I have learnt the secret of time travel. It cost me £2.75 in the charity shop in town.
H.G.Wells has nothing on me, for while his machine was sartorially elegant in an Edwardian kind of way, it took a very long time to build and was a messy traveller, whilst mine is as sleek and effortless as opening the leaves of a hardback book.
In between making the tea, feeding the dog and changing the sheets on our bed I have been amused, delighted and horrified. Dipping into the great keystones of global history is not for the faint hearted. I have had moments when I was sick to my stomach.
I berated Britain and its economy, which was built on the sweat and grief of the poor. I chuckled as Lord Nelson batted away the ridiculous commands of his superiors. I marvelled at tales of sixteenth century Indian housewives who customarily delivered their children alone; I went to Newgate Prison with Quaker Elizabeth Fry.
This miraculous invention is a book entitled ‘The Faber Book Of Reportage”.
The editor of my time machine, John Carey, says reportage must be written by an eye-witness: and he has scoured the echoing halls of time to bring accounts from the most extraordinary of places.
I open its leaves: and with a great rushing of wind I am transported back to dinner time with Attila the Hun.
I am reading an account by Roman diplomat Priscus, who is charged to make an embassy to the Scourge of God on behalf of the Eastern Empire.
At three o’ clock sharp all the Roman diplomats line up at the doorway to Attila’s throne room. They drink a toast to him before they come to sit down on chairs down either side of a great room, lining the walls.
The King of the Huns sits on a sofa in the middle, and behind him is a splendid bed, adorned with gorgeous drapes. A-list guests sit on the King’s right, B-list on his left. His eldest son is nearby, his eyes cast to the floor for fear of inciting his father to rage.
Tables are placed before everyone and beautiful silver platters with lavish helpings of meat, bread and other cooked food laid out.
Attila does not join in. He eats only a little meat on a wooden plate.
Twilight falls and torches are lit. The entertainers come on: two barbarians sing of Attila’s victories and valour. A crazy Scythian walks on and tells laugh-out-loud tall tales, followed by the Moor, Zerkon, who looks as if he has just walked through a haystack and cleverly mixes the languages of Italians with that of the Huns and the Goths, to the hilarity of the audience.
But Attila does not laugh. He is impassive. He does not share what is happening there in his great throne room.
Only one time does he soften: when his favourite son comes to his side. He looks at him, says Priscus, with gentle eyes.
So much time, so few words to relate it. From thence I am whisked to the funeral of a Viking magistrate, observed by an envoy to the Caliph of Baghdad. As I arrive, someone gathers the dead magistrate’s servant girls and pages together and asks: which one of you will die for him?
Mostly, says the Envoy, it’s the girls that come forward. From the moment they say “I”, they can’t change their minds. Two girls are appointed to keep watch on the one whose days are numbered.
On the day of the funeral the ship is brought to the beach and the Vikings load it, chanting all the time to themselves: a couch is covered in golden cloth and placed on the ship, and an old crone called The Angel Of Death surrounds it with everything of significance.
The dead man is dressed in gold and surrounded by fruits, drink, and a lute. The woman is lifted three times above the watching crowd: the first time she says: “Look, I can see my father and mother!” The second: “Look! I can see all my dead relatives sitting!” and finally: “Look, there is my master who is sitting in Paradise. Paradise is so beautiful, so green. With him are his men and boys. He calls me, so bring me to him.”
Like Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, this: elemental and terrifying, ritualistic and fatalistic.She’s about to die horribly.
And I have no more words left. And I have not yet taken you to the death of the chimney-boy, or Darwin, on the Archipelago, or to the Virginian slave market, to Gettysburg or Paul Gaugin’s Tahiti wedding, or a Norfolk seaside holiday or Stalag.
For some reason, time travel becomes uglier in the twentieth century.
But these will have to be stories for another day.