One of the ever-endless duties of an archivist is finding new space for