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Historicity

I was introduced to this word a few days ago by Philip K Dick’s novel ‘The Man in the High Castle’, and its certainly a concept that springs to life in Stratford-upon-Avon. Most of the UK, in fact, has a palpable sense of identity, of pride, not only in the objects and stories of history but in objects and stories that present a feeling of oneness with an imagined past. For all pasts are to some degree imagined: despite the didactic nature of textbooks, history comes to us through contradictory narratives and there is never one single layer of story to consider. So, Shakespeare’s house becomes infinitely more interesting when dressed with the trappings of Shakespeare’s time, despite the fact that it’s existed as an object right up through the current day and its history encompasses the 1960s just as much as the 1550s.

This is why working Tudor farms exist. This is why tea houses put out lacy doilies in Victorian patterns and bake buns to ancient recipies (even if modern ones might taste better.)

And it was what I was seeking in a little souvineer from my time in Stratford. I wanted not a magnet or a t-shirt or a plastic bust of the Bard, but something that gave a little bit of the air of traditionalism that I felt in the place. But I couldn’t find a shop selling locally made jams or blends of tea specific to the region (my usual standby from Historick Visits), so I ended up with a somewhat charming tile representing As You Like It. I would have preferred something from a play I knew better but still, it’s something different from the main.

I have also been thinking about this while writing my new book. In looking back at my old travel notes from Cairo, I’m afraid to find that many of my descriptions are wont to portray the place as trapped in time, which is certainly not true, and certainly is one of the ploys of old Orientalist writers. It frightens me to think of being compared with them–I see my former supervisor’s face looming disapprovingly before me as she chastises me for some offence or other. But I see connection to imagined history so vividly here in the depths of the English countryside just as much as I ever did in Egypt; London doesn’t escape either. And people do affiliate themselves with imagined histories; it’s not all just put on from the outside. Historicity is an appealing quality.

And it’s something I want to be very careful to replicate in my writing about Britain as well as in Cairo. Which means I must start thinking more about what kind of passages from the UK I can include; it can’t just be a Cairo memoir. It’s very exciting to have made a start on this trip and I look forward to where my meandering thoughts take me next.

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