Time to choose

Watching some episodes of Goodnight, Sweetheart the other evening naturally prompted the subject of time travel and with it the question “If you could visit a past time, which would you choose?”

Time travel is a perennial favourite with science-fiction writers and for obvious reasons: it is full of possibilities, not to mention paradoxes. For example, what if I went back in time and did something that prevented my own birth from occurring: what would happen then? After all, if I was never born, I couldn’t go back in time to prevent myself being born. So it seems that being born is a precondition for my not being born…

Perhaps the answer is to postulate going back in time as an observer, able to view but not participate in the action. That would be rather boring, though, a bit like watching a film on TV, Goodnight, Sweetheart, for example. (Not that that series is in any way boring. In fact, I quite enjoy it, but you take my point, I’m sure.) For all we know, there are time-travellers from the future all around us as I write, poking their noses into the minutiae of our lives, reacting with amusement, scorn or disgust, unbeknownst to us. Would you similarly like to rifle through the lives of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway or of Queen Elizabeth I or perhaps witness one of the famous battles of Alexander the Great?

But for a really exciting adventure, one would surely have to be in the thick of it, participating fully in events. This is the charm of those “living museums” where you can go into houses furnished and decorated as in some past era and see people acting out the roles of the inhabitants and even talk to them about their lives. Or go into some general store from a 100 years ago and gawp at the goods in display or imagine being measured for an old-fashioned suit in the little tailor’s shop. This is still not participating in any real sense, though.

So what if you really could go back in time and walk the streets of Roman Londinium, bluff your way into the court of Henry VIII or join in the sing-sing “dahn the tube” in the blitz-torn East End? Wouldn’t that be something to set the pulses racing?

The further you went back in time, the more trouble you would have, of course. You would not have to travel far back before the language became, first difficult, then impossible to understand. Even if you provided yourself with period clothes and money, you would stick out like a sore thumb because of your manners… or lack of them. Today’s free and easy ways would be out of place even in the world of my childhood, never mind in Tudor or Roman Britain. It would not take much to incur hostility and suspicion, with all their consequences.

There would be an irresistible temptation to change history. For example, if you could take a cartload of sugar back the the Elizabethan court, you would become fabulously wealthy. You could invest the money and reap the rewards back in your own time. Or for that matter, simply check this week’s racing results and go back to bet on them last week. Sneaky, but it might work.

Some experts believe that history cannot be altered, that there is some kind of natural barrier like that which is thought to prevent material bodies reaching the velocity of light. Then there is that even more intriguing idea, the multiverse. According to this, if two mutually exclusive events are possible and there is no reason why one rather than the other should occur, then both events occur but in separate copies of the universe.

So what would happen if you went back in time and murdered your parents prior to your birth? According to the theory, in this universe, the one where you exist, nothing would change but back at the point where the murder of your parents occurred, a new universe would be formed, one in which you do not exist, though, of course, you couldn’t be there to see how it turned out.

If I have allowed myself to become side-tracked and haven’t said which time I would like to visit, it’s because I find it hard to make up my mind. If I had to choose, I think I might choose the period between the two World Wars, a period of frivolity and optimism, of flappers and Art Deco, albeit with the threat of war hanging over it. I would have enjoyed the jazz but I don’t think I could ever manage the Charleston.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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5 Responses to Time to choose

  1. emalyse says:

    I often think I’d rather visit the not too distant future just to assure myself that things are going to be OK (especially if visiting the past could only be a multiverse variant although alternative pasts still appeal eg: a 20th century that avoided two world wars and Kennedy lived etc). The idea of being an invisible observer appeals though If the past must be chosen. To watch key historical events from a an unseen observer’s perspective would be intriguing. I’d like to experience my formative years from an adult perspective but without seeing my younger self or those known to me. Distant observer wise I’d choose the Apollo moon landings from experiencing the Saturn V taking off to being an unseen observer on the journey to the moon and the landings themselves.All the key historical events really.

  2. athinkingman says:

    Although I don’t read the History Today magazine I have started to listen to their monthly podcasts. You may be aware that they always interview a professional historian and ask them which date they would like to return to. The interview always seems, at some point, to get to – “I chose this because it would enable me to solve that historical puzzle that has been mercilessly teasing me throughout my academic career.”

    Given the impact that Christianity (for good or evil) has had on Western Culture, and given the scholarly debates over the authenticity of the text and their portrayal of Christ, I think I really would like to spend a few months assessing for myself, first hand, what the fuss was all about.

  3. SilverTiger says:

    To emalyse: Viewing past events of historical importance might well be appealing, especially where certain details are missing from present accounts.

    It has been a dream of many to see into the future (something fortune tellers claim to do) but I am not sure it would really help. Suppose you foresaw that next Thursday you would be knocked down by a bus in Borough High Street. Surely, you would make every effort to avoid being anywhere near Borough High Street on that day. Now, either (a) you would succeed in avoiding the place or (b) you would find yourself inexorably being drawn to Borough High Street and being knocked down. In case (a), the “future” did not occur, so what was it you saw? Your vision of the future was obviously faulty and thus of little use. In case (b), seeing the future doesn’t help because what you see cannot be avoided, so all you get out of it is extra worry.

    But what if the foreseen event is a good one, like winning the Lotto? Well the two cases still apply, though the worry would switch from (b) to (a), i.e. “What if I do something to change the future so I don’t win after all?”

    To athinkingman: While reviewing historical events and personalities might be interesting, I don’t think I can work up more than idle curiosity for this. I have to admit that my personal interest is in finding a time and place that would be pleasant and interesting to experience. That’s why I would choose a time of relative affluence, little threat of war and no concerns about pollution and global warming. Et in Acadia ego.

  4. I love the thought of time travel. It is a daydream in which I often indulge.

    If I were to choose I would only go backwards (I like security not the unknown!) and to some time where there was some connection to the present – maybe back to meet my grandparents as young people or something like that. I often ask myself whether, if someone appeared in a puff of smoke and asked me if I would like to go back to some year or other of my choice, but they could not absolutely guarantee I would get back to the present, whether I would go. I rather think I would not! I would never have been a great adventurer!

  5. SilverTiger says:

    I wonder if a preference to visit the future as opposed to the past says something deeply psychological about us? Perhaps the more adventurous (take a bow, emalyse!) prefer the future and the less imaginative of us prefer the past because it is (so we think) known territory.

    Personally, I suspect that if we were able to step outside our own time, even into a time in our own past, we would find it alien territory.

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