Who Sells The Pasts-That-Never-Were ~ Are We Seeing The Danger Signals?


The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L P Hartley The Go-Between

I’ve cropped and re-cropped this image in hopes you can put yourself right there on this path amid the fallen leaves. I’m hoping, too, your eye will be drawn further down the trail, that you will be wondering what lies beyond: where is this path taking us?

The ash trees and goat willows arching overhead make the path tunnel-like; mysterious, but not threatening. Slashes of light fall in from the right. They relieve the gloom of the overgrown embankment on the left.

Other impressions might occur. That this is a peaceful place: a perfect resort from the technologized maelstrom we have created for ourselves.  That it must be especially lovely in summer: birdsong and windrush through the greenery. Love-sick souls might wander here; those seeking solace from other cares; writers who have lost their plots; small boys intent on secluded thickets for a new den; dog walkers; girls on ponies: all seeking, consciously or not, the perceived restorative, imagining powers of wilderness.

As you take in the scene I might tell you that where you are standing is an ancient green lane, a once busy rustic thoroughfare used for centuries by the lay workers of Much Wenlock Priory. You can imagine them hauling carts of grain to the mill for grinding, or mule trains bringing in bales of wool from a shearing of the Prior’s flocks. I could throw in tales of St. Milburga, the seventh century abbess, who was renowned for striking springs of pure water from bare rock, or tell you that this path was one of the haunts of resistance fighter Wild Edric, the local Saxon lord who challenged Norman rule.

But no. That’s not it at all. Nothing in that last paragraph happened here as far as I know. What a shame. It had all the makings of a good yarn. We were beginning to identify with the characters. We were starting to confer on them certain notions/images/memories, conjuring a past we think we recognize.

Wait though. Here’s another version.

Into this tranquil scene comes what? A TRAIN?  Turn around and you will see what all the din is about. A large locomotive is rumbling out of the railway siding. It is hauling many wagons loaded with limestone from Wenlock’s vast Shadwell Quarry, which lies out of your sight behind the path embankment. The limestone is destined for the furnaces of South Wales and the West Midlands Black Country, used as a flux in the smelting of iron. This scene belongs to the 1860s when the United Kingdom was still a world leader in heavy industry, the monster-offspring of the 18th century Quaker Ironmasters who pioneered iron-making techniques just a mile or two away in Coalbrookdale.

Other scenes can be added: weekly earth-shattering blasts from the quarry; the land, lanes, town in a grey-dust pall; air filled with fumes from lime-burning kilns; a man burned one day in a kiln collapse; Wenlock’s Town Council of the late 1940s complaining that the blasting was shaking stones from the Wenlock Priory ruins; 1981 and rocks from a quarry blasting landing on the neighbouring secondary school, injuring three pupils.

Here then are a few clips from Much Wenlock’s many ‘pasts’; ones that actually happened. The path you are standing on is the track bed of the former Severn Valley Railway branch line. It once linked Much Wenlock to the rest of the world in a way that the River Severn had done in times past. This railway once served the nation’s industrial heartlands. And most of us have forgotten this now. Or never knew it. Looking at it now, it is anyway hard to believe.

In this particular case our forgetfulness or ignorance or disbelief is probably of little consequence. We have a lovely place to walk, and doubtless most of us will protest should anyone try to turn it into a car park or a housing development.

And yet?

I still have a niggling query. Should we not all be a good deal more knowledgeable about own histories, the actual lives of parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Should we not all be well versed in our nation’s last hundred years, including understanding our responsibilities as citizens, and knowing precisely how our land and its people make a living?

I’ll leave these questions with you, because I want to talk about the quotation. It has haunted me for decades, and is the opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. But it was not in the novel where I first read these words. My first encounter was in the title of quite another book. It was 1985 or 1986, and the book in question had not long been published. At the time I was employed as the seemingly grand, if poorly paid Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. (This being the sprawling Shropshire heritage enterprise that lays claim to protecting and interpreting the ‘birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ aka the aforementioned Coalbrookdale – a location which thus has a very great deal to answer for).

In those days, the IGMT had recently set up an Institute of Heritage Management offering postgraduate diplomas to professionals in the heritage business. It was at one of the Institute seminars that I encountered David Lowenthal, American historian and geographer, and Professor of Geography at University College London. (He is at UCL still, Emeritus Professor at the age of 93.)

