Making history

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

‘History is not the past,’ says the writer Hilary Mantel in the first of her Reith Lectures on Radio 4 (produced by Jim Frank, Tuesday). ‘It’s the method we’ve evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ In Resurrection: The Art and Craft, her series of five talks, Mantel shows her mettle as a novelist (most notably of the award-winning Wolf Hall and its sequel) and as a historian, too, arguing the case for historical fiction, once much-maligned as a literary genre precisely because it twists the facts to create a narrative, usually of a highly romanticised flavour. But facts are not truths, Mantel asserts provocatively. ‘The moment we are deceased we become the subject of stories. The process of fictionalisation is instant and natural and inevitable.’ Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, interpretation begins.

But to begin with she didn’t like making things up. She looked for evidence, spent ages reading up on the facts only to realise, as she was researching a book set in revolutionary France, that there are so many gaps in the record. It was these ‘erasures and silences’ that turned her into a novelist. How to fill them? She determined that although she ‘would make up a man’s inner torments’ she would never invent the colour of his drawing-room wallpaper. That detail she needed to know so that she could ‘look around the room through his eyes’. (A ‘snide’ critic complained of the book that followed that there was ‘a lot of wallpaper in it’.)

Aged 12, on a visit to Hampton Court Palace, Mantel remembers bursting into tears as she sat on the floor in Cardinal Wolsey’s closet. It was as if in some way she knew then how her life would be mapped out. ‘I have in fantasy,’ she says, ‘fulfilled what I imagined that day. I have seen Cardinal Wolsey sitting by the fireplace and I have lain my elbow on the windowsill and I have conversed with him.’ It’s this ability to enter into the past, Mantel’s uncanny intuition, that makes her novels set in the court of Henry VIII and focused on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, engineer of the English Reformation, so compelling. They feel so authentic, so remarkably true to what it must have been like to be there in that closet with Wolsey. Like a psychic, a Mystic Meg, Mantel delves back into the lives of the dead and resurrects them as if they could be alive and with us now.

Her intention, she says, is ‘to introduce a wobble into the fabric of reality’, to make us less certain about how things were. ‘Any worthwhile history,’ she says, ‘is a constant state of self-questioning.’ You might think that a novelist who has spent the past decade or more immersed in the 1500s would have little to tell us about our own times. But Mantel’s grasp of our relationship with the past is so sure, so inflected with meaning, that she illuminates the present, too. ‘They have something to tell us,’ she says of the ‘restless’ dead. ‘Something we need to understand.’

On the World Service, Kanishk Tharoor introduced another programme in his series Museum of Lost Objects, which traces buildings and artworks, treasures and personal artefacts destroyed in the violence in the Middle East, reimagining them through memories, legends and the personal stories of those who once owned or knew them. Surprisingly, this virtual museum is not always about loss and destruction as Tharoor discovered when he returned to Aleppo.

He meets Zahed Tajeddin, an archaeologist who had restored a large medieval courtyard house in the suburb of Jdeideh, built at the height of the city’s affluence in the 15th century, amid bathhouses, mosques and churches, and alleyways filled with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle. Tajeddin left his treasured home in 2012 because he no longer felt safe in the city, but Abu Ahmed, a pharmacist, moved into Jdeideh at the very same time to see if there was anything he could do to help. He went door to door offering first aid, applying dressings, dispensing medicines to the wounded and distressed and, discovering the house left by Tajeddin, he camped in its courtyard and set up a makeshift pharmacy there.

‘Every day was stressful,’ says Ahmed. ‘I used to have panic attacks, when you see that things are getting worse and there is no solution ahead.’ There were many victims of the violence for whom he could do nothing except stem the blood and soothe the pain. ‘Sometimes you feel like you want to die, but then you think about it again, and realise the reason you were there. Helping others gave me purpose.’ He would sit in the courtyard and smell the jasmine that Tajeddin had planted. ‘Those moments I savoured.’

The house acquired a new history, another layer of meaning, and when Tajeddin eventually went back in 2015 to see if his home had survived the bombing he found it intact, if submerged by dust and debris, a single jasmine flower taking him back to its medieval origins, its past.

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