“I’m writing a history of the world,” she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. “Well, my goodness,” the nurse says. “That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?” And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – “Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.”
A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well – no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez ” The works, this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine. I’m equipped, I consider; eclecticism has always been my hallmark. That’s what they’ve said, though it has been given other names. Claudia Hampton’s range is ambitious, some might say imprudent: my enemies. Miss Hampton’s bold conceptual sweep: my friends.
A history of the world, yes. And in the process, my own.
The Life and Times of Claudia H. The bit of the twentieth century to which I’ve been shackled, willy-nilly, like it or not. Let me contemplate myself within my context: everything and nothing. The history of the world as selected by Claudia: fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.
“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse. Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor’s shoes crunch. “I mean, the things she comes out with “” And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and ” um ” been in the Middle East at one time ” typhoid, malaria ” unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say) ” yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.
There are plenty who would point to it as a typical presumption to align my own life with the history of the world. Let them. I’ve always had my followers, also. My readers know the story, of course. They know the general tendency. They know how it goes. I shall omit the narrative. What I shall do is flesh it out; give it life and colour, add the screams and the rhetoric. Oh, I shan’t spare them a thing. The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key. They sound, in theory, more efficient. Some of my keys don’t work; others demand pass-words, codes, random unlocking sequences. The collective past, curiously, provides these. It is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours. The voice of John Aubrey, of Darwin, of whoever you like, speaks in one tone to me, in another to you. The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life: I, me, Claudia H.
Self-centred? Probably. Aren’t we all? Why is it a term of accusation? That is what it was when I was a child. I was considered difficult. Impossible, indeed, was the word sometimes used. I didn’t think I was impossible at all; it was mother and nurse who were impossible, with their injunctions and their warnings, their obsessions with milk puddings and curled hair and their terror of all that was inviting about the natural world – high trees and deeper water and the texture of wet grass on bare feet, the allure of mud and snow and fire. I always ached – burned – to go higher and faster and further. They admonished; I disobeyed.
Gordon, too. My brother Gordon. We were birds of a feather.
My beginnings; the universal beginning. From the mud to the stars, I said. So ” the primordial soup. Now since I have never been a conventional historian, never the expected archetypal chronicler, never like that dried-up bone of a woman who taught me about the Papacy at Oxford time out of mind ago, since I’m known for my maverick line, since I’ve infuriated more colleagues than you’ve had hot dinners, we’ll set out to shock. Tell it from the point of view of the soup, maybe? Have one of those drifting floating feathery crustaceans narrate. Or an ammonite? Yes, an ammonite, I think. An ammonite with a sense of destiny. A spokesperson for the streaming Jurassic seas, to tell it how it was.
But here the kaleidoscope shakes. The Palaeolithic, for me, is just one shake of the pattern away from the nineteenth century – which first effectively noticed it, noticed upon what they were walking. Who could not be attracted to those majestic figures, striding about beaches and hillsides, overdressed and bewhiskered, pondering immensities? Poor misguided Philip Gosse, Hugh Miller and Lyell and Darwin himself. There seems a natural affinity between frock coats and beards and the resonances of the rocks – Mesozoic and Triassic, oolite and lias, Cornbrash and Greensand.
But Gordon and I, aged eleven and ten, had never heard of Darwin; our concept of time was personal and semantic (tea-time, dinner-time, last time, wasting time “); our interest in Asteroceras and Primocroceras was acquisitive and competitive. For the sake of beating Gordon to a choice-looking seam of Jurassic mud I was prepared to bash a hundred and fifty million years to pieces with my shiny new hammer and if necessary break my own arm or leg falling off a vertical section of Blue Lias on Charmouth beach in 1920.
She climbs a little higher, on to another sliding shelving plateau of the cliff, and squats searching furiously the blue grey fragments of rock around her, hunting for those enticing curls and ribbed whorls, pouncing once with a hiss of triumph – an ammonite, almost whole. The beach, now, is quite far below; its shrill cries, its barkings, its calls are clear and loud but from another world, of no account.
And all the time out of the corner of her eye she watches Gordon, who is higher yet, tap-tapping at an outcrop. He ceases to tap; she can see him examining something. What has he got? Suspicion and rivalry burn her up. She scrambles through little bushy plants, hauls herself over a ledge.