Lowenthal’s book The Past Is A Foreign Country is regarded as one of the classic works of cultural history. It was described by one erudite reviewer at the time as ‘a meditation on misuses of the past in contemporary culture’.

I will repeat that phrase in bold:

‘a meditation on the misuses of the past in contemporary culture’

In the light of recent events – the outcome of the US election and Britain’s Brexit vote wherein proponents’ projection of a perfect national past formed a key part of the ‘sales’ pitch – it seems to me that this is a phenomenon that should worry us all.

The past that was being sold was not an old past either, but one deemed to be within someone’s living memory – you know, that happy land just over the brow of the hill where everyone resides in the rosy glow of unchallenged prosperity and inviolable national sovereignty and with no incomers.

When did that place have its heyday? Can anyone tell me. I’ve been alive quite a long time, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I grew up in the 50s there was still post war rationing. Kids were getting polio. Pregnant unmarried girls were considered the scum of the earth, and hustled into homes. Racist language was the norm. Homosexual acts were criminal offences. There was the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kenya Emergency, the Malayan Emergency, the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Cold War threat of nuclear missile strikes hung over us for decades – fear still lingering until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. All local authorities had their nuclear bunkers in place. Some are still extant.

So the golden age must have been earlier then – ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Surely not. Ah silly me. It was obviously the ‘80s when Thatcher and Reagan let all the bankers off the leash to start wreaking unmitigated financial mayhem across the globe…

Anyway, you get the picture.

It is doubtless a common human affliction to wish to turn back the clock whenever things go badly wrong. It also a well held fallacy that there is some perfect place from which humanity has been excluded – a sort of expulsion-from-Eden syndrome – and that maybe we can get back there?

Lowenthal points up our maladjusted relationship with the past  when he says:

…we also preserve, I suggest, because we are no longer intimate enough with that legacy to rework it creatively. We admire its relics, but they do not inspire our own acts and works.

He suggests too that “the past conjured up is…largely an artefact of the present”, “shaped by today’s predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our preservation of its vestiges.”

The past has become commoditized as escapism, a state endlessly replicated in the kind of costume dramas that lure us into thinking that people back then thought just as we do. It is an on-going process of re-invention that becomes ever more ‘real’ and so I think predisposes many us towards a hankering for a past that contains none of the things that so upset us now. It was so much better then.

Wanting to turn back the clock to a time-that-never-was suggests feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; of depression, hardship and broken spirit. Hanging on to such a notion is obviously not going to help solve any of the problems that face us.  In the short term it leaves us vulnerable to those who would sell fake pasts for our future salvation (and politicians have always manipulated history to confound us – some on a megalomaniac scale). In the longer term, when the lie is exposed, it will bring only further incapacitating disillusionment. It might bring worse too.

And how did we get into this position – we, the rich nations of the northern hemisphere? How did all our great assets reduce us to such impoverished and desperate ways of thinking? Why do we not know enough about ourselves and our nations to see off the self-serving opportunists who feed us fantasies and divisive hate-stories?

These are questions that surely have very many answers, and for now I’m leaving them with you too.

Interestingly, David Lowenthal decided to do a re-write of his book. It came out last year.The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited. It earned him the 2016 British Academy Medal, and here’s a nice review by Robert Tombs. The reason he apparently chose to do a new book was because the past he had addressed in 1985 had, over three decades, been so transformed as to be an entirely new realm. Well, who’d have thought it!

I have this mad, optimistic hope that one day we might get some slight grip on reality – before it gets a grip on us. And now it’s clearly time I took a walk. Back up the old railway line then. It is far more peaceful there.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell


This post was written as a result of recent ‘conversations’ with poet Robyn at Jambo Robyn and scientist Swarn Gill at Cloak Unfurled. Many thanks both for the thought-provoking exchanges.

58 thoughts on “Who Sells The Pasts-That-Never-Were ~ Are We Seeing The Danger Signals?

