As the rain keeps coming and the puddles that became pools are now ponds, this is a time of year best spent planning the things that lie ahead. That involves contemplating already lapsed resolutions (in my case defrosting the freezer, eating more apples and fewer pieces of toast and marmite and opening those brown envelopes from HMRC). But also, more fun, looking forward to holidays: Argyll in May, a Landmark for my scary big birthday in August and a wedding anniversary trip to see William of Orange’s siege works at Maastricht (not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but I can’t wait). And yet, are such things really what lie before us? Do we fundamentally ‘face’ the time ahead and stand with our backs turned to the past?
I had never given this question any thought until a few weeks ago. Every year History Today magazine has an excellent New Year’s party, this time in the Foundling Museum. By far the best event of the year for catching up with the fraternity of British historians, old and young; it is also when the Longman History awards are presented. The big winner this year was Norman Davies, whose books on European history, among them his outstanding history of Poland, are giants of scholarship. In his (admittedly rather long) speech, Davies talked about a fascinating thing, new to me: the Maori concept of history. As he described it, the Maori word for ‘history’ means ‘that which is in front of us’, and that for the future means ‘that which lies behind us’. So if we think of ourselves, or mankind, as standing on a celestial timeline, for them we are not gazing at the blankness of an unknowable future but rather facing the other way, contemplating the vivid detail of a known past.
I must say it got me thinking. Long after leaving the party, and babble of conversation about missed publishers’ deadlines and embryonic TV series had receded, the image of us not in fact ‘facing the future’ but instead looking at the past, and only occasionally glancing forward stayed with me. When I told a colleague she said, yes, like sitting in a backward-facing seat on a bus, with a view of what you have already travelled past. It reminded me how on millennium eve 14 years ago, I felt not so much a thrill about the new decade and century, but an intense sense of gratitude for the family and friendships of that just finishing. That is not to say I feared or felt resistant to the future, just that my appreciation of what had already been was stronger. And so as I try to corral my straying family into a decision about whether we should gather at Saddell, Cavendish Hall or Wortham Manor, I now see my forthcoming birthday in Maori terms: no longer a gloomy contemplation of my middle age but (like Landmark’s wonderful buildings themselves) a chance to revel in the richness of all that has been.