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.