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The desktop image on my computer at work is a high resolution photograph of the surface of Mars taken by one of the NASA Rovers currently combing the planet. It looks as though it could have been taken in the middle of the Australian outback. A sandy, windswept rocky outcrop slopes down towards an open, rock strewn plain beneath a bright, clear sky. The whole scene looks so immediate and familiar that itís hard to grasp how many millions of miles away it is. Yet despite its distance, itís a real place, as real as any place here on Earth.
The past is in many respects as remote to us as Mars. Perhaps even more so. One day people will conceivably be able to walk on Mars but the past is territory we can never re-visit or return to in any physical sense. Whilst we can all try to imagine what Mars will be like, we can only remember what once was. And whilst we are edging ever closer to the day, however distant, when people will set foot on the red planet, each day that passes carries us farther and farther away from the yesterdays we can never reclaim.
Memory is a fickle and subjective thing. I'm often intrigued with the way that people who are on trial are often required to remember a whole series of events; dates, places, times, whole conversations even, which may have taken place years in the past. I can barely remember what I did yesterday. It's strange to think that memories are physical, chemical and neurological phenomenon stored in a piece of meat we call the brain. So much of who we are is determined by memory. It's the essential skill that allows us to grow and develop. And yet it's so fragile.
We often find ourselves arguing over shared memories. One person remembers something this way. Another person remembers it that way. Relationships can be strengthened or demolished on the basis of memory. Whole nations build their entire identity around the phenomenon of collective memory. Sometimes these are first hand memories. More often they are historical in nature and further susceptible to manipulation and change. The point is, memories are powerful. They are potent. Without memory there would be no history and without history we would not be who we are. Essentially, we are the net product of all we can remember.
Memory equals power. Whether itís in the courtroom, in the exam room or in our relationships, the ability to remember things can mean the difference between success and failure. We live in an age when our appreciation of how important it is to remember things is at an all-time high. We log onto lumosity.com to keep our brain nimble. We try to keep abreast of the latest research into Alzheimer's in the hope we might evade such a dreaded disease. We do crosswords, eat specific foods and make specific lifestyle choices in order to preserve our ability to remember things.
I started keeping my first diary at the age of 13. When this proved insufficient to chronicle what seemed at the time to be such important events I began supplementing this with a journal. By the time I was 22 I had recorded every day of my life over a ten year period. If you were to ask me what I did when I was 16 years, four months and three days old, I could tell you. Since then, despite occasional lapses, I have maintained the habit of writing. It is as natural to me as the ability to breath.
It's ironic that I can no longer remember the name of the family friend who had the unwitting foresight to buy a 13 year old boy a nondescript one year diary for Christmas in 1972. Without this gift I have no doubt that most of what remains clear on the page would be lost in the blur of years that constitute my life. Iíve often joked with friends that should I ever succumb to Alzheimer's I'll be able to re-live my life through my diaries and journals. They are and will increasingly become the repository of all my collective memories.
I recently shared a piece of writing I did nearly 40 years ago with a dear friend. It's a chronicle of a troubled period in our mutual history that no one has clapped eyes on since it was written. Sharing it was made all the more poignant by the fact that we'd lost contact for over 30 years. Upon reading it she said it was both fascinating and disconcerting. The perspective of a 16 year old lad can be skewered at the best of times. Nonetheless it was heartfelt and sharing it with one of the main protagonists was precious.
The flip side of having so much personal history documented and readily available is the ever growing realisation that our lives are constantly passing into the realm of memory. Things that seem so important to us now will fade into nothing once we are gone. Whilst there are a relative few whose legacy remains long after they are dead, the vast majority of us will simply vanish without a trace. Who were the couples who wed in some distant century and established the lineage that led directly to us and without them we wouldn't be here? I rest my case.
I was born in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight in a house that belonged for many years to a 19th century writer and educator by the name of Elizabeth Missing Sewell. She was the aunt of the writer Anna Sewell and the sister of Henry Sewell, the first prime minister of New Zealand. As a boy I used to go and sit by her grave in the local church and wonder about the life of the woman whose body lay rotting in the ground below. For some reason I was intrigued by her and felt some kind of connection.
