Reading about the life of Gertrude Bell raises some questions about how we see history
The gentle transitions from brown to green across the bulk of Carn Brea, after a dry April and a wet May, have finally given way to solid green. The variations in colour served to highlight the textures of the hill, changed and unchanged over its long and varied history. And the nebulous tonal transitions have been a relief from the hard, manmade lines that dominate in the built environment, where boundaries are everywhere.
Yet boundaries can be unseen, too - the white and yellow lines on the roads, and markers that delineate where pedestrians can cross, are just the most visible. Internally, we divide in to groups and affiliations along the lines of our opinions and beliefs, and it can be both confusing a revealing when these boundaries are not clear-cut.
I have recently finished reading a beautifully-written biography of Gertrude Bell, an incredible personality in many ways - the first woman to graduate with a First Class degree from Oxford; the only woman to travel in the Middle East, and by all accounts, one of the very few people for whom many Arabs had a real sense of affection. She emerges from her biography as a determined, intelligent and sometimes difficult person, with a sense of purpose and adventure un-blunted by the strictures of her gender in Victorian times. Yet she was also an ardent supporter of the British Empire: while she wielded political power in Iraq, she served the interests of British power over that of local considerations, and in this way she
perhaps contributed to the disputes over territory in the Middle East that still continue today. Her background, as the child of an industrialist in the northeast of England, gave her the wealth to travel and develop her interests, and put to good use her innate talents; Gertrude’s exceptional achievements were built on a foundation of privilege, but should this fact be an impedance in recognising and celebrating her adventurous life?
The boundaries of time and place between our modern society and people living in other centuries are not insurmountable, and much of the detail of their lives is familiar to us, albeit in a modified way. But as a society, the physical, contemporary boundaries we create between ourselves and nature serve to inhibit our ability to travel away from our immediate reality, and stifle our sense of appreciation of other times and places.
Trees seem to be time made solid – uniform stands of sycamore derived from the same suckers – or oak trees growing at a leisurely pace, inhibited by poor soil or difficult saline conditions. Their variation of pace is refreshing, and in marked contrast to the uniform divisions of time in our man-made environment. If, some days, the demands of the clock seem difficult to assail, it should not be surprising; considering that only 500 years ago, the length of an hour still varied in length depending on the time of year and latitude: days were always divided in to 12 equal hours from sunrise to sunset.
With the growth of mercantile trade, time-keeping became more important, and mechanical clocks became more widespread; the presence of a town clock came to signify a place where trade occurred. Today, when clocks are embedded in to every device, we surrender our days to their strictures: escaping in to nature returns us to a more fluid interpretation of time, and a familiarity with the ‘other’, apart from our own immediate experience.
Walking at the edge of Carn Brea, and looking up to the fresh green grass, I am struck by its juxtaposition with the cleft and craggy granite boulders that scatter the hillside. In nature, the new blends so harmoniously with the old, softening the demands of modern time-keeping, and creating space for ‘time travel’ from our immediate reality. Maybe in the future, our society will learn that an ever-increasing stranglehold of time-pressure does not yield the best, most integrated solutions to any given problem, nor engender the creativity that today’s complex societal problems are in need of.
Perhaps we start on that journey in to the future - encompassing more humane working practices - by extending understanding and empathy back in to the past, and allow figures such as Gertrude Bell to be imperfectly human but appreciated. Our way of seeing the world is in a continuum of change, and we can only hope for understanding from the societies in the next millennium of the decisions we make today.
References and inspiration from:
Queen of the Desert -the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell. Janet Wallach (1996)
The weirdest people in the world – how the west became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. Joseph Henrich (2020)