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The past as people experience it: zombie hazard, or consolation

21 December 2017

Noting newly revivified rituals of commemoration, Francis Spufford explores the allure of days gone by


False memory: reasons to stay out of the churchyard

False memory: reasons to stay out of the churchyard

MY WIFE, a parish priest in Cambridgeshire, was doing a wedding rehearsal two years ago, in a medieval village church, when she realised that the couple’s children were hanging about anxiously on the threshold. They had made it across the churchyard, with nervous glances from side to side, but the prospect of entering the building was too much for them.

“What’s the matter?’ she asked.

“We can’t go in,” they said. “The zombies will get us.”

If one of your culture’s primary associations with old things is pop-culture menace, and its most vivid association with the places where we stow dead people is of the earth-splitting and grey-skinned revenants lumbering out to eat your brain, then it is not surprising that, through the literal eyes of children, old should often now mean dangerous.

It is more complicated than that, of course. Contemporary Britain’s relationship with the past, in pop culture, high culture, and in culture in the anthropological sense, has several dif­ferent strands, with several different moods attached to them. At least one pervasive attitude to history is wistful and fascinated. But the past’s difference is taken as a given. Discontinuity, not continuity, is the common experience, except in the narrow channel of people’s personal and genealogical connection to past time — and sometimes there, too.

Whether people go to the past eagerly or nostalgically, with horror or fascination, to deplore or applaud, they tend, by definition, to be looking for things that they perceive as being absent in the present.

ALAMYLooking back: a Janus-like figure in the Caldragh graveyard on Boa Island, Northern Ireland


THE default form of our culture is a hedonistic individualism that takes the test of harm to others as the boundary for acceptable behaviour. Individual moral autonomy is taken as self-evidently right, so long as it does not hurt anyone else. (Increasingly, as the effective centre of gravity of British politics moves to the right, this is thought to entail a corollary: not hurting anyone else means you also have a moral obliga­tion not to socialise the costs of your choices. Your drug habit, your housing needs, the welfare of the children in your serial fam­ilies, are all your problem, not anyone else’s.)

To criticise the way that people exercise their private choices (so long as they pay their bills) comes very close in our estimation now to crit­icising their selfhood and their free possession of an integral life to call their own; and it aligns you suspiciously with the set of restrictions from which British society is conscious of having only just freed itself, thanks to the social liberal­isations of the past four decades.

There is still a shadowy sense that freedom’s rivals are lurking nearby, requiring vigilance to be fended off. Indeed, it is part of the culture’s mythology of itself, its sense of having a moral purpose, that the enemies of LGBT rights and women’s rights remain potent, and are often located in convenient symbolic form in the churches. But, for practical purposes, most of the culture’s alarms and disquiets are generated by its own success rather than by a real vulner­ability to reversal by antique scolds.


THERE is a widespread uneasiness — but a dim one, not organised into axiom or mythology — over the consequences of the morally atomised society. Unresponsive the culture may be to traditional authority figures, but it is becoming clear that it is extremely susceptible to man­ipu­lation by expert marketing, guided by the new insights of neuroscience into the predic­t­able bases of our behaviour and ever more finely grained data.

iSTOCKWe will remember: a man prepares poppies for a memorial service for military veterans at Westminster Abbey

People are starting to wonder how indi­vidual our individualism actually is, given that the consensual way to express it is through shopping choices. In the same way, the rather Rousseau-ish picture of inherent human good­ness on which the hedonic culture rests, with its brittle insistence that our desires must be harmless unless corrupted by outside agencies, generates anxiety in all the frequent circum­stances of human life where that is not quite clear.

Some of the tools of moral self-knowledge have gone missing, and the absence makes itself felt. Not to know that finding yourself in the wrong is compatible with self-respect is very tiring. Panic is never far away, as demon­strated whenever a particularly barbaric news story brings to the surface the suspicion that all this me-for-myself-alone-and-don’t-you dare-judge-me stuff may not be enough to maintain a social fabric.