This sense of connection was in part due to the fact that her niece wrote
, an important childhood book. It was amplified by the family myth that the ghost of her footsteps could be heard climbing the stairs at night; an image that was clothed in my imagination by photos we had of her as an old woman clothed in black in full 19th century garb and bonnet. The predominant link, however, was Ashcliff, our much loved family home which had once been her family home and which she had extended and landscaped so thoroughly during her lifetime.
A couple of years ago it occurred to me to see if I could find the writings of Elizabeth Sewell online. I managed to download a surprisingly readable novel, long out of print, called
. A little later I tracked down her a history of Ancient Rome and a journal she'd written in which, amongst other things, she chronicled her life on the island, including her move to Bonchurch and the subsequent purchase of Ashcliff in the 1840s. Reading such a personal document was fascinating, especially given that she was describing a place so close to my own heart.
It's easy to take the written word for granted. It's a tool we use on a daily basis. More often than not it's a means to an end. At the time that Elizabeth Sewell was writing, the level of generally literacy was much lower than it is today. The skill of writing was arguably taken a lot more seriously. The fact that her journals were published is evidence of this. My reading revealed a very complex and in many cases contradictory individual; a woman writer and educator who nonetheless had very conservative views on the role on education for girls.
What I found especially interesting were the descriptions of her visits to various parts of the island and her walks along the seafront, places I know well and which in some areas are now radically altered in appearance. I also connected with her description of things that haven't changed and which are indelibly imbued within the atmosphere and landscape of the island. The mythic woman I had known about since my earliest childhood became real in a way I had not previously imagined. Her words allowed me a connection with the woman who so fascinated me as a young boy.
Who knows, maybe one day someone will read my old diaries and journals. Perhaps my teenage writings will provide a distant reader with an insight into what is was like to be growing up in South Australia in the 1970s. All the books from that era have been transcribed and stored on various devices so their existence is not solely dependent upon the survival of the original documents themselves. Perhaps some yet to be born relative will have a passing interest in the musings of their long departed forebear in the same way my father's war letters once fascinated me.
My fascination with a minor 19th Century writer might seem a little odd to some. Obviously Ashcliff is the key link. I credit much of who I am today to my formative years in that house. Unlike most of my peers I was born at home, so Ashcliff is first and foremost the place where I arrived on the planet. Itís also the cradle of my earliest memories and it in no small measure shaped the way I still view the world today. To have had the opportunity to grow up in such a beautiful location was indeed a privilege.
My parents was not especially wealthy. It was the inheritance money from the untimely death of my grandparents that allowed them to buy the house; that, and a fortuitously granted transfer to the Isle of Wight from Barrow-in-Furness that my father applied for with his job at Lloyds Bank in the early 1950s. Had he not been successful my childhood would have been very different. By all accounts their first few years on the island were amongst their happiest of their marriage and so to have been born into this oasis of relative calm and prosperity was an additional blessing.
Ashcliff was built from local stone in 1844 and extended by the Sewell family shortly thereafter. A three story Georgian house with sea views, it had extensive gardens on two levels which wrapped themselves generously around the building and a 300 foot woodland cliff accessed by a series of terraced pathways which rose sheer to the rear of the property. My earliest memories involve exploring this wonderland of a garden and feeling like I was the master of my own kingdom. I was also imbued with a keen sense of wonder concerning all things to do with the natural world.
At Ashcliff there was a living room and a dining room divided by heavy, floor to ceiling, wooden sliding doors. At each end of each room there was a marble fireplace. On either side of the living room fireplace were a series of bookshelves. I spent many hours exploring the books on these shelves, especially those with pictures. Of particular interest was a book from 1906 titled
The Sewells of the Isle of Wight
which contained photographs of Ashcliff, including the living room in which I would sit. It was, as the title suggests, a record of the Sewell family.
Published in 1906, the photographs in the book probably dated to the late 1890s. It was here that I had my first glimpse of what Elizabeth Sewell looked like. Photographed towards the end of her long life, she was dressed completely in black and looked formidable and remote. In retrospect they were probably mourning clothes. Think Miss Havisham 20 years on from when we meet her in Dickensí famous novel and youíll get the general gist. Needless to say, this, combined with the stories about her ghost and my visits to her grave, did much to inspire apprehension and awe.
