imagining history

A lot of the lure for me in peeling away the skyscrapers was the way this ancient New York I was imagining, only just on the doorstep of modernity, reversed so many of the qualities the later city would be famous for. I like irony. I’m a glutton for it.  But Manhattan’s later self would not be so easily banished. It wasn’t just that the 21st-century city put up visual resistance as I walked it – that the site on what used to be called Golden Hill Street where I planned that Mr Smith would receive the greatest shocks to his heart and his pocket-book, was actually occupied by a tanning salon; that in fact, I couldn’t quite scrub the skyscrapers out of my imagined sky, and lingering afterimages of them, pale as ghosts, stained the air above the tiled roofs and church steeples of my Manhattan. It wasn’t just that. Instead, I realised, it was that the memory of what hadn’t happened yet inevitably informed almost every aspect of the story I wanted to tell. Unnamed, never looked at directly, the Manhattan that was to come loomed over the whole thing. Because it had to: because a historical novel is never ever simple time travel, no matter how vivid it might manage to be, but always and every time a conversation between then and now. And a good historical novel introduces the strangeness of then to the familiarity of now, and entangles them, to the shock and captivation of both.

In Video and Words: The New York of Francis Spufford | Blog. A lovely brief meditation by Francis on thinking, and seeing, and writing history.

If you haven’t yet read Golden Hill, please do. It’s wonderful.