A photograph is a time machine, a thing caught static in time that recedes from us at a rate of one second every second. While this is true of every physical object that surrounds us, a photograph has the distinction of bearing visual evidence of the lost instant that saw its inception, making that lost instant once again partially available into the future as it speeds deeper into the past.
Many years ago a friend and I were pondering on this, he was a film maker and I a sculptor, we both had different interests in the significance of both time and physical presence with regard to our work. I clearly remember him saying the phrase ‘the past is a foreign country’ in that context and I remember how it caught me as one of those moments I would always remember, the phrase to me seemed profound and in some way potentially life altering. Impressed I asked him how he had arrived at such a crystalline phrase, to his credit he admitted he had read it, in fact it was the title of a book I might enjoy.
The Past is a foreign country by David Lowenthal.
As is often the case with book recommendations I completely ignored it for at least a decade. But that phrase kept on revisiting me whenever old friends became nostalgic or I remembered past lovers, or I tried to imagine the lives of my newly found ancestors through Ancestry.
What had at the time been a fairly expensive book, by now was easily got for a couple of quid on Amazon, so I bought it. It sat on my bookshelf unread, itself speeding through time (yes it is profusely illustrated) and there it still sits, I have reached for it many times but always put it back unread, for fear that what it contains will undo the magic of that phrase for me.
I have heard it said that the book is about the ever-changing role the past has in shaping our lives, how it allows us to make sense of the present and constrains the trajectory of the future. One of these days I will cross my fingers and read it, although I may begin at the back.
Of course in the intervening years I have come to learn that the phrase “The past is a foreign country” is actually a quote from ‘The Go Between’ by L. P. Hartley. It is the first line of that 1953 book, which entertains the fallibility of memory, unreliable histories misremembered and actively misrepresented.
In my opinion the complete sentence of Hartley’s quote is perfect, it provides you the time traveller with everything you need to go exploring.
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”