The Time Traveller’s Mother

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.

34 thoughts on “The Time Traveller’s Mother

  1. It is the middle of the night here, Kate. I couldn’t sleep, wandered our house a bit, then sat down for a read and here you are, transporting me in time and place to the Huns and sacrificial girls with the best of your own storytelling. What an interesting find you have found yourself in the charity shop and between the pages of The Book of Reportage.

    1. I have become a reportage bore in my extended family, Penny. I drone on an on about accounts I have read…there are uplifting accounts, but many are harrowing. It is enough to make one despair of humanity. There is a market out there for a Christmas book of upbeat reportage….

  2. Kate, it’s the perfect book for you! A lucky find. The Atilla tale is fascinating, as I’m sure are the others. I llok forward to your retelling

    1. It would take a very long time to tell them all, Fiona….it is eerily like visiting times at will, this. I’d recommend it thoroughly: each read is probably only five or ten minutes but it draws you straight to where the eye witness is standing. Amazing.

  3. Wow, Kate!
    Time travelling certainly has its moments, doesn’t it? I have added that book to my booklist; I think it will be one that I will enjoy.Looking forward to reading more of your travels 🙂

    1. Tom, you’d love this book. Topically there are accounts of seagoing expeditions and shipwrecks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is the closest one can get to being there. Tremendous.

    1. I fear the hardbacks are quite pricey if you don’t happen upon them in Oxfam, Rosemary – some £40 – but the paperbacks are much more reasonable, about the price of a buy from Waterstones.

  4. it is wonderful to have second hand books, knowing someone else has probably enjoyed them before.

    I’m reading Cold Comfort Farm (again). My handwriting inside the cover says I bought it in Boston market in 1985. A whole history immediately springs to mind! The book is stained and battered and about to fall apart!

    1. Something nasty in the woodshed….one of my favourite reads, Pseu, thank you for the reminder! Hope you had a lovely birthday. I shall be over to yours to see if there have been any celebrations…

  5. Curious, I turned to Amazon. It seems you have a find, indeed. It’s listed used at £39.56, which is spendy (the official term, as I’m too lazy to figure out the currency exchange). The truth is, though, that had I discretionary funds? I’d be all over such a storytelling treasure!

    1. The paperback is far more reasonable, Cameron, at about £6.99 or $10.95 second hand. Check out their used section. This book is about as addictive as they come: I feel sure its the perfect thing for Santa to bring down your chimney.

  6. What a treasure. One of the things that always strikes me about reading things like this book is how we humans don’t change much. We love and hate. We do good and evil. We laugh and cry. We live and die. Fundamental stuff that is always gripping in the hands of a gifted storyteller, whether it be a long-gone Roman or an English blogging wizard. 🙂

    1. You are so right, Andra. The thing that made this book so startlingly immediate was that very thing: everyone was doing roughly the same things, but the humans at the centre of the dramas were just like us. Astounding stuff.

  7. Typically, your post today has sent me on a search (since the prices revealed for this book via your link to Amazon would flatten my wallet; delivery fees alone somewhat surpassing the total amount you paid).

    I have learned that my state apparently has not a single copy of the book available through our local library–strange, I think, considering the historical topics contained in it.

    I learned there are many other “Faber Books of…..” and then

    I found a bookseller I had never heard about: “Alibris” has an online presence, deals in used, rare and out-of-print books, and has numerous available copies; some with prices not the equivalent of a king’s ransom!! I foresee some serious browsing! 🙂 Thanks for pointing me off in a new direction!

    1. 😀 What an adventure, Karen. The hardback is nearly £40 but the paperback published later is only £6.99 – I think that works out around $10, and it’s available on Amazon. But I have a feeling this wander down the dusty cybershelves of Alibris may have diverted you considerably from your original aim…

  8. I don’t believe that I would find the courage to keep turning the pages, Kate. I prefer stories with HAPPY (not gruesome) endings.

    Enjoy your time travel . . . hope you find enough GOOD to balance out the BAD.

  9. Oh my! I’m not sure I want to read that book – perhaps it’s enough that I’ve time-travelled through my own life? 😉 Even so, I find myself looking forward to your continued reportage on the Reportage.

    1. It is a harrowing book at times, Ruth. I didn’t mention the report to a parliamentary commission on the death of a London Chimney boy, or the awful account of a 23 year old mill worker who had worked from 5am-10pm since she was six years old. However, there are lighter moments. All human life is there.

      I’ll wait a few posts before continuing: I feel like a child faced with a cavernous toy shop and the offer of a trolley dash.

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