I have always presumed that the Red Stairs are named simply for the colour of the carpet on them. However, in a previous “Highclere” – the old Georgian building – they were likely to have been the main family staircase and, as you go up, the first-floor landing leads to the gallery and bedrooms in one direction and a further floor, short gallery and bedrooms in another.
The next floor up is quiet, half lit and instantly feels shady and cool. It houses archives in various rooms and, like any historian, I find the papers, letters and other source materials which live there utterly relaxing and absorbing. This is my world and for each project, which hopefully turns into a book, I sit up here reading, reflecting and choosing how I might knit the stories and characters together.
It is a journey of other lives and distant events as my fingers scrawl notes on paper or hastily type up impressions and facts, usually with arrows linking thoughts whilst my writing can rival any hieroglyph in my hurry. Each potential paragraph and chapter inevitably includes a layer of my impressions and beliefs although I try to be objective, not to make judgements and to let the times and people speak.
Perhaps distance and the fact I am reviewing historical documents helps give clarity. It certainly succeeds in taking me away from what often seems to be a rather confusing and constantly shifting current world. In my research, I know that I always need to test the sources, to analyse, reflect and read in order to re-construct the scenes and present my arguments and judgements. In contrast, it seems that we all have trouble with where to start these days.
Every day, we are bombarded with a multiplicity of messages from a world eddying with an almost infinite variety of “sources”. For example, in order to be a politician, you need to be elected and thus persuade people to like you. Thirty years ago, this would be achieved by endless rounds of speeches on hustings and reasoned interviews in the press explaining your views and policies. Today, it seems to be more about persuading the populace to press the “like” button on a variety of social media. The politician’s views are couched in photos and sound bites, political niceties compressed into a single sentence with no space to write or talk.
In order to acquire favouritism and get that social media tick, politicians offer immediate gratification, just like giving you a delicious piece of chocolate today, rather than honestly stating that in order to have some chocolate tomorrow, it might be better to eat less today. As tenants of this world, all of us have a responsibility to think of the future and to try to understand the strategies and resolutions which might be needed. Yet most election systems seem to be set up in such a way that the politicians have no choice but to be all about who offers the nicest “chocolate”. Everything seems to have in-built short termism.
Apart from being tenants of the world which is a key agenda, societies also seek to nurture and care for their populace. Like any business, those who are elected need a realistic and practical approach to supporting those who have few resources already. You need to target what you are doing because resources in every sense are limited, whether it is money to pay out or energy, products and people coming into the system. However, this is also not a palatable short-term message in terms of today’s demand for instant gratification and thus is avoided.
Over the last millennia humans have enthusiastically cut down trees, created too much of everything and then thrown it away. They have argued and fought, yet with extraordinary imagination flown and sailed, written books and music, sung and danced, created works of art to admire and worlds in films in which to find time out. But it is also about time. In the traditional words – there is a time to sow and a time to reap. Perhaps now, above all, should be a time to think.