It’s not that people crave the return of cultural authority; it’s much more that they are agitated by the vacuum where larger-than-individual meaning used to be. They mourn the disappearance of — they worry about the ab­­­­sence of — the social, the collective, the shared. They miss shared causes, shared hopes, and grand narratives that provide maps on which the individual could locate their partic­ular life. At the same time, they are nervously afraid that to share might mean to be coerced.


NOT much is to be hoped for from politics, the culture’s conventional wisdom declares. The withdrawal of ideology from British poli­tics rid it, for 20 years, of momentous choices and clear divisions between seriously dissim­ilar visions of the good, and replaced them with a technocratic centrism. It became a cyn­ical commonplace to hold that all politicians were corrupt, and were only pursuing their own self-interest in the public domain, just as the rest of us did in the private one.

This may be changing. One of the notable developments of the past two years has been the startlingly instant waves of support for causes that seem to offer significant choices and new grand narratives: the election of Jeremy Corbyn, Scottish independence, Brexit. There is certainly fuel available for a renewed politics, not least in the deep generational divide of contemporary Britain.

Older people who were carried to prosperity by rising property prices can therefore sign up to the hedonic project of a happiness that is only one social atom wide, without too much overt cognitive friction. The young, stranded in bad jobs, renting for ever, on the sharp end of inequality, live the hedonic project, too, because that is the inherited condition of the culture, but without much ease or optimism: resentfully.

But these are disputes between generations that at least share a set of cultural reference points. Further back in time, beyond the great behavioural shifts of the 1960s-’80s, the past begins to grow unintelligible to contemporary Britain — or, at least, much harder to under­stand. And yet it is frequently to this further past that the culture reaches, in a frantic vari­ety of ways, in the search for shared meaning.


TAKE the newly revivified rituals surrounding the commemoration of the British war dead. As someone who was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was an undramatic common­place that most of the older men you passed in the street were veterans of the Second World War, I remember Remembrance Day being scarcely celebrated. There were far fewer poppies, the Two Minutes’ Silence was some­thing you could read about in school history books, and there was a general sense of the world wars receding, in time with the receding of private memories of them.

Now (not coincidentally) that the First World War has entirely passed out of living memory, and the Second World War nearly has, we memorialise the wars like crazy, in a pro­­fusion of public forms. The crowds that gather round war memorials to people we don’t (individually) remember are larger than in the decades when the British Legion stood there in their berets, mourning remembered, specific friends and comrades.

The new wars of New Labour provide part of the cause, giving us new dead to mourn, and new Heroes to be Helped, with a corresponding need to find ways to honour sacrifice irrespec­tive of the new wars’ justifications. For this, the First World War can provide a useful context. But most people these days standing serious- faced on 11 November, wearing their poppies, do not know any currently serving soldiers, either. They are there to do some imaginative business on their own account.

They are there to participate in a symbolic performance of national continuity, centred round the armed forces as the institution that is, in some ways, least corroded by our scepti­cism. They are there to assert that they are joined to previous generations’ story of collec­tive sacrifice, despite the fact — or because of the fact — that little in their daily experience bears it out.


THE same appetite for connection despite and because of disconnection manifests itself over and over again. We are fascinated by the past, puzzled by the past, horrified by the past; but we are unable to look away. The stories that we tell ourselves at the moment have an avidly historical bent, and I say this as someone who has just published a historical novel.

The lawns of 21st-century British culture are littered with time machines, dramatised and filmed, broadcast and written, all offering to transport us (but with the option of instant re­­turn) out of Now and into Then. The TARDIS would be hard put to find a parking space.

ALAMYLure of the DeLorean: ticket-holders dressed up for Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future film experience, 2014

There has always been costume drama, but a wild multiplication has taken place. We want the wars; but we also want the Tudor past, where the origins of the state that we inhabit can be seen in rudimentary, barbarous, in-shielded form. We want the past of domestic service, with its deference and its hierarchies and its radically different class-destinies run­ning along side by side in single households.

