The Invisible Present


One of my English lecturers back in the nineteen seventies pointed out that what is always missing from literature is that which the writer thought so ordinary that it needed no mention.

Items, ideas, clothes, furniture, landscapes even, that were so ubiquitous, so normal, that they could be taken for granted – that they were taken for granted – and it could be safely assumed that the reader would take their presence for granted too.

I came across an example of this quite recently while reading an A.E.Coppard story. Written, and set, in the nineteen thirties, the story included a scene in which the protagonist and his sidekick are visiting a nightclub. There they meet a young woman, and as she approaches their table the protagonist raises his hat to her. There has been no previous mention whatever of a hat. My assumption, to that point, had been that they were bareheaded. Coppard’s was that, obviously they would not be. I was reminded of a book I read during the writing of A Penny Spitfire. It was about the immediately post-war world (and I’m assuming here you’ll assume I mean World War Two!), in which, the author wrote that, in 1947, a man walking down The Strand bare-headed would turn heads! Our assumption, I assume, is that bare-headedness is the norm, though they tell me that hats are gaining in popularity again. Back then, however, they were not merely popular, but de-rigueur.

How fascinating it might be to compare the actual that authors from the past were describing, with the imagined that their writings evoked. We can do this, of course, to a certain extent, by comparing those evocations with photographs of the time; but how much more fascinating to consider the differences between our present day actualities and the future imaginings that our writings about them will evoke. APennySpitfire-frontcover