    1. I suppose it isn’t so bad if we know this, and so look beyond what we’re presented with. Conservation bodies become compromised because they need the cash from the public to do the conserving. It begins to change the story. E.g. if the National Trust concentrated on telling people precisely where all the money for the grand estates came from, they might not be so appealing to visitors. Just a surmise 🙂

      1. I think you have a point!
        And while we’re talking of estates, what do you know of Shipton Hall? A neighbour showed me a couple of images yesterday that she wanted identifying….one was Stokesay castle, the other luckily had a sign, which said Shipton Hall. I looked it up, discovered it was in Much Wenlock but will be closed to the public after this year…..

  1. Quote from Professor Tombs, “Some offer carefully worded and highly publicised apologies “for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it”. Historical heroes have their views and actions bowdlerised; sometimes they are denounced for failing to measure up to 21st-century sensibilities; sometimes they are simply dropped from the canon and pushed out of history; and often they are just “defanged by marinating in trivia”.
    What a super phrase – defanged by marinating in trivia. Reminds me of the late Brian Sewell.

  2. I sense you didn’t get a decent cup of tea this morning, my dear Tish? 😉

    If you have not watched the Woody Allan movie Midnight in Paris with Owen Wilson, then you must watch it today – or immidiatement if you can your hands on a copy

    It has reference to almost everything you discuss in this excellent post. A truly delightful film and one I regularly watch.
    And the hero is a writer to boot!

    1. Woody Allen is a favourite in the Farrell household. So yes, must give this movie a second viewing. Thanks for the reminder. We v. much enjoyed it first time round. So you think it was the lack of a good cuppa. You could be right. I’d actually had hot water and lemon!

  3. So much to reflect upon in this great post, Tish. And intriguing questions. The first thing that springs to my mind is a late friend once saying many moons ago: “remember when you see a photograph, there is another and another and another next to it, out of sight” How I perceived the question was; reality is not everything you see at first glance, or it may never be visible, there’s always more to it.

    1. Thank you for those wise insights, Hanne. You’re right that we can’t fix a ‘reality’ that all would recognise. But it would be good, given all our number-crunching/high tech powers of analysis if leaders/pundits/those with the data, could make a stab at giving us more truthful representations of situations. Most of the stories they tell seek to divide rather than unite us. Of course it’s up to us too, to keep on digging; to not be fobbed off.

      1. Exactly! It was in regard photographs in a newspaper he referred to but I’ve translated it into life in general (if there is such a thing as life in general). And yes, unfortunately most of what is represented to us is indeed creating a divide instead of uniting and we need to dig, however sometimes it’s hard to find the core of a matter, so maybe the best ‘compass’ is to listen deep within to something beyond culture, race and learning and perhaps even an innocence we were born with, in regard to discriminating is something we learn, we’re not born with this.

      2. It’s not always easy, however I think it will bring more to the plate of understanding, in particular when judgments seem to speak with the loudest voices (inside our heads and out there in the world), ‘innocence’ is a subtle whisper in the gut that holds a knowing beyond the learning of the mind…. Tish, have a beautiful day.

  4. Tish,

    Thank you so much for the shout out and link to my blog. I am touched that I could help be an inspiration to such a lovely and reflective piece of writing. It’s funny that you follow Robyn too. She is quite an exceptional poet and insightful lady.

    Much of what you say of course mirrors the thoughts of many Americans. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is this fantasy history you speak of. Satirist and comic Jon Stewart in an interview said that he was disappointed that no one in the press ever asked him what that really meant, no one asked him what was your criteria for this great America. I suspect it’s a question he would not have wanted to answer. Yet I can’t help but feel that America’s problem (and perhaps the UK too) is that there is no introspection. Neither Clinton or Trump asked for us to to examine our own flaws as a people, as a nation. We all have them…maybe different ones. But for me, I don’t know how true greatness can ever be achieved without honest self-examination. There are a lot of people in this country not being honest with themselves. It’s so much easier to point fingers, and imagine a future paradise that resembles a past that never was.

    And yes history has so much to teach. I was just listening to a podcast on NPR where they were interviewing a professor who has successfully predicted the general election for the last 30 years. He is no statistician but a historian. He search deep in American history to the time of Lincoln to develop his model. It shouldn’t be surprising that knowing the past makes you a better predictor of the future. In some ways it would be nice if that wasn’t the case, because I suspect it’s because we keep repeating ourselves. But even in the world of weather prediction we know that our computer models our only of value if they can also simulate events of the past. If they aren’t able to mimic history then how can we trust their version of the future. I’ve just blown myself away about how computer models for predicting weather can teach us about which politicians to trust. 🙂

    Thank you again Tish!