Explicit subordination is exotic to us; but troub­lingly interesting, as we come to suspect that the fluidity of contemporary manners is disguising a return to grotesquely unequal life-chances. We want the past just before we were born, when people like us (but not quite) lived in cities like ours (but not quite) and organised experiences like ours (but not quite) according to rules that seem alien now (but not quite).


ANCESTORS are more of a challenge to British sensibilities than migrants or refugees, because they are so indissolubly linked to our intimate self- understanding. They are where we came from, and yet they cannot be assimilated: they will not conform to the expectations of the present. We have to go to them, trying our best to translate their passions into terms that we can make sense of.

The historian and critic Alison Light, a pro­fessional interpreter of the past’s lost social hierarchies, nevertheless came up against an indigestible difference when she discovered in her family history Common People (2014) that, for a century and more, her ancestors had been fervent Baptists. She did her best to view this as a form of social defiance on their part, but some­thing remained stubbornly other in it, impossible to dissolve. Similar challenges await the hundreds of thousands of individuals who do genealogy now as a hobby, creating a private origin story for themselves: their own creation myth, if they could but read it.

The forces that are making the past illegible are our irreligion, when most of our ancestors, even after the Industrial Revolution, still lived within a domain structured to some extent by the sacred, by Whitsun picnics and chapel-influenced or church- influenced politics and Christian behavioural ideals as a default; and our emotional assumption, because our culture has taken “the expressive turn”, that, to be real, feeling must be labile and vivid and performa­tive, when our ancestors filtered their equally passionate lives through more stoical codes; and our prosperity, which makes the old pov­erty of the past hard to enter into, either as a condition of real limit, or as a condition made survivable by resources of tradition, politics, ritual, solidarity, and working-class self-organisation.

The new poverty of the foodbanked present has the limits but (so far) mostly lacks the resources.


BUT the past is also, and above all, wicked. It precedes the individualised social liberations on which Britain prides itself, and does so, as it were, defiantly. It is a dark other country of despised attitudes to gender, race, and sexuality — many of these, again, seeming to be handily concentrated in the Churches, as the past’s sur­­viving embodiment. But, immediately, an am­­bi­­valence creeps in. Virtue is a strain, after all, however each generation defines it, and the past is where the reprehensible stuff is at home. It comes naturally there, and therefore in a funny way is not blameworthy.

You can go to the past with a sigh of relief, of effort suspended. Or, only one step further, with indulgence; with a gratified sense of the past’s naughtiness. Defiant wickedness (even if the defiance is only an artefact of perspective) has front, has attitude, can be seen as strutting its malevolent stuff in an expressive and excit­ing way.

We have a whole little subgenre of visits to the unrepentant recent past — Life on Mars, Mad Men — which let the consumer play on varying terms with the forbidden. Or, if you want your wickedness refined of its historical impurities, the food technologists of fantasy will concentrate it for you in hyperpalatable form, and let you enjoy a history-ish parade of rape and torture and cruelty in Game of Thrones, which is not encumbered by the complications of the actual Wars of the Roses.


FOR most people, though, except for recrea­tional purposes, that is an attraction of the past that exists in tension with its deepest and most powerful lure: which is that it is real. The past is the grand narrative that has not melted. There it is, with all its problems, leading up to us.

The past is where you go for experience that is non-negotiable, that is not responsive to fancy, or to the delicate discrimination between preferences (so long as they are preferences for entirely private tastes). The past is where contemporary Britain goes to taste, in virtual form, the kind of collective, even coercive, experience that trumps, that renders moot, the autonomous self-definition that is supposed to be the pride of the present.

The past is where you go to imagine being conscripted, enduring unanaesthetised pain, hav­­ing to stay married, being pushed through the weight and dignity and sometimes brutality of the big, shared, involuntary human experi­ences. The past is our sidelong indictment of the inadequate reality of the present. Till the present grows realer — please God, not by grow­ing poorer and meaner — the past will have to do. Zombies and all.


From True Stories and Other Essays by Francis Spuf­ford, Yale University Press (CT Bookshop £20).

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