stay in the EU at school because it was the most patriotic one I could think of - whether Elizabeth actually said it or not, I don’t know but I’d like to think she did because then I could show Henry VIII that he shouldn’t have worried about having two daughters and only one son because his second daughter was just as committed to her country as he was and being a girl didn’t mean she wasn’t a good monarch. (Saying that, she did have quite a temper - maybe she got it from her dad?)
What would I take? - Possibly a camera. I’d like to think Henry might just have had a “proud dad” moment when he watched her make the Armada speech.
Moving quickly back into my machine before Henry sees anything that upsets him and blames me, I’d then like to key in the year 1813 and head to . . .
DESTINATION NUMBER SIX July 1809 - Chawton, Hampshire Why do I want to go? - It was at this time that Jane Austen, her mother and her sister Cassandra moved into the cottage that the novelist lived in for almost all of the remaining eight years of her life. From what I’ve found out, just before they moved Jane Austen attempted to buy back a manuscript of her own from a publisher who didn’t want to publish it and couldn’t because she she couldn’t afford the £10 that he asked for. Not long after this, the author who nobody had heard of managed to get a certain novel called Sense and Sensibility published thanks to some financial help from her brother, and followed it up with Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Unfortunately for Jane, she never made a lot of money in her lifetime but I’d love to be able to tell her that - not only would her books still be in print two hundred years later - there would be a Jane Austen Centre inspired by her, people from all over the world would visit her house in Chawton and that one day technology would mean people could listen to recordings of them on tapes and CDs and even write fanfiction based on her work that they’d publish online, and that in the mid 1990s a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice would be so popular that newspapers would say “Darcymania” was sweeping Britain and the actor Colin Firth would spend years trying to get people to see him as something other than Mr. Darcy.
What would I take? - If I could find it, my scrapbook of newspaper cuttings from the 1990s when the Sunday papers and colour supplements devoted huge amounts of space to articles on Jane Austen and the actors who played the characters she created. I don’t think she’d believe me otherwise.
The next destination is far more recent than 1809 . . .
DESTINATION NUMBER SEVEN The fourth week of September 1984 - Anywhere in Britain Why do I want to go? - This one is a bit of a personal indulgence and I simply want to visit it because I have long been fascinated by the one period in my life that I will never be able to remember. It was the week when I was born so I’ve always thought it would be interesting to walk down any street or through any shopping centre or supermarket just to see what people were wearing, what they were buying and what they were talking about.
What would I take? - Quite a bit of money for various things. I seem to remember that, at uni, I could feed myself for a week on roughly £25 of groceries and that was in 2004 so I’d want to go round a supermarket and see what a similar shop would have cost. I would also wait until the day when I was actually born and make sure I bought a newspaper, just to see what was deemed “important news” on that particular date.
On a similar theme, there is one instance where I'd like to go forward in time:
DESTINATION NUMBER EIGHT The fourth week of September 2084 - no idea of the location Why do I want to go? - Just to see if I'm still around on my 100th birthday, what I've achieved by then and whether I ended up having children (or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren)
What would I take? - Photos of me now, to see whether my 100 year old self thought my 25 year old self was as non-photogenic as I think I am now!
I can’t think of any other very major events that I’d want to programme into my time machine - actually, knowing me, I would want to dart backwards and forwards to hundreds of different places! - but to conclude my review - I have got a few “snapshots” that I’d put onto my “flying visit” list . . .
*London in the 1590s Because . . . once and for all, I’d like to settle the question over whether Shakespeare did or didn’t write his plays and because I think he should have been told that, centuries later, people would still be debating the question
*Any of the royal palaces in England between about 1570 and 1603 Because . . . I’ve always wondered how good (or bad) Queen Elizabeth I must have looked with her wig and all that white lead make up on
*London in the first week of September 1666 Because . . . if I could take modern technology with me, I think they would have appreciated a quicker way of getting water to the Great Fire than buckets being passed from person to person
*Aughton, Lancashire on 31 October 1744 Because . . . that was the day my 7xgreat grandmother Ann Hurst died and I wonder whether her husband George knew how he would manage with six children (all aged under fourteen and at least one possibly aged less than two)
*Harland and Wolff’s Belfast shipyard, anywhere between 1909 and March 1912 Because . . . I would want to tell the shipbuilders that, whatever anybody claimed and however cluttered the deck looked, they really would need all the lifeboats that were available to go on the Titanic
*My back garden on 9 July 1995 Because . . . a few friends and I performed a play that I’d written about Henry VIII and - in our haste to get to Anne Boleyn’s execution scene - we accidentally missed out scene five. It was one of only two scenes where the girl playing Jane Seymour had lines to say so I’ve always wanted to make it up to her and give her the lines back!