It happened on the nineteenth of this month of July in full view of Henry VIII.   In the unlikely event of your not knowing the story, the king’s flagship, the Mary Rose, was sailing in the Solent leading an attack on part of a French invasion fleet when something went horribly wrong.  The ship suddenly leaned over to starboard and then capsized as water flooded into its open gunports.  Of nearly five hundred men on board no more than thirty-five survived.  In 1982, a large section of the ship was raised and is now on display in its own museum in Portsmouth.

A time machine

When you stand looking at the Mary Rose you’re struck by how enormous it is.  And you’re struck by the incredible artefacts that have come up with it:  musical instruments that had only been seen in paintings before, shoes that the crew had been wearing and longbows that require more strength to pull than most people in England now have.

And the smell, as you’re told in the museum, is the smell of the sixteenth century.  Very distinct. It’s the smell of the pitch used to coat the ship’s ropes.

And that brings me to the point.  The smell is the smell of real life, not history.  Real too is the full-size recreation of one of the crew, his face a highly accurate forensic reconstruction based on his skull.  The face of someone you’d see in the street.  He was in his thirties like many of the rest of the crew but his sturdy skeleton, also like theirs, bears traces of arthritis and other injuries due to a lifetime of harsh physical overwork.  So you stand looking into this man’s face and you’re looking into the face of someone who’s been dead nearly five-hundred years.  Only it doesn’t feel like it.

A grave

Similarly, looking into the open side of the Mary Rose, you start imagining how it must have been to be trapped in the gloom as the sea crashed in.  We know there were bottlenecks of people trying to get up the ladders between decks, there were heavy objects like cannon suddenly hurtling about in the ship’s interior and there was also the netting over the vessel’s decks.  Designed to keep French boarders out it also kept panicking English sailors in.  The sheer terror and agony of drowning.  Once again what hits you is the reality of it all.  For those men what was happening to them wasn’t history, it was the present moment.  Every second counted.  When you look at the Mary Rose you’re looking at a place where people as real as you and me died.  Now it’s all been sanitized and presented respectfully and incredibly impressively in a museum.  But it’s a tomb you’re looking at.

The illusion of history

In one sense this thing called history doesn’t exist.  It’s an illusion, a  construct that we collectively have created.  History is nothing more than a succession of present moments.

Hilary Mantel has said that when she was a youngster she cried when she stood in a small room in Hampton Court palace that was once used by Cardinal Wolsey.  Cried because of the sudden awareness in all the dark wooden panelling of how simultaneously close and out of reach the past is.  Very true.  But, my goodness, the past does get awfully close sometimes.  In certain places, because the past is still physically intact enough to be looked at, the distance between it and the present virtually collapses if you have the eyes and the imagination to see it.

Time travel

This is even truer when it comes to the light from stars.  Looking up at the sky on a very dark night you’re seeing the past in those brilliant stars.  Literally the past.  Many of them are millions of light years away so you’re seeing the light that originally set out millions of years ago from those objects on an incomprehensibly fast and incomprehensibly slow journey to you now.   To put that the other way round, if there was an alien on a planet four hundred and seventy-seven light years away from the earth looking at us with an unfathomably powerful telescope, that alien would have a chance of seeing a ship called the Mary Rose capsizing between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

The past, present in you

As often happens with the physical universe, there’s a psychological equivalent to all of this.  The American writer, William Faulkner, wrote these words:  ‘The past is never dead.  It is not even past.’  It is, for example, a truth of the human psyche that the interactions we have had with significant figures from our past – especially but not solely those in our formative childhood and adolescent years – get laid down in us as templates for how we act in the present with other people who are not those past figures.  And the wounds we incurred long ago live on now unless healing has taken place.  And the things we simply found too difficult to deal with and pushed down below the floorboards of our conscious awareness also live on and often interfere with our happiness as they demand our attention and refuse to be scrunched underfoot.

Going back

We can’t bring back the crew of the Mary Rose, victims of poor ship design and the aggressive schemes of monarchs.  We don’t yet have the technology to build telescopes to let us see, like that alien, distant worlds as they once were.  But we can get into a time machine to deal with some of the things that haunt us from the past.  That particular Tardis is called psychotherapy.