Today, I met a man who had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. Currently, he leads walking tours of the historic districts of Kingston, Ontario, attired in the top hat and dress clothing of a well to do Upper Canada bourgeois. The people of the 19th century, especially the best dressed, must have smelt tremendously. The movies that form our main mass cultural consumption of the past generally never deal with the stink and the sweat. And they sweated. A lot. Their clothes must have been deeply stained and yellowed especially if you, like most people a hundred years ago, couldn’t afford the labour to keep it clean, or new. This man was constantly wiping heavy dew from his smooth pate, and I was gently smouldering in three layers of canvas and cheap linen, jacket, vest and collared shirt, with a much appreciated straw hat for shade. His beaver fur was an oven.
Our attire displayed, quite by accident, the dramatic class divisions of the time, though it seems unlikely our dichotomy made anyone think hard about themselves. Besides this man, I looked a dreg, in the one-size-fits all, standard issue uniform of a United Canadas convict: number 7041, Alfred Albion Welch, a 17-year-old highwayman sentenced for seven years to Portsmouth Penitentiary for highway robbery, north of what is now London, Ontario, in Middlesex County. Welch was the antithesis of the anonymous (indeed, phantom, for he never existed) elite inhabited by the British tour guide. A butcher’s son, foul-mouthed, cocksure, who took by violence the wealth of the rich of our colonial state, Welch was a troublemaker of a familiar sort: he delighted in breaking the strict code of silence used as part of the penitentiary disciplinary regime, singing, whistling, skipping church to spend time with friends, and unbroken by dark cells and bread and water diets. Today, a simulacrum, hobbled, play-acting being humbled and beaten, was paraded in chains, themselves replicas of 1850’s screw handcuffs and leg irons. I shrunk and disappeared into my overlarge collar. 7041, Welch, was a very real human, a man whose life was ever so briefly rendered legible by the Canadian state: through his arrest, punishments and release he was given a biography preserved to the present in archives and on microfilm. His crimes and his incarceration are the only reason why Welch is even remembered to us today, a number picked at random from a hat. If he had lived a less desperate life, he probably would have lived and died without ever being noticed, certainly not by the historical ancestor of that sweating phantom bourgeois. The tour guide, whose historical personality is a fiction imparted and animated by clothes and books, appropriate, respected and admired even in 2010 for his impeccable clothing and English accent: Welch, who was born in England in 1850, a source of laughter and amusement to comatose tourists.
There is something deeply morbid to all this, a grim pantomime in which the dead are symbolically brought to life and used for a ritual, ostensibly, of entertainment and education. Much of it is of a chortling sort. Living history is riddled with deep contradictions and so many problems I long ago despaired of the entire enterprise. Despite the amount of effort spent in genuine and deeply felt research ensuring biographies and personal characteristics are well-known, once the students generally hired to conduct living history take over, the reek of fakeness is never far behind. There is something so monstrously wrong about well-heeled, wealthy and handsome frats acting at stout, professional working-class soldiers at Fort Henry, where I met this tour guide. True, they are well trained these fake soldiers, and can carry out immaculate drill that is very impressive to the eyes of a milling crowd. But meeting this former flight lieutenant, surrounded by this too perfect project to recreate a dirty, useless, rambling garrison post on the frontier of empire (used only for suppressing internal rebellion: what a history to commemorate!), drove home again and again the problems with living history.
This flight lieutenant of the RAF was, along with the old stones of the fort itself, and some the weapons on display, the most historic thing on the entire site. He lived through the colourful part of the twentieth century, even if most of us are barely aware of them. He served as a pilot, after all, during the waning days of Britain’s empire in the East: he was stationed with his squadron of Vulcan bombers in Singapore by 1962, when it was still hoped the island would remain a major outpost of Britain. His squadron was on standby during Konfrontasi with the Indonesians as part of Britain’s ‘security commitments’ to the newly ‘independent’ Malaysia. He even flew over Borneo, though not on combat duty, during the fierce but undeclared brush war being fought, by bayonet and kukri, in the jungles below by Gurkhas and Highlanders. He was then redeployed, once the war in Sarawak had wound down, to Hong Kong, in time to live the 1967 riots in Hong Kong against colonial rule, in part inspired by the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic. He told me that, once, he and two other officers left an Officer’s mess and were confronted by an angry and very large mob; barricaded within, they called upon the police who had to send an armoured three-ton truck to transport the RAF men away from the angry young radicals outside.
He was surprisingly philosophical about this, remarking only that, had he been hurt, captured or killed by the mob, his name would have become a footnote in a monograph published decades after the fact, one young officer tragically killed in Hong Kong….” destined to be barely read, or worse yet, he would become a meaningless symbol dredged up by a Blood and Empire tabloid for a two-minute hate. He piloted in squadrons searching for nuclear submarines in the 1970’s off of Norway, and buzzed the Kara-class Soviet missile cruisers when they were first deployed. This was apparently the moment that decided his mind to quit the service; after all, he told me, “you’d die in any atomic war pretty fast, and I’d rather be in my bed when the bomb happens.” He was apparently also deeply affected by The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and spoke with some admiration of it; he was one of many young pilots, soldiers and support who realised that what they thought they were fighting for was not what they were fighting for, and it sounds as if he was almost swayed to choose peace over service: the tone was wistful and a little humbled by it all.
I have also never been told ‘Bless you’ by a person and have it feel genuine, deep, a very real expression of comradery and respect. I was fitting counterpoint to the sweat and the historically accurate fakery to speak about the fall of empire, dressed as the dead in the rebuilt ruins of that same empire.