The Past is a Foreign Country

As I often find doing research, even things that were not supposed to be research at all tap themes relevant to what I am studying. It’s like an advertising campaign or logo, you don’t see it at first, though you are vaguely familiar with it, once you connect the dots and understand what it’s representing or selling, you see it everywhere!

A book I bought in Oxfam and read recently was by Roddy Doyle called Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which I read obsessively and finished within a week of buying it. I wanted to find out more about the protagonists’ little brother, Sinbad (aka Francis) who is my favourite character in the book. I didn’t find much online but in a book review, I found this quote:

“‘The past is a foreign country,’ L.P. Hartley wrote in the opening line of The Go-Between (1953); ‘they do things differently there.’ This observation applies not only to the collective or societal past but to the individual and psychological past as well: childhood remains – to a remarkable degree – an unexplored territory whose inhabitants have a culture comprising intricate customs and codes that are uniquely his own, seldom recorded or analyzed, usually forgotten in adulthood.” (Hutchings, 1994)


I read an essay by Michael Ann Holly on visual research not long after the book review, which has ideas which correlate with the ‘customs and codes’ being washed over, eroded and buried by the constant ebb and flow of life:

“The objects of the past stand before us, but the world’s from which they came are long gone. What should we do with these visual orphans?” (2008:10 Holly)

The idea of history being by recall only; myth the moment the present has passed reminded me of a conversation. Speaking to my supervisor Jonathan Gibbs last year, we spoke about the idea of ‘home’ and how we reminisce about a place and time that no longer exists, only in memory. A sense of place cannot really be static, things are forever changing as people are always working to meet new goals and gain fulfilment, moving on to the greener side of the grass, exploring new ideas and places. This kind of feeling is one we must be conscious of in art too.

“One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover. Great works of art seem to look different every time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings. It is an exciting world of its own strange laws and its own adventures. Nobody should think he knows all about it, for nobody does. Nothing perhaps, is more important than just this: that to enjoy those works we must have a fresh mind, one which is ready to catch every hint and to respond to every hidden harmony: a mind, most of all, not cluttered up with long high-sounding words and ready-made phrases.” (Gombrich, 1979:17)



Doyle, Roddy (1993) Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

E.H. Gombrich (1979) The History of Art Phaidon: Oxford

Hutchings, W. (1994) Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Habook review in World Literature Today

Holly, Michael Ann & Smith, Marquard (eds.) (2008) What is Research in the Visual Arts? Obsession, Archive, Encounter Williamstown, Mass. : Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.


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