Tom Sutcliffe: Thrilled by the drama of walking back into the Elizabethan era

A critical view

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I don't know about you but I know what I found most exciting in the reports about the discovery of the remains of Shakespeare's first theatre, the Curtain on a building site in London's Shoreditch.

It wasn't the sections of exterior wall, even though those will give an accurate idea of the dimensions of the original theatre. And it wasn't the more intangible romance that this was where Henry V and Romeo and Juliet had their first nights, thrilling though that idea is too. It was the knucklebone pavement that really got to me, and that despite the fact that the archeologists couldn't say for sure whether it belonged to the theatre itself or to a later building on the same site. Frankly, I didn't even know that sheep had knuckles, never mind the fact that they were used as a paving material, though I find from the internet that Wantage in Oxfordshire still has a knucklebone pavement in one of its alleyways, so it doesn't sound as if this was just a metropolitan architectural affectation by the Curtain's builders.

Paradoxically, you might best describe what got me excited as a pedestrian thrill. It's an excitement often associated with archeological digs and particularly with the process of removing layers until we arrive at a long-buried surface. When that's done, we feel, we can stand exactly where our predecessors did and that taps into some rooted sense of what it is to comprehend another person's experience. Looking at the photographs of that nubbled surface, I was seized by the idea that to walk across it and feel its irregularities would be know more about what it felt like to be an Elizabethan. Instead of being separated from history by the thick insulating layers of accreted dirt and tarmac, you can briefly share common ground with the dead.

It's a pretty universal instinct this, I think. It's what grips you when you place your foot onto the curve of an ancient stone step in a medieval cathedral. It's what lies beyond the opening question of Jerusalem too. "And did those feet in ancient times/ Walk upon England's mountains green", asks Blake. And when he does a quiver of proximity runs through even the least religious listener. If those feet did, you think, we could follow in his footsteps (though if they had the route would have been worn to a canyon by now). And it's an instinct that has left its footprints all over the language. Walk a mile in my shoes, we suggest, when we want someone to see things from our perspective. Just look at it from where I'm standing. Appreciate my stance on the matter.

It's even at the heart of the word we use for comprehension of another condition – understanding. Quite why is harder to say, but I suspect it has something to do with the physical reality of coming face to face with a stranger, and an unvarying material truth of human life. Costumes and customs can change and preconceptions and prejudices alter to the point where they become almost impossible to grasp. But how we stand upright and walk has barely altered – if at all – for thousands of years. Putting your feet down where others have placed them too – whether it's in the home of a famous writer or on preserved stretch of Elizabethan pavement – can't help but stir a sense of identity. They were pinned to the ground there by gravity and now you are too, the same forked animal at heart. I fear the knucklebone pavement will eventually be buried again, but I'd love to walk across it just once before it is and contemplate the indifferent walkers who wore it smooth.

Fantasy stuff from Atwood

There's a nice line by Margaret Atwood in a recent issue of The New Yorker, which devoted itself to the subject of science fiction: "There comes an age," she writes, "when you realize that some of what you read is – how to say this politely? – extremely made-up." Strictly speaking this is illogical. "Made-up" shouldn't really allow for degrees. A story either is or isn't, after all. And yet we all recognize the "extremely made-up" when we see it. For a worrying moment, I thought I might have to surrender my snobbish literary prejudice against outright fantasy but Atwood saved the day by refining her distinction further. There are fantasies that might come true (such as Orwell's 1984) and then there are fantasies we know with certainty never will (Harry Potter say). She, like me, prefers the former.

Humoured by delightful design

An intriguing and possibly self-defeating object stands at the entrance to the V&A's new exhibition of designs by Thomas Heatherwick. Instead of being handed a pamphlet guide to the show, visitors are directed to a Heath Robinson machine where they crank a handle to feed out a five-foot length of pre-printed card. When you reach the inscription "Tear Here" you do just that and go on your way. It is unexpected, funny and characteristically lateral in its approach to the design problem. Then you enter the exhibition and immediately discover why the scroll format lost out to pagination. As a kind of ingenious joke about pamphlets it is terrific. As a pamphlet it is all but unusable. And as you look at Heatherwick's designs – delightful and inventive but also, in several cases, highly impractical and over-engineered – you might find yourself wondering whether the really instructive bit of the guide isn't in the fine print but in the thing itself.