      1. Mind: blown! I could almost say it’s a circular connection, except it’s more fractal than that. Thank you both for the kind words. Tish, this post is absolutely fantastic. “The pasts that never were…” I’m going to add just one thought from the veritable profusion – the past gave rise to where we are now, thus it strikes me as quite illogical to dream of going down that particular road again. Aside from the fact that the past is impossible to replicate, we already know the outcome.

      2. It is truly amazing what people will believe. Have just been reading about the horrific US neo-Nazis on Dear Kitty. Some Blog. They are swinging to prominence on Donald Trump’s coat-tails. V. v. scary.

      3. It is quite unsettling. Our budding neo-nazis here in Australia are coordinated (funded) by far-right groups in Europe and operate under the guise of patriotism and the like, and I wonder if it’s the same for the US? A while back I read a series of very informative articles by Nafeez Ahmed on medium.com about how powerful/effective that European network is becoming or has already become. it all serves a very distinct purpose and those everyday people who see this kind of thing as their way forward are in for one hell of a shock when they finally understand what goals they are being used to achieve. It’s definitely time to get mighty creative about our collective future.

      4. The US ones seem to be adopting the well-heeled corporate designer suited look, and the words full of self-preening. But your last sentence surely hits the spot. A call to action. We do indeed need to get creative about our collective future – emphasis on COLLECTIVE.

  5. Well that woke me up, what a fabulous post Tish. I assume the lost trainline was Mr Beeching’s work. The book is very tempting, but I suspect I’d be out of my depth, especially as my only reading time is bedtime. Great work, wish I had some of your writing talent.

    1. Yes, you spotted the railway thief, Gilly – Mr. Beeching he was. We Wenlockians long to have the railway back, but it’s a vain hope. Thank you for your very appreciative comment 🙂

  6. Your adept writing is enjoyable
    Side note / hardly ever see anyone use “Din”
    And have friends with that last name and they were just saying it meant noise or clamor and mentioned they never see it used

  7. I really like how you landed on your conclusion on what should worry us. It does worry me too. Too many false stories of the past…and the present swallowed down by so many people.

    1. I think it’s worrying that people seem to think there’s a choice of different brands of ‘truth’. Your facts. My facts. Their facts. To the extent that even verifiable facts may be dismissed if they don’t fit with someone’s mindset. It’s as if we are losing our powers of discrimination – in a positive sense that is. There seems to be plenty of the worst sort of discrimination around. Hey ho! That’s a depressing thought.

      1. And the worst of all is…no facts at all, they simply do not matter to many people. And yes, unfortunately there is far to much of the worst sort of discrimination…and it’s on the rise, starting from kindergartens and schools. I don’t think this is the time to sit quietly.

  8. A great post, Tish. I’ve written and rewritten this response now 3 times. I guess it’s still “too early” for me. I am quite disappointed in our election’s result and best leave it at that, for now.

  9. What a superb … expose? meditation? essay? piece of writing! I knew it would repay a close read, which is why it’s taken me so long to get around to it. I could almost write an essay in response, pursuing the byways you’ve signposted with all your provocations. The lead in is vintage Tish. First you people the path with an interesting array of people (especially writer who’ve lost their plot!). Then you offer the spurious peopling of the path from history. Then suddenly you wallop us with the real history: A TRAIN and a quarry. So much reality. And such rich metaphor (or is it analogy? or symbol?) You’ve red-herringed us beautifully.

    So much of what you go on to say applies to Australia, although I’d argue we need to go back further than 100 years – maybe begin at 40000+. Our history reduced the country the English invaded to terra nullius, because, the claim goes, the indigenous inhabitants weren’t making the land. Turns out they were farming fish and yams and living in stone houses, and that the early white “explorers” documented this in detail. This detail? Disappeared in the history books and still denied. Australia too has conservative politicians rhapsodising about an ideal past – 1950s seems to be their preferred decade. As for the past as an artefact of the present a controversy raged over a novel based on a family’s history settling a river on a river just north of Sydney which purported to be “true to history”, despite a fiddling with chronology, and being written from a totally different mindset. (Kate Grenville was the novelist: her book “The secret river”) As for “divisive hate stories” we had a scandal dubbed children overboard where our PM claimed refugees had thrown their children into the sea as part of his political campaign for re-election. Refugees arriving by boat are vilified and imprisoned on Nauru where the governement’s instruction is “give no hope”.