“This is my bit,” cries Gordon. “You can’t come here. I’ve bagged it.”
“I don’t care,” yells Claudia. “Anyway I’m going up higher –it’s much better further up.” And she hurls herself upwards over skinny plants and dry stony soil that cascades away downwards under her feet, up towards a wonderfully promising enticing grey expanse she has spotted where surely Asteroceras is lurking by the hundred.
Below, on the beach, unnoticed, figures scurry to and fro; faint bird-like cries of alarm waft up.
She must pass Gordon to reach that alluring upper shelf. “Mind,” she says. “Move your leg.”
“Don’t shove,” he grumbles. “Anyway you can’t come here. I said this is my bit, you find your own.”
“Don’t shove yourself. I don’t want your stupid bit.”
His leg is in her way – it thrashes, she thrusts, and a piece of cliff, of the solid world which evidently is not so solid after all, shifts under her clutching hands ” crumbles ” and she is falling thwack backwards on her shoulders, her head, her outflung arm, she is skidding rolling thumping downwards. And comes to rest gasping in a thorn bush, hammered by pain, too affronted even to yell.
He can feel her getting closer, encroaching, she is coming here on to his bit, she will take all the best fossils. He protests. He sticks a foot to impede. Her hot infuriating limbs are mixed up with his.
“You’re pushing me,” she shrieks.
“I’m not,” he snarls. “It’s you that’s shoving. Anyway this is my place so go somewhere else.”
“It’s not your stupid place,” she says. “It’s anyone’s place. Anyway I don’t””
And suddenly there are awful tearing noises and thumps and she is gone, sliding and hurtling down, and in horror and satisfaction he stares.
“He pushed me.”
“I didn’t. Honestly mother, I didn’t. She slipped.”
“He pushed me.”
And even amid the commotion – the clucking mothers and nurses, the improvised sling, the proffered smelling salts – Edith Hampton can marvel at the furious tenacity of her children.
“Don’t argue. Keep still, Claudia.”
“Those are my ammonites. Don’t let him get them, mother.”
“I don’t want your ammonites.”
“Gordon, be quiet!”
Her head aches; she tries to quell the children and respond to advice and sympathy; she blames the perilous world, so unreliable, so malevolent. And the intransigeance of her offspring whose emotions seem the loudest sound on the beach.
The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others – Mother, Gordon, Jasper, Lisa, and one other person above all; their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. Of truth, whatever that may be. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality. Pierre on the field of battle, the Bennet girls at their sewing, Tess on the threshing machine – all these are nailed down for ever, on the page and in a million heads. What happened to me on Charmouth beach in 1920, on the other hand, is thistledown. And when you and I talk about history we don’t mean what actually happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of everywhere, all time? We mean the tidying up of this into books, the concentration of the benign historical eye upon years and places and persons. History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.
So, since my story is also theirs, they too must speak – Mother, Gordon, Jasper . .. Except that of course I have the last word. The historian’s privilege.
Mother. Let us take, for a moment, Mother. Mother retired from history. She withdrew, quite simply. She opted for a world of her own creation in which there was nothing except floribunda roses, ecclesiastical tapestry and some changeable weather. She read only the West Dorset Gazette, Country Life and the periodicals of the Royal Horticultural Society. Her greatest anxieties were concentrated on the vagaries of the climate. An unexpected frost could cause mild consternation. A bad summer was matter for gentle complaint. Fortunate Mother. Sensible, expedient Mother. On her dressing-table stood a photograph of Father, trim in his uniform, eternally young, his hair recently clipped, his moustache a neat shadow on his upper lip; no red hole in his stomach, no shit no screams no white singing pain. Mother dusted this photograph every morning; what she thought as she did so I never knew.
History killed Father. I am dying of cancer of the gut, relatively privately. Father died on the Somme, picked off by history. He lay in the mud, I have learned, all one night, screaming, and when at last they came for him he died on the stretcher, between the crater that had been his last bed and the dressing-station. Thinking, I imagine, of anything but history.
So he is a stranger to me. An historical figure. Except for one misty scene in which a poorly defined male shape stoops to lift me and puts me excitingly on his shoulder from whence I lord it over the world including Gordon down below who has not been thus favoured. Even then, you note, my feelings towards Gordon predominate. But whether this undefined male is Father or not I can’t be certain; it could be an uncle, a neighbour. Father’s course and mine were not long entwined.
