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Book Review: I Believe In Yesterday by Tim Moore

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Modern life getting you down? Feel like getting away from it all? Perhaps a week as a Roman legionary will put the colour back in your cheeks. Or maybe you'd prefer to pillage a village in the company of rampaging Vikings. Historical re-enactments may not be the most relaxing form of relaxation, but for many time travel beats Benidorm on all counts.

This is fertile ground for an author like Tim Moore. Previous books have seen him following the footsteps of the first Grand Tourist, the fortunes of Eurovision failures and the tyre tracks of the Tour de France. For Tim Moore, the world of re-enactments is a field just waiting to be harvested.

And what a strange world it is, where nothing is what it seems and everything is what it was. Enthusiasts drench their clothing in urine, mild-mannered coin collectors morph into bloodthirsty warriors, and everyone craves the magical fusion of past and present, a sensation known as "period rush".

Early on, Moore learns that authenticity is the Holy Grail of historical re-enactment. But authenticity, it seems, is an elastic concept. At one extreme, he shares supermarket burgers with an Iron Age blacksmith, at the other he spends time with an 18th-century retromaniac who extracts his own teeth.

Moore draws the line at home dentistry, but he does go to extraordinary lengths to recreate the past. During one memorable tableau, he's to be found coating his sandals with curried potato salad for that 'just back from ancient Rome' look. Unfortunately, his preparations have a 'just back from Wikipedia' feel about them. With one foot in the past and the other in his mouth, Moore blunders across the centuries like Mr Magoo on a skateboard.

Things start badly as he spends a solitary night in an Iron Age theme park with only a flock of savage sheep for company. Period rush is momentarily ignited with his first attempt at making fire from flint and straw. But his experiences among the Romans, Vikings, Tudors and American Civil War re-enactors only serve to confirm that Tim Moore's time is now.

As a newcomer, he's keen to discover why thousands of people regularly immerse themselves in the past. For many, it's an escape from the daily grind and a chance to rediscover the lost art of repairing things. It's hard to see the appeal of re-enactments for women. Mostly tagging along with their husbands, they're usually consigned to supporting roles as cooks or serving wenches. But for the men, the attractions are clearer. Re-enactments offer 21st-century boys the chance to jettison all pretence of political correctness and to wallow in fighting, filth and flatulence.

It's not long before Moore himself is seduced by this outpouring of testosterone. As a Roman soldier, he sets about kicking Gaulish ass. He joins a company of full contact Vikings whose battle cry is "we maim to please". Later, with whoops of boyish delight he fires Krakatoan volleys from a 15th-century canon in an Alsatian castle. He's discomfited, however, to find himself among American Civil War re-enactors, most of whom believe the wrong side won.

The shock and awe of battle is all very well, but the more mundane aspects of period life expose Moore's woefully inadequate preparations. His role as a chamberlain in a Tudor manor is seriously compromised by his inability to speak the Queen's English – as spoken by the first Queen Elizabeth. The situation is not helped by the presence of a word-perfect 12-year-old.

His immersion in all things yesteryear reaches its zenith in the wilds of Kentucky. Here he encounters Gerry Barker, a Vietnam veteran with both feet firmly planted in 1775. Among re-enactors, Barker is viewed as something of a legend, with a zero-tolerance approach to modernity epitomised by his preferred mode of transport: a covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen.

It's while trekking with Barker across the Daniel Boone National Forest (the size of one and a half Luxembourgs) that Moore has to accommodate his greatest fear: dying before he was born.

"'Good news,' said Gerry. 'Just seen an eight-foot black king snake back there, so I don't think we'll be bothered by much else.' This apparently took into account the thumb-sized ants I could see scuttling about on the nearby tarpaulin that would be my bed for the next four nights, if not the ground-hornet nest Gerry now located a few paces behind my haversack pillow. 'Watch for that if you need to visit the woods in the night,' he said, though I'd long since vowed to preclude any such excursion by the simple expedient of wetting myself."

Much of the book is humorous, but Moore does have some serious points to make, notably that just about every period in history prior to our own was nasty, brutish and shit. For this reason, he's happy to adopt the mantle of the reluctant re-enactor – the poor bloke in the Iron Age or the American Civil War who would quite happily have taken a period rush into the twenty-first century.

Even so, Moore concludes that re-enactors may be pioneers for the rest of us. As the earth's resources run dry and many more seek out simpler, more sustainable ways of life, they will look to those who have been there and done that. In their efforts to recreate the past, re-enactors may actually be ahead of their time.

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About Doedelzak

  • Yawn

    Pompous, self-righteous, point-missing review.