London, July 1, 2016, photograph by the author
I thought falling back into Time would be easy in London, unavoidable even. I’d taken a break from writing the book for a trip there, but I felt certain my sensitivity to the Past would be even stronger in an old place, Los Angeles or San Francisco being so new, comparatively speaking. I suppose I expected to feel more in a city where so many more people had lived and died. Some parts of the earth are simply more ancient than others, I reasoned; London was a thriving metropolis teeming with Romans, after all, long before California had even been invented.
In Hollywood, however, you can find yourself face to face without warning with a bloody gladiator smoking a cigarette or an eighteenth century girl in powdered wig on her iPhone; the centuries blur in this town where people come to lose their personal Past and create another, so I was no stranger to historical incongruity, and when we emerged from the Green Park Underground station on the morning of the 1st of July and met up with a troop of young men in uniforms of soldiers from the first World War, I didn’t blink. Once I realized I wasn’t the only one who could see them, that is. And no, I was not alone and they were quite real, in a surreal fashion, not blending in at all with the other pedestrians. Film shoot, I quickly surmised. Or perhaps, like a Civil War Re-enactment back home, they were members of a costume drama club for young men who loved dressing up and pretending to settle old disputes.
We followed the troups, these youthful Doughboys, through the arcade of the Ritz on Piccadilly, headed toward Fortnum and Mason, when I noticed another group moving in the same direction on the other side of the street, by the Burlington Arcade. We stopped at the traffic light and one of the boys – truly a boy, he might have been no more than sixteen or seventeen – turned to stare back at me, passively, almost a little expectantly.
“Where are you going?” I asked. He didn’t answer but continued looking at me mutely, and then handed me a card. On it was written: “Private George Smith, 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916” and at the bottom, something I noticed later, a hashtag, #wearehere.
Private George Smith couldn’t speak, of course, because he had died on this day a hundred years before. For the past few months I’d been working on the story of a dead man but it hadn’t prepared me to meet one so young and so alive and so far from home.
Later I would learn the details, the identity of the organizer, the scope and extent of this tribute to the fallen. Later I would wonder where my actor William had been on the 1st of July in 1916. I knew he had not been a young man and he had not been in France when 19,000 men died on the the first day of that terrible battle. He had not been there. I don’t think I had been there either, until that moment, looking into the eyes of a young actor on a street in London a hundred years later.
The Past does not register until you find a human connection to it. It doesn’t have to be DNA, or a common language or heritage or the right setting, although I suppose that would all help. So does being old. But too much life, too many people in the present can be a hindrance, a roaring white noise that disrupts, drowns out the old. History is the hardest thing to teach to the young, because they have so many distractions and so little material to work with, so little Time. By itself, however, Time, even in ancient surroundings, will not help you conjure another era or another life.
There were moments later, walking in Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, a place I know better than other parts of London, when slipping into the Past felt easier, or possible. Virginia Woolf’s father died in 1904, her life changed then, she walked here. I once owned a note written by Lytton Strachey to her that year that mentions her brother Thoby Stephen, describing him as looking like a young Theseus (he would die two years later on a trip to Greece); I bought it at auction and sold it again a few years later because I was poor and had no business spending money on ephemera of people I’d never known, but the connection lingered: a tingling in the touch, like a startled recognition prompted by a look exchanged by accident on the street with another boy who died too young; a feeling of being part of something much greater and older and richer and sadder than ever seemed possible. A sense of being connected, of being there.