I Believe in Yesterday, By Tim Moore

Into battle with the history boys
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The Independent Culture

Those who learn from history are bound to re-enact it. Tim Moore moves from travel to time-travel with I Believe In Yesterday, his odyssey through the world of historical re-enactment. On this fertile battlefield for his comic talents, Monty Python meets It's A Knockout as performed by Swiss web-server engineers.

Moore begins his past life in a moribund iron-age village surrounded by a bare-shirted iron smelter, pasties, Lucozade and an Aussie film crew. He's armed only with "contemporary life-skills like digital copyright theft and sarcasm". He travels down the timeline to find the Romans getting battered by the Gauls in Denmark. In a Swiss castle, he discovers the history crew's capacity for flatulence at night and free-style urination over ramparts.

Moore has great fun describing the leek broths, the language of the subculture ("nactors" and "time tarts") and the anachronisms, such as Vikings on airbeds who use their axes to deter troublesome hoodies outside fish-and-chip shops. The owner of Kentwell Hall, Suffolk, insists that "these are our core values" when banning watches, hearing aids and camera use in Tudor costume. He finds himself in Kentucky, dodging ox hooves, dung, bears and snakes with taciturn experimental archeologist and Vietnam vet Gerry, a man with an authentic 1775 pioneer wagon pulled by six oxen. During the American Civil War, he's planning sorties by mobile-phone light and saving a prisoner suffering from heatstroke induced by a concealed girdle.

Moore sometimes overplays his own ineptitude ­ was he really that scared of a sheep in his roundhouse? ­ but it's perhaps his funniest book. Yet it also identifies a serious yearning for simpler lives as the oil runs out and we exist in "screen-centred, anti-social torpor and blaring practical ignorance". Moore realises that what unites the re-enactors is "a simple and truly heartwarming quest for gregarious community. All in all, we just weren't meant to live the way we now did." This is possibly the best book ever completed by a man covered in congealed animal fat, sweat and cannon smoke.

Pete May is author of 'There's a Hippo in My Cistern' (Collins)