So I shall start with the rocks. Appropriately. The rocks from which we spring and to which we’re chained, all of us. Like wretched thingummy, what’s-his-name, him on his rock ”
“Chained to a rock “” she says. “What’s he called?”
And the doctor pauses, his face a foot from hers, his little silver torch poised, his name in gilt letters pinned to his white coat. ‘sorry? What did you say, Miss Hampton?”
“An eagle,” she states. “Pecking out his liver. The human condition, d’you see?”
And the doctor smiles, indulgently. “Ah,” he says. And he parts her eyelids, with care, and peers. Into her soul, perhaps.
Prometheus, of course. Mythology is much better stuff than history. It has form; logic; a message. I once thought I was a myth. Summoned to the drawing-room, aged six or so, to meet a relative richer and more worldly than Mother, of whom Mother was in awe, I found myself swept up, held at arms’ length by this gorgeous scented woman, exclaimed at: “And here she is! The little myth! A real delicious red-haired green-eyed little myth!” Upstairs, I examined my hair and eyes in the nursery mirror. I am a Myth. I am Delicious. “That’ll do, Claudia,” says nurse. “Handsome is as handsome does.” But I am a Myth; I gaze at myself in satisfaction.
Claudia. An uncharacteristic flight of fancy on Mother’s part; I stood out like a sore thumb amid the Violets and Mauds and Norahs and Beatrices. But I stood out anyway, with my hair and turbulence of mind. Other families’ nurses, on the beach at Charmouth, quailed when we hove in sight, and gathered their charges around them. We were nasty rough children, Gordon and I. A shame, really, with Mrs Hampton such a nice person and a widow too ” They tutted and watched us with disfavour, playing too noisily, too dangerously, an unkempt, unruly pair.
A long time ago. And yesterday. I have still a chunk of Blue Lias from Charmouth beach in which hang two grey fossil curls; it has acted as a paperweight on my desk. Two Asteroceras, adrift in a timeless ocean.
Perhaps I shall not write my account of the Palaeolithic at all, but make a film of it. A silent film at that, in which I shall show you first the great slumbering rocks of the Cambrian period, and move from those to the mountains of Wales, the Long Mynd, the Wrekin, from Ordovician to Devonian, to Red Sandstone and Millstone Grit, on to the lush glowing Cotswolds, on to the white cliffs of Dover ” An impressionistic, dreaming film, in which the folded rocks arise and flower and grow and become Salisbury Cathedral and York Minster and Royal Crescent and gaols and schools and homes and railway stations. Yes, this film blooms before my eyes, wordless and specific, homing in on a Cornish cliff, Stonehenge, Burford church, the Pennines.
I shall use many voices, in this history. Not for me the cool level tone of dispassionate narration. Perhaps I should write like the scribes of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, saying in the same breath that an archbishop passed away, a synod was held, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. Why not, after all? Beliefs are relative. Our connection with reality is always tenuous. I do not know by what magic a picture appears on my television screen, or how a crystal chip has apparently infinite capacities. I accept, simply. And yet I am by nature sceptical – a questioner, a doubter, an instinctive agnostic. In the frozen stone of the cathedrals of Europe there co-exist the Apostles, Christ and Mary, lambs, fish, gryphons, dragons, sea-serpents and the faces of men with leaves for hair. I approve of that liberality of mind.
Children are infinitely credulous. My Lisa was a dull child, but even so she came up with things that pleased and startled me. “Are there dragons?” she asked. I said that there were not. “Have there ever been?” I said all the evidence was to the contrary. “But if there is a word dragon,” she said, “then once there must have been dragons.”
Precisely. The power of language. Preserving the ephemeral; giving form to dreams, permanence to sparks of sunlight.
There is a dragon on a Chinese dish in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, before which Jasper and I once stood, eight months or so before Lisa was born. How should I describe Jasper? In several ways, each of them deficient: in terms of my life, he was my lover and the father of my only child; in terms of his own, he was a clever successful entrepreneur; in cultural terms, he was a fusion of Russian aristocracy and English gentry. He was also good-looking, persuasive, potent, energetic and selfish. I have Tito to thank for Jasper; I met him in 1946 when I was working on the Partisan book and needed to talk to anyone who had had anything to do with the Jugoslavian business. I dined with him on a Tuesday and we were in bed together the following Saturday. For the next ten years we sometimes lived together, sometimes did not, fought, made it up, parted and were reunited. Lisa, my poor Lisa, a silent and pasty little girl, was the tangible evidence of our restless union, and an unconvincing one: she never looked or behaved like either of us.
