New technologies, past and present

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot recently.

Not the distant past, for once, but my personal past.  For more than 20 years, I’ve been writing romances as Jessica Hart, and I’ve just self-published five of my very early books as the Jessica Hart Vintage Collection.  These books were written on an electric typewriter at my kitchen table in London, and rereading the stories brought back an intense memory of my life as it was then, of the smell of the Tippex I had to use to correct mistakes – no delete button or cut and paste in those days – and the sound of the typewriter’s carriage return pinging and clunking back at the beginning again.

Cover design by and copyright Debbie Lishman 2013
Cover design by and copyright Debbie Lishman 2013

It doesn’t feel like a long time since I was writing those stories, but reading them I was struck by how incredibly dated they seemed.  It was like reading about a different world.  But I can remember being rather proud of the fact that I was writing stories that were bang up to date: a plot point in Legally Binding turns on the fact that the hero has a fax (gasp!).

It’s easy to forget that history is never static, and that people in every period think they’re at the cusp of change.  There are always new ideas, new fashions, new technologies.  In the late fifteenth century, the wardmote courts in York were complaining about the way carts and carriages with iron wheels damaged the streets, and this was still a problem in the late sixteenth century when the jurors grumbled about carts which ‘don breike our pavinge all the streittes along’.* * (E31, p.304)

As always, resistance to new technologies did nothing to halt their spread, and cities like York saw a huge increase in wheeled traffic over this period, and the civic authorities were forced to regulate to make sure carriages could move easily through the streets.  This meant widening the streets where possible, removing posts, stalls and other obstructions, and ordering that street signs were high enough not to impede the progress of carriages.

Naturally, this didn’t go down well with everyone. In his Survey of London John Stow was deeply disapproving of the proliferation of carriages which had become so common, he tutted, ‘as there is neither distinction of time, nor difference of persons obserued: for the world runs on wheeles with many whose parents were glad to goe on foote’.**  **Stow, Survey of London, 1:84)  There was something so familiar about this grumbling about the impact of new technologies that it was easy to imagine the conversations among the aldermen who had to deal with them.  Indeed, I put Stow’s words right in the mouth of Hawise’s master, William Beckwith, in Time’s Echo:

Mr Beckwith, a choleric man, is holding forth about his favourite topic of the moment, the worrying increase in the number of carriages trying to enter the city.

‘The world runs on wheels these days,’ he grumbles as I pour the wine. ‘I saw it in London and now it’s the same here.  Any upstart, it seems, can set himself up as a gentleman and ride in a carriage, though his parents were glad to go on foot. And what is the result?’ he demands, taking the goblet that I hand him with a grunt of acknowledgement. ‘The pavement ruined by carriage wheels, and we have to knock down our stalls and posts so they can pass!’”

‘Where will it end?’ he asks.  ‘They’ll be asking us to knock down the bar walls next!  Change with the times, they say …’ He snorts. ‘In my day, I thought myself lucky to have a horse!’

There will always be something new that we have to come to terms with, just as William Beckwith did.  One of the appeals – and the challenges! – of a ‘time slip’ is making the past feel immediate, as ‘now’ as, well, now.  I wanted both Grace and Tess, in The Memory of Midnight, to feel not as if they have gone back in time so much as stepped into another present.

I’m typing this on a shiny iMac, which I love, and I marvel now that I ever managed to write on an electric typewriter at all (Did I really have to retype a chapter and change all the page numbers if I wanted to insert a paragraph somewhere?) But it won’t be long before this computer is equally dated, and I’ll be shaking my head and looking back at my life now just as patronisingly as I’m remembering myself in the Nineties …

By the way, if you’d like a trip back in time to the Nineties, the Jessica Hart Vintage Collection is exclusively available on Amazon for now and will be officially launched with a special free offer on 23rd May.

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com

* YCA, E31, p.304.

**Stow, Survey of London, 1:84.

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