Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

So You’ve Gone Back In Time

Penned upon the 31st of August, 2011

This piece originally appeared on Po’Boy.

There comes a time in your life when – much as you’d love to avoid it – you just have to admit to yourself “Yep, I’ve gone back in time.” Now, ideally, all our time travelling would be prefaced with cybernetic learning implants, extensive briefings, and all the preparation a shadowy technocratic conclave can provide. Sometimes, though, life deals us an anomaly of physics which rudely plucks us from our daily grind and deposits us in the late nineteenth century, and you just have to play those cards as they fall.

Now, having suddenly become wise beyond your peers’ years, you may be tempted to revolutionise medicine, make a killing in electronics, be credited with a dance sensation, or some other joyride on your era’s coattails. Consider, though, the classic conundrum of time travel: if your actions can effect change on the past as we know it, you risk preventing your own having time-travelled in the first place; in short, a most peculiar paradox. Any attempt to alter history must, logically, be doomed to fail, and to pursue it is to ensure your own waylayment, destruction, or kidnapping by a flock of unusually vicious moths.

Thus, the lesson with which I wish to furnish you today is the simple necessity of blending in; of concocting a cover identity which might, within the bounds of reasonable eccentricity, explain away the oddities which come of being a chronological refugee. Sadly, this means resisting the temptation of an Austenian fantasy of socialising with the rich and beautiful. If you can’t recite in Greek and Latin, manage a dozen farms and dance a Viennese waltz – in short, enjoy all the ridiculous benefits of a classical education – the aristocracy will sniff you out and scandalise you so thoroughly, you’ll struggle to find a rubber duck that would be seen with you in the bath.

(I must admit, I’m being rather unfair to Austen there. So often, her comparatively humble heroes – self-made lineages, moderately successful gentry, impoverished military families, and so on – prove that at an open mind and a kind heart trump the best advantages of wealth and status. This only furthers my point, though: if you don’t have an Eton-and-Oxbridge-style education, there’s no shame in seeking out modest but good-natured company. If you do have an Eton-and-Oxbridge-style education, you’re the proud inheritor of a mindset which has resisted change for centuries, and this guide will be of little use to you anyway.)

Speaking of wealth, a pertinent issue if you wish to acquire any diggings more fashionable than a disused barn and a contemporary wardrobe without someone else’s nametags, you’ll need to determine if any of your saleable skills are backwards compatible. Thankfully, many professions change much less than they stay the same. Actors, journalists, waiters – anyone whose raw materials are human nature – will find there’s been little development in their field. Those whose training is of a more technical bent may struggle, though – computer programmers, aerospace engineers, photocopier repairers and what have you. If you’re a handy typist – and, face it, we all are, these days – you might find a job there, though it’s typically young ladies’ work. If you get desperate, chaps, remember that there’s always work for a sturdy pair of hands before mechanisation takes over, and a reliable fellow can get by without questions being asked as a hauler or lumper (like a hauler, but with fish.)

Now, even if you can fill some comfortable niche in the humdrum-but-welcoming ranks of the upper-working/lower-middle classes, you will need a backstory which accounts for any gaps in your knowledge of notable public figures, landmarks, pre-decimal currency, and how to maintain your toilet with hot irons and unscented sea creature extract. Being from a foreign country is always handy, and incidentally allows you to weave subtle Socratic critiques of your hosts’ social mores into your conversation, a la Voltaire. The danger there is that some wally will pop up and say “Hulloa! I’m from Persia too! آیا شما در تهران زندگی می کنند؟” A safer bet is to pass as a reclusive type from your own area – someone who might know the old houses and the church, but not the residents or the vicar.

Safest of all is probably to be an amnesiac; a shipwrecked colonist, a survivor of a factory explosion, anyone who might be forgiven for remembering how to ride a bicycle but not how to hold a nib-pen, and who’s Queen but not who’s First Lord of the Treasury. Don’t worry about the medicine behind it – the Victorians certainly didn’t. Nineteenth-century fictional characters suffer bouts of brain fever at the drop of a hat-pin (something both spontaneous and difficult to hear.) Complain of nervous flutters, fainting fits, and hysterical palpitations and/or moustache tremors, and you’ll probably manage a prescription for laudanum and perhaps one of those clinical vibrators. If you enjoy the attention, you might even become a cause célèbre – and, so long as no-one actually tries too hard to reunite you with your lost family and friends, you could gain a decent little source of discreet donations.

Whether you fly under the radar or above it, so long as you keep your actual origins out of the public light, causality dictates you should be able to live in frugal independence until a wandering temporal waterspout, dusty old relic or wild-eyed inventor with a shock of white hair manages to return you to your original point of departure. Until that point – or until a lonely grave decades before your own birth, if it never comes – remember, the past isn’t so bad! It’s another country; practically a holiday! There’s really nothing new under the sun; texts are called telegrams, but no less vapid for being composed by hand by a bespectacled clerk in sleeve-garters. Students are still students, with surprisingly vicious pranks, and portraits of revolutionary generals on their walls. Slang has always been ridiculous, but the better examples accumulate rather than expire, so you can’t go too far wrong. Incidentally, ‘gay’ has had double meanings of one kind or another far longer than anyone who complains about it has been alive. Otherwise, have fun, avoid crinolines (notorious firetraps, deadlier than any corset,) and if you happen to wander into 1888 Whitechapel, tell me who did it, won’t you?

If you so desire, you may follow any commentary upon this missive with the aid of our “RSS-O-Matic” apparatus.

Neither remarks nor trackings-back are currently permitted, so as to focus your attention better upon the wisdom herein.

Further remarks are not permitted.