As an adult I am still intrigued. I could easily elaborate more on her life and the things I have discovered but to do so is to move further and further away from my original focus, that of territory, time and memory. I am reminded of Kahlil Gibranís words when describing the relationship between parents and their children when he says,
Ďtheir souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.í
This is the nature of time and what we might call the time continuum. Ultimately, we can only exist in the present.
More crucially, the only time we have is the time we have. Sixty years separate the death of Elizabeth Sewell and the young boy sitting by her grave. Nearly fifty years separate that young boy from the middle aged man writing these words. Time is real, as are its consequences. I am becoming increasingly conscious of the passing of the baton from one generation to the next and the capacity of words to bridge the divide between the living, the dead and the countless generations to come. Beyond the misgivings about oneís own mortality, it is a poetically sublime phenomenon.
While writing these words I have taken time out to see whether I could find any books online by my great uncle and my fatherís namesake, George Dixon Abraham. He was a mountaineer and travel writer of some repute during the early part of the twentieth century. To my delight I discovered one titled
ĎOn Alpine Heights and British Cragsí
, published in 1919. Iíve not had time to look at it in depth but the very fact I was able to find it is, to me, very exciting. It reinforces so much of what I have been trying to express.
I never knew my grandparents. They were all long gone by the time I appeared. I never knew my great uncle either. Oddly, I am myself an uncle to 14, a great uncle to 18 and a great, great uncle to twelve or more with another three on the way. So the sense of linkage to my own great uncle, regardless of the fact that we never met, is for me no great leap of imagination. He died in 1965 in his mid-nineties, so whether he ever clapped eyes on me Iíll probably never know. Iíd like to think so.
Further online investigations have revealed more details about my great Uncle George. He apparently attended the Manchester School of Art and married the daughter of a sculptor. Until today Iíd always imagined that I was the only one in the family to have attended an art school. Little discoveries such as these excite me. I have also discovered that he married the daughter of a sculptor. He was also a well-known and highly successful rock climber and photographer. It also occurs to me that one of his brothers would be my grandfather, although that is an investigation for another day.
Iíve recently been reading about the Mars One mission to land people on Mars by 2025. This is in contrast to the NASA plans to achieve the same outcome the following decade. While at first glance the concept seems to be the stuff of science fiction, the Mars One people are quite serious and have been engaging various relevant organisations, including NASA. Itís been suggested that the whole exercise will be televised, Big Brother-style, making it the biggest media event in human history. For the initial six pioneers who are finally selected it will be a one way trip.
The journey to Mars will take seven months. Thatís one month longer than it took the first British settlers to arrive in Australia but thatís where the similarities end. They will be living in unbelievably cramped quarters. There will be unbelievable psychological and logistical pressure bearing down on them. If theyíre successful their names will be writ large in the annals of human history for as long as human history continues. Itís wholly likely that one or more of them will keep a written journal of some kind. In doing so, theyíll be the most far flung words ever written.
As a young teenager my dreams were filled with the stuff of science fiction. Long before Star Wars I was gobbling up the works of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, to name but a few. As with any young lad at that time, with the moon landings still in full swing, the future was going to be one of interplanetary exploration. The future has turned out to be a little different but the words continue to inspire. Words and ideas help us to dream large and no one could accuse the Mars One people of not dreaming large.
If the planned mission to Mars goes ahead as planned, less than 120 years will separate the death of Elizabeth Missing Sewell and the advent of humans touching down on another planet. Admittedly, humans landed on the moon in 1969 but letís be clear about something here: on average it took the Apollo crew members three days to reach the moon whereas it will take seven months to reach the Red Planet. Any way you look at it, thatís a difference of magnitude that cannot be over-stated. Which is not to downplay the magnitude of landing on the moon, either.
And so I return to the high resolution desktop image on my computer at work of the surface of Mars taken by one of the NASA Rovers. That very sentence would have been the stuff of science fiction to my teenaged self. My computer at work? A photograph of the surface of Mars? NASA Rovers? We are all travellers along the time continuum. Perhaps thatís what it means to be a time traveller. All I know is that words are the conduit through which all of this can be expressed and shared, and these are my words for this month.
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