    And then there’s Warsaw’s reconstruction of the past in its rebuilding after WW2. I don’t quite know what to think of that. It’s a world heritage site, and some people think it’s a glorified theme park. As you can see you gave me plenty of food for though (and rant!)

    Oh, and I’m going to read Lowenthal too!

    That lead photo is stunning. I badly need to walk along a path like that. The next turn always intrigues me. Dare I dare the primeval forest in winter? And you can only do that by guided tour anyway.

    Thank you for keeping me busy and thinking for more than an hour.

    1. It’s such a pleasure to read your thoughtful response, Meg. I’m especially fascinated by the glimpse of pre-/cusp of colonial period and the indigenous people with their fish and yam farming . I knew nothing of this and need to know more. So sad the attitude to refugees – as if they are going to take from us, rather than give us their best. And as for the rebuilding of Warsaw, that it is a hard one. As an assertion of courage, and rising up from the ashes of oppression it is a marvelous symbol. But the dutiful replication of the past is a conundrum – turning back the clock perhaps to the point before all went awry, as if blotting out what came next? So yes, lots to think about, from you to me 🙂 Thank you.

      1. My next read after your provocative piece was “A history of Poland in painting” and in the introduction I found this: Jan Matejko’s great historical paintings “tell us more about the people and the moods of the second half of the nineteenth century than about the more distant past” they are portraying.

      2. That is intriguing isn’t it. I was reading somewhere recently, it was probably in Lowenthal, that before the 18th century there was no notion of people in the past being any different from one’s own time: it was all viewed as a continuity.That made me think of Shakespeare’s plays – well that explains a lot, I told myself without pursuing the topic further.

      3. And people in the past then may not have been so very different – say the life of a peasant, or an aristocrat for that matter. Change has accelerated massively over the last two centuries, or is that another myth?

      4. I think there’s a lot in what you say. The industrializing process was start I suppose, when the feudal structures finally began to break down. Then it’s been whizz whizz ever since.

  10. Thanks so much for this salutary post. The currently popular rhetoric along the lines of restoring the past times of “greatness” so often seem to invoke tropes enabling the (relatively) powerful/privileged to masquerade as victim, at the same time cloaking themselves in “righteousness”. Scary stuff, and we do need to see the danger signals. But note to self, I blog about “nature” in the hopes of encouraging people to be more caring and considerate in their neighbourhoods, but I do need to be reminded of the dangers of nostalgia and of sentimentalising “nature”. I live in South Africa, where the past is still very much present, and where (on the sidelines) some nature “conservationists” believe in “pristine nature” – a potentially fascist concept, as if humanity blights the earth that is otherwise unchanging. All too often “pristine nature” exists in places from which people were forcibly removed and not that long ago. As you so pertinently ask, should we not all be more knowledgeable about our own histories? Your post provides much to think about, and thank you for the reminder of the need to be constantly questioning and, hopefully, learning and, at the very least, bursting some bubbles along the way.

    1. Thank you for this very thoughtful comment, and interesting perspective. When we lived in Kenya and Zambia we soon became aware that the national parks – so glorious for visitors – can actually present great costs to indigenous populations who are excluded from their traditional territories. As you will know very well colonial rulers also set aside hunting blocks for themselves and their trophy hunting pleasures, while condemning locals as poachers if they hunted for food. It was assumed that populations who had lived in these lands for centuries did not know how to manage them, yet along come the great white hunters and start the killing spree. This is not to excuse present day poaching by any means – but one thing does lead to another, and the impoverishment of environment does (on the whole) tend to be due to greedy over-consumers, rather than to people who only take what they need. We of the over-consuming cultures do have very selective memories about our habits – somewhat reminiscent of addicts I would suggest (?) I applaud your intentions in encouraging people to be more caring in their communities. We can’t have too much encouragement on that front.

  11. Hi Tish, thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment, and I agree entirely with what you say about double standards and selective memories of the over-consuming cultures, not to mention the example they (we) set.. Thanks also for visiting and following my blog.

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