They say the past is a country we can never revisit. So unless you have access to Dr Who’s police box or a DeLorean car like Michael J Fox’s in Back to the Future we are all stuck in the here
For the last month, though, I have experienced a powerful sense of revisiting the past. The BBC Two series A House Through Time has transported me backwards more than 150 years to a suburb of Leeds I called home for a decade. The house in Headingley, researched so brilliantly by Manchester University history professor David Olusoga and his team, is a couple of minutes’ walk from my first address in the city, and as the programme’s timeline got closer to the present day I fully expected old friends to pop up.
AHTT is as compelling as any costume drama. Scraping beneath the surface of the different families who owned the house over the years has revealed that these ordinary people led lives just as fascinating as fictional characters.
Perhaps I’m particularly attracted to the programme because my own former homes turned out to have interesting back stories. For example, quite by accident I learned that the one in Headingley near to the AHTT house was where the well-know wholefoods co-operative Suma was founded in 1977. Its large cellar had been used to store bulk purchases of everything from grains and pulses to vats of organic peanut butter and drums of ethical household cleansers.
I made a surprising discovery about my next house, also in Headingley, when around nine o’clock one winter’s night I answered a knock on the door and found a well-dressed guy in his thirties standing there. He said sheepishly: “This must seem weird, only I was born in this house.”
Before he left I asked him who he was, and he said Gary Husband. The name meant nothing to me then, but later I found out he was drummer with the pop-funk group Level 42 and then played in bands with big names like Jeff Beck, Jack Bruce and Quincy Jones.
Most of us have wondered who lived in a house before us, so AHTT is a concept we can relate to. Personally, I think it produces better television than the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? which confines itself to the family history of one celebrity at a time. Memorably, in one episode the then-BBC political interviewer Jeremy Paxman, whose name used to fill cabinet ministers with dread, was reduced to tears on hearing that his maternal great-great grandmother raised nine children as a single parent in a Glasgow tenement and had been denied poor relief because she gave birth to an illegitimate child.
However, that series has produced some real duds over the years, probably because the producers did not have the heart to tell their famous subjects that, actually, having spent months digging through dusty archives their families were boring.
Maybe the BBC should follow the example of AHTT and ask ordinary folk the question Who Do You Think You Are? Far more interesting, dramatic stories will be found in the lives of people whose names have never appeared in newspapers for anything more than winning third prize in the carrots section of their local horticultural show.