Yesterday I took my family to Audley End House a stately home wonderfully restored and maintained by the charity, English Heritage. It’s big all right, with gardens modelled by famous landscaper Capability Brown and an opulent interior with a very large number of paintings, many of them portraits of the original owners going back to Thomas Audley who built the first house in the time of King Henry VIII (big guy in a hat who had a lot of wives). Judging by the difficulty in getting my six-year-old son away from it, the children’s play area was a success too. And the horses were as huge as they were indulgent!
Even though building work on the house only began in 1603, which seems like only last week to someone who grew up in Colchester (the earliest parts of my home town were built when Christ was still alive and you just take that kind of antiquity for granted when growing up), what I enjoyed most was the sense that this was not a moment in history that has been frozen, but rather that there was a constantly changing history to Audley End, the estate had a life of its own that both influenced and was influenced by the world around it… and still does.
That’s how I like my fiction, both when I’m reading and when I’m writing. I like the feeling that behind the events of my story, that wider events of history are unfurling, that they are in constant motion and we see a slightly blurred snapshot as it moves forward in time. That snapshot includes modernity, but also the washed-up remnants of earlier eras, still jostling against the contemporary developments and determined to remain relevant. That’s why one of my favourite authors is Stephen Baxter with his long perspectives of history in his Time’s Tapestry series (to take just one example) and of future-history in his Xeelee series. China Mieville too: I enjoy the richness of his Bas-Lag setting, even though I’m not especially fond of his plotting.
Audley End was like that. A huge construction when started in 1603, when the family fell out of favour the buildings fell into disrepair and was inherited by the Crown. Another noble family acquired it in 1701 but demolished two-thirds of the building to reduce it to manageable size. The interior was gutted and redone in many styles over the years, several of which have been recreated and are on show now. And at the same time Jane Austen was inventing the romantic heroine, Audley End became a scientific centre for agricultural research.
What triggered my childhood memories were the concrete tank traps and the pillboxes that are still there in the beautifully landscaped gardens of Audley End. If the word ‘pillbox’ doesn’t mean anything to you, think of German defences at the top of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan… they’re pillboxes: squat concrete miniature forts. In 1940, 28,000 were built in England to guard against German invasion.
By 1980, when I was a young boy growing up in Colchester, many of these concrete forts were still around and perfect for playing war (if you could hold your nose against the stench). You could even see pillboxes from the top deck of the bus to school. The slit holes were perfect for siting an imaginary gun, and fighting back the invaders. In those days we constantly relived the Second World War; there was no question but that the imaginary enemy were Germans. I’m pleased to say that my son has no real concept of that war: to him the enemy are the more abstract ideas of aliens, undead, or criminal anti-heroes. And I was fortunate that the idea of armoured checkpoints and invasion stoplines was not a contemporary reality to me, as it had been to people I met later in life.
But the Audley End pillbox reminded me of growing up in a small town bursting with remnants of a two thousand-year-old history still jostling for relevance. On my walk home from school to the bus stop, I would pass through Roman gates, see the castle built as part of the Norman occupation of England, the Dutch Quarter built by Huguenots fleeing continental persecution, St Mary-at-the-Walls where the cannon called Humpty Dumpty was brought crashing down in the great siege of 1648, and all the rest that I won’t bore you with. The point was that every day I saw a small English town in the early 1980s and simultaneously saw a place rich with history for which the 1980s were just a brief, blurred moment.
It’s only that I enter my 40s, and have a family of my own, that I realise the extent to which my childhood experiences have shaped me and are going on to shape my children. This wealth of history is only one strand of that, but I can see now that it is part of the reason why I read and write what I do today.
I’ve been thinking about this topic recently. In a roundabout fashion, my recent trip to the US Embassy reminded me of my junior school education (elementary and junior high in North America) which was peppered by bomb scares. It took me many years into adulthood before I realised that other children hadn’t learned games to play after a bomb threat evacuation. It’s not half as dramatic as it sounds, but I’ll post on that soon.
In the meantime, if you live in the UK and fancy a new hobby, one that I could imagine getting into if I had the time, and I suspect my wife would consider a sad middle-aged male obsession, then check out these pillbox websites, complete with photos and diagrams. http://www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk/homefrontpage.htm and http://www.pillboxesuk.co.uk/