Time and history were strange to me in Australia. I found myself wedged between two, so different, cultures: one so, quite scarily, younger-than-trees new, only a few hundred years; the other deeply mysteriously, older-than-rivers ancient, tens of thousands of years. I, with my sense of between one and two millennia of continuity of culture, was caught between these factors of ten.
In my conference keynote I focused on interpretelling, drawing on the traditional roles of stories and the skills of telling them to highlight some stuff about engaging people with heritage. My talk began with this dramatic quotation from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
Anno Domini. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the Ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”
When I was planning the talk in England what interested me was the power of this voice from across a millennium. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written between 100 and 300 years after the event, so this is someone looking back and setting down what happened and what it meant, for their contemporaries and their descendants and doing so in a way that they, and we, would understand in their hearts and heads.
Strange thing happened as soon as I took the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to Australia.
Standing on that soil and looking back through the same period of two or three centuries I saw what I learned to call ‘First contact’(a term that chilled me) and the ‘lamentable havoc’ and ‘harrowing inroads’ made by Europeans on the peoples of Australia. I found that parallel really powerful and my perception of the text I had brought shifted from something rather like:
‘… it wasn’t written for hundreds of years later so it is maybe a bit unreliable but it packs a punch’
to a sense of:
‘we have spoken of these horrors in our circles for so long now, we have heard how it was from our grandparents who heard it from theirs. We tell our children and grandchildren but now we feel the passage of time, the world changes around us and we must set this down immutably for all time.’
Suddenly three centuries felt like a very short time.