Unlike her father, who nicely manifested his ancestry. His good looks and his cavalier approach to life he inherited from his Russian father; his unshakeable social confidence and sense of superiority from his mother. Isabel, heiress to a chunk of Devon and centuries of calm prosperity and self-advancement, had had a rush of blood to the head in Paris at the age of nineteen. Defying her parents, she married the irresistible Sasha. Jasper was born when she was twenty-one. By the time she was twenty-two Sasha had got bored with life as a Devon squire, Isabel had come to her senses and recognised a disastrous mistake, and a discreet divorce was arranged. Sasha, paid by Isabel’s father to remove himself from the scene and give up all but residual rights in Jasper, retired without complaint to a villa at Cap Ferrat; Isabel, after a decent interval, married a childhood friend and became Lady Branscombe of Sotleigh Hall. Jasper spent his youth at Eton and in Devon, with occasional excursions to Cap Ferrat. When he was sixteen these sorties became more frequent. He found his father’s life-style stimulating and an agreeable antidote to hunt balls and shooting parties; he learned to speak French and Russian, to love women and to be able to turn most situations to his advantage. In Devonshire, his mother sighed regretfully and blamed herself; her husband, a man of stoical tolerance who was to die on the Normandy beaches, tried to interest the boy in estate management, forestry and stud farming, all without success. Jasper, as well as being half Russian, was clever. His mother apologised still further. Jasper went to Cambridge, dabbled in everything except sport, got a double first and made a great many useful friends. Afterwards, he sampled politics and journalism, had a brilliant war as the youngest member of Churchill’s staff, and emerged from it ambitious, well-connected and opportunist.
Thus, in general, Jasper. In my head, Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered, without chronology. As there are many Gordons, many Claudias.
Claudia and Jasper stand before the dragon on the Chinese dish in the Ashmolean, Jasper looking at Claudia and Claudia at the dragon, inadvertently learning it for ever. There are two dragons, in fact, blue spotted dragons confronting one another, teeth bared, their serpentine bodies and limbs wonderfully disposed around the dish. They have what appear to be antlers, fine blue manes, tufts of hair at the elbows and they are crested from head to tail. A most precise definition. Claudia stares into the case, seeing her own face and Jasper’s superimposed upon the plates – ghost faces.
“Well?” says Jasper.
“Are you coming with me to Paris or not?”
Jasper wears a brown duffel coat, a silk scarf instead of a tie. The briefcase he carries is incongruous.
“Possibly,” says Claudia. “I’ll see.”
“That won’t do,” says Jasper.
Claudia contemplates the dragons, thinking of something quite other. The dragons are backcloth, but will last.
“Well,” says Jasper again, “I hope you will. I’ll phone from London. Tomorrow.” He glances at his watch. “I’ll have to go.”
“One thing “” says Claudia.
There is a silence. Jasper lays a hand on her arm, removes it. “Ah,” he says, at last. Then – “What would you ” like to do?”
“I’m having it,” says Claudia.
“Of course. If that’s what you want. It’s what, I suppose, I would prefer.” He smiles – a charming, deeply sexual smile. “Well … I must say, darling, the one thing I don’t see you cut out for is motherhood. But I daresay you’ll display your usual power of adaption.”
She looks, for the first time, at him. At the smile. “I’m having it,” she states, “partly out of inefficiency and partly because I want it. The two possibly are not unconnected. And I’m certainly not suggesting we get married.”
“No,” says Jasper, “I don’t imagine you are. But naturally I shall wish to play my part.”
“Oh yes, you’ll stand by me,” says Claudia. “You’ll be the perfect gentleman. Are children expensive?”
Jasper watches Claudia, who has been abrupt all afternoon, as only Claudia can be. She stands at a glass case, absorbed, apparently, in Chinese ceramics. She is handsome in an emerald green tweed suit; a blue dent in the second finger of her right hand tells Jasper that she has been writing that morning.
“Would you like to come with me to Paris next weekend?”
“Possibly,” says Claudia.
He feels like giving her a shake. Or striking her. But if he did she would very likely strike back, and this is a public place and both of them have recognisable faces. Instead he puts a placatory hand on her arm and says that he must catch his train.
“Incidentally,” says Claudia, staring still at the glass case, “I’m pregnant.”
He is seized, suddenly, with intense amusement. He no longer wants to strike her. Trust Claudia, he thinks, to come up with something new.
Lisa spent most of her childhood with one grandmother or the other. A London flat is no place for a child and I was frequently travelling. Lady Branscombe and my mother had much in common, not least the tribulations of offspring beyond their comprehension. They faced up to the illegitimacy bravely, sighed to one another over the telephone and tried to do what they could for Lisa, arranging for Scandinavian au pair girls and boarding schools.
Jasper never dominated my life. He was significant, but that is another matter. He was central to the structure, but that is all. Most lives have their core, their kernel, the vital centre. We will get to mine in due course, when I’m ready. At the moment I’m dealing with strata.
One of my favourite Victorians is William Smith, the civil engineer whose labours as a canal constructor enabled him to examine the rocks through which his cuttings were driven and their fossil contents, and draw seminal conclusions. William Smith shall have honoured treatment in my history of the world. And John Aubrey too. It is not generally realised that Aubrey, the supreme gossip, the chatterer about Hobbes and Milton and Shakespeare, was also the first competent field archaeologist and that, moreover, his simple but astute perception in the matter of church windows that one style precedes another and thus can we form a chronology of buildings makes him a seventeenth-century William Smith. And Perp. and Dec. the ammonites of architecture. I can see Aubrey swishing through the grass of a Dorset churchyard, notes in hand, anticipating Schliemann, Gordon Childe and the Cambridge Tripos with the same eye that I see William Smith in a stove-pipe hat squatting absorbed over the debris of a slice of Warwickshire.
I have a print – you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum – of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith – or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse – passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph – sixty minutes – was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.
I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away. Suppose though that William Smith – or whoever did walk down that street that morning – had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well – in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitively. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.
William Smith was inspired by stratification. My strata are less easily perceived than those of Warwickshire rock, and in the head they are not even sequential but a whirl of words and images. Dragons and Moon Tigers and Crusaders and Honeys.
The Chinese dragon dish is still in the Ashmolean. I saw it last month.
I was thirty-eight when Lisa was born, and doing nicely. Two books under my belt, some controversial journalism, a reputation for contentious provocative attention-seizing writing. I had something of a name. If feminism had been around then I’d have taken it up, I suppose; it would have needed me. As it was, I never felt its absence; being a woman seemed to me a valuable extra asset. My gender was never an impediment. And I must also reflect, now, that it perhaps saved my life. If I had been a man I might well have died in the war.
I know quite well why I became a historian. Quasi-historian, as one of my enemies put it, some desiccated don too frightened of the water to put a toe out of his Oxford college. It was because dissension was frowned upon when I was a child: ‘don’t argue, Claudia”, “Claudia, you must not answer back like that.” Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested. I well remember the moment at which I discovered that history was not a matter of received opinion.
I was thirteen. At Miss Lavenham’s Academy for Girls. In Lower Four B. Doing the Tudor Monarchs with Miss Lavenham herself. Miss Lavenham wrote names and dates on the board and we copied them down. We also, to her dictation, noted the principal characteristics of each reign. Henry VIII was condemned by his marital excesses, but was also no good as king. Queen Elizabeth was good; she fended off the Spaniards and ruled firmly. She also cut off the head of Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic. Our pens scratched in the long summer afternoon. I put up my hand: “Please Miss Lavenham, did the Catholics think she was right to cut off Mary’s head?” “No, Claudia, I don’t expect they did.” “Please, do Catholic people think so now?” Miss Lavenham took a breath: “Well, Claudia,” she said kindly, “I suppose some of them might not. People do sometimes disagree. But there is no need for you to worry about that. Just put down what is on the board. Make your headings nice and clear in red ink.”
And suddenly for me the uniform grey pond of history is rent; it is fractured into a thousand contending waves; I hear the babble of voices. I put my pen down and ponder; my headings are not nice and clear in red ink; I get 38% (Fail) in the end of term exams.