Saturday, January 29, 2011

History On Wheels

(pictured: Harold Holt's Foreplay)

Invention: “History on Wheels”: A GPS which alerts you to the presence of sites of historical interest which you happen to be nearing or travelling past.

The idea came to me driving through the Cotswolds a couple of years back. It was a lovely winter’s day with a pale blue sky, and sun suffusing a misted landscape of bucolic English charm – farms, brooks and quaintly cobblestoned villages. We were heading from Ireland back to London, which was our base on a three-month house-swap. After stopping at Stratford-Upon-Avon for the obligatory tour of Shakespeare’s House (he wasn’t in), we soon hit the Cotswolds and caught the district in all its glory - at least in all its glory for the twenty minutes or so before we were hoovered into the guts of a howling black storm and got horribly lost: we didn’t have a GPS, conventional or otherwise.

Anyway, I got to mulling over the sheer amount of bloody stuff that must have happened over the millennia in this country we were travelling through, just layer upon layer of densely packed history – Celts, Romans, Germanics, Vikings, Normans, Celebrity Chefs … All those invasions, battles and tribal wars (just imagine the wealth of relics still buried). Of course this also goes for Europe and most of the rest of the World as well. The predominant sense I get in such places is one of wonderment at the incredible length and richness of the history that lies before me and beneath my feet, especially compared to Australia, in which we’re still just scratching the surface.

So, this is how History on Wheels - or HOW - works. You’ll be driving along and the GPS will volunteer information. Maybe something along the lines of “coming up three hundred metres on your left stand the remains of Brentwood Abbey. It was built in the late 10th century by an order of Nasturtium Monks, an obscure and austere sect of albino flagellants who venerated badgers and survived on a diet of earthworms and sand”. The commentaries would of necessity be brief, although if you did want to investigate something more fully you would have the option to press for more detail. You could opt for a broad, general commentary of the area you were passing through which wouldn’t have to stick to just history, but could include stats and facts on the district’s agricultural and economic mainstays, population, demographic, weather etc.

Alternately, you could focus more narrowly and in more detail on an area of special interest, like conflict: “this was the site of the Battle of Hastings”, or “Agincourt” or “Evermore.” You could select crime and infamy: “you are approaching the one-time home of Peter Sutcliffe, better known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who in 1981 was convicted of murdering 13 women …” Or punch in science, art, sport, music, pop-culture: “This is where the Sex Pistols performed their first gig” … “You are passing the house where Gustave Holst composed the Planets.” Perhaps a political slant: “Here at Cheviot Beach on December 17, 1967 Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared into the sea. An inquest found him missing, presumed drowned, although there is speculation that he was abducted by a Chinese submarine.”

A literary focus would yield rich pickings: “The cottage on the right is where Enid Blyton lived and worked for thirty-six years, and, it’s rumoured, indulged in ginger beer-fuelled orgies with Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the village constable”. You could signpost locations used in fiction: “In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck, Tom and Nigg … err, Slave Jim come ashore at this very spot.”

Hurdles? Just how the hell would you research, edit and record all those millions of facts, those billions of words? I dunno, it’s not my problem. But it sure would create a lot of work for voice-over artists. Speaking of which, you could of course select from a range of voices. Or the machine could subtly change accents as you moved, so as to fit in with the local intonation of the area you’re passing through. Perhaps celebrities could be enlisted to give commentaries on their old home towns, so you might be guided about Edinburgh by Sean Connery. Though Billy Connolly’s lowdown on Glasgow might be more problematic, lasting, as it would, for twenty-six hours and refusing to switch off – “ES JUS FOOKUN GREEEEEET!!!”

So there you have it, History on Wheels (“HOW”, don’t forget). Get to work, pitch it, develop it and make a shitload of dough! (Just don’t forget to give me a cut).

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