‘Time travel is such a magic concept’ – Matt Smith (11th Dr Who)
My parents were not ones to splash their money around. As the third of three daughters I lived in hand-me-downs for most of my years at home. Combine their frugality with their admirable practicality and you have the parental rationale for kitting us out in fawn rather than white school socks, and an interminable series of indestructible (trust me, I tried) boys shoes, piled and filed in their sinister ‘Commando’-themed boxes, all nestled menacingly in the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe. Junior school was not fun from a sartorial point of view, which may explain why I chose to dive into creative writing as a more attractive diversion. Fortunately it was on the curriculum, so I found a niche where I could flourish. Thank goodness.
When I reached the dizzy seniority of class 2A (Mrs Annis), after labouring through 1W (Miss Williams) and 2P1 (Mrs Potter), we were collectively introduced to ‘Chip Club’. This half-termly publication illustrated an array of glossy new titles devised to lure reluctant readers into the world of literature. I was far from reluctant (see March 2017: ‘Books Galore!’), but saw an opportunity to expand my reading horizons thanks to this wily scholastic marketing venture. I was never going to be able to wheedle money out of my parents as some pupils did, for magazines, new shoes, records, sweets or such fripperies – I never even bothered trying that strategy – but books held a completely different status in my house.
So it was, that from time to time, and after suitable vetting, I was allowed to cross a particular box in the catalogue and hand over a precious 25p with my order form, and thus embark on the excruciating wait for a brand new, shiny-covered, pristine-paged, no sibling-ever-read-before-me book. Oh the triumph!
Of all the books I ever purchased it’s the one illustrated above that I remember the most. It was the story of a school girl, not so very different from myself, who inexplicably travelled back and forth through forty years of time, changing places with an identikit girl called Clare who was a boarder at her own school. Hence, ‘Charlotte Sometimes’. They exchanged messages and news through an exercise book diary stuffed down ‘their’ hollow bed post. I have no recollection of how their dilemma was resolved, but I think I was somewhat obsessed by time travel around this time and was transfixed by the BBC’s 1974 adaptation of ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ in which the surroundings of Tom’s uncle’s urban apartment changed back into a Victorian house and garden every time the clock struck 13, rather than midnight. My grandparents had a chiming clock and I can remember lying in bed during the summer holidays listening to it and willing it to strike 13. Alas it was not to be for me.
‘Chip Club’ was not an adrenaline pumping experience in any way, shape or form, but it did give me a sense of belonging to something beyond the confines of the classroom; and I enjoyed that. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. It’s taken Brené Brown to point out the essential differences between ‘belonging’ and ‘fitting in’ for me. She defines the former as: ‘Being somewhere you want to be where they want you… Being accepted for you… [where] I get to be me’. As opposed to: ‘Being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t care… Being accepted for being like everyone else… [where] I have to be like you.’ I used to feel that sense of belonging every time I returned to England – it’s reassuring hedges and comfortingly reliable teapots made me feel instantly at home. However, what with the dog’s breakfast that is now Brexit and the almost universally routine ‘double-speak’, which on the one hand claims that it wants to include every voice, opinion and preference in an apparently noble bid for free speech and yet, on the other, an ugly mob mentality which vilifies any voice which doesn’t agree to the point of demonisation and career collapse for some individuals, I am somewhat embarrassed to belong to the human race at all right now, let alone the UK.
Consequently, like ‘Charlotte Sometimes’, I am currently finding the allure of time travel rather attractive. Going back 40 years would not be a rosy utopia of faded photo albums, to be sure. I would, unfortunately, find myself struggling with the horrible phase of adolescence in which frumpy shoes, hideous glasses and unruly hair combined to, once again, make life rather trying on the sartorial front. It would also mean spending fruitless hours waiting for the bus home after school, tear-inducing maths homework and the intimidating prospect of having to go through the maelstrom of exams all over again. None of this is a big draw if I’m honest; nevertheless, in recent days the news cycle makes even this preferable to the tired and wearisome declarations of politicians, ‘celebrities’ and such like.
I imagine the real problem would be how far back we choose to go. A mere three years would take us to the pre-Brexit vote and perhaps a different outcome if we all knew what we were actually voting for. Rather appealing I must say. Perhaps we could go back to 10th September 2001 and send a directive e-mail to somewhere in the region of 50,000 workers in New York instructing them to cancel all meetings scheduled for 11th and not show up for work at The World Trade Centre tomorrow. Here in South Africa, we might like to go back to the heady days of Mandela when the future looked bright, long before news of State Capture and corruption filled the headlines; that way the looming election on May 8th might inspire more hope and engagement across the social and demographic board. My parents might choose to return to the early 1930’s and trust that politicians would make better choices this time around, and so avert the horrendous unfoldings of World War II. My grandparents might, given the chance, opt for early 1914 as a destination and send Archduke Ferdinand a strongly worded postcard suggesting he cancel plans to visit Sarajevo during the fourth weekend of June.
The list could go on and go and back for years, and I fear our ‘if onlys’ would be an eye-wateringly long list. If only my friend hadn’t ridden her bike to work that day; if only my cousin had warn a police stab-vest; if only I hadn’t lost my temper that day; if only I hadn’t sent that letter; gone to that party; taken that trip; answered that phone call; taken that route home… Feel free to fill in your own wish. However, until physics makes some massive leaps forward, or you manage to cobble together a functioning De Lorean in your garage, we need to take a collective deep breath and go from where we are. Unfortunately.
I wonder what ‘Chip Club’ could offer me now in terms of literary escape. It doesn’t seem to exist anymore and I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be too long before certain books are deemed too dangerous to be accessed by the general public. It won’t be the first time, although personally I’ve always thought that making them forbidden fruit simply increases their allure. I don’t know whether that still holds true in places where owning a Bible will currently get you a prison sentence or worse: North Korea, Uzbekistan and Somalia for a start.
It’s likely that you have at least one copy at home, whether read or gathering dust on a shelf; dangerous stuff – though not so much escapism as revolutionary in the invitation of the radical protagonist to keep on loving people, and indeed the entire world, in spite of the colossal mess we seem to have made of everything. Is my stomach strong enough for that kind of challenging reading I wonder…?