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 were visiting a nightclub. There they met a young woman, and as she approached their table the protagonist raised his hat to her. There had 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 that 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.
A curiosity about past and present is our sense of ownership of both. We think we are nearer in some way to pasts that we regard as our own, even when they are too far back for us to recall, or even to have experienced. We tend to forget, I suspect, that such pasts are known to us only by what we are told of them; and that which may be told to us, might be told to anyone. Perhaps it is the degree of caring, rather than the extent of knowledge, which creates the illusion. The issue is slightly different with the present, for here, though we think we own it wholly, we are in fact trapped in a bubble of our own perceptions, and many of those are likely to have been created by our responses to what other people, through one medium or another, have told us. Most of the present is invisible to us, and most of what is visible, is by report. In fact, it might be arguable, that the past, which is mostly invisible, can seem more knowable by virtue of the fact that there is less of it available to be known!
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. How much more fascinating to consider the differences between our present day actualities and the future imaginings that our writings about them will evoke.
I’ve just come back from London – which is why this posting is a day later than usual – where there was a distressingly large number of bare-headed men on the street!