Passports tell stories, don’t they? The old one I have swapped to enable this trip was a litany of new lives I’ve lived over the last decade in London, New York, Cairo, Budapest and Ljubljana. These seem to be key places of arrival for me, though Buenos Aires and Bucharest bring back strong memories too. Its pages as a whole signify financial success, a wandering nature, and a lust for the new. But most of all discontentment with something, that’s for sure.
When that passport arrived the internet was about the spluttering whoosh of slow modems and infinite possibility of boom without bust (I’d recently worked on a magazine about the internet whose advertising copy was: everything you know is wrong). Early 1997 was also about the excitement of a new kind of government in Britain; Hong Kong was shortly to be given back to China; Gary Kasparov was about to become the first world champion to lose to a computer at chess; and Diana, Princess of Wales, was said to be larking about with a man named Dodi. So recalls Wiki-news.
Today I’m looking at a set of empty pages and wondering about the next decade. How will that be new? For me, for those I love, for Europe and for the World? Who knows? I know only that technology is enabling us in ways we really have no firm understanding of yet, that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in the way we perceive the world, its history and its future: it’s up to us in terms of our environment, our belief systems, and our creations – in art as much as medicine and astro-physics – to do justice to what we have been handed so readily on a plate.
In Jacobean England – the England of Thomas Coryat, of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon – the post Renaissance world also gave its most able some of the tools (and materials, such as books) to create the marvelous: King Lear and The Sonnets, Science, the modern English language itself are just a few. Coryat’s life saw the arrival of the telescope, Opera, theatrical sets, Gallileo busting up our vision of the universe. In another light: Englishmen and women walked on American soil – as the Queen demonstrated recently, and George Bush almost did – and began the slow colonization of India.
Before he died, tragically young, exploring India, Coryat could have read Rabelais and Cervantes in translation; could have smoked one of Walter Raleigh’s finest fags – though King James was not a fan. He experienced the liberal acceptance of courtesans and fair divorce laws in Venice, and met in Paris with the finest classical scholar of his times. He was a lucky man, Tom Coryat, patronage by Henry, the precocious Prince of Wales, gave him the chance to explore a Europe changing fast. He took his chance, he wrote down what he saw, listened to what he heard, brought home new words and invented some more (friend Ben Jonson said of Tom, “He is an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle head dictating…” – and so Tommy lives on today. When he published, three years after the journey, Shakespeare was writing The Tempest, John Donne finishing his Anatomy of the World, and the King James Bible was ready to play its part in the World. Coryat wrote – in words that seem bizarre now, with our numerous libraries and the vast resources of the web – of there being already too many books on offer, “we want rather readers for bookes than bookes for readers,” he said. It’s a joke, I’m guessing.
It’s easy to meet people who don’t read books any more. In fact one young turk editor I know used to boast he’d got through his Oxford degree without reading one in full, and the upward velocity of his successful life now suggests things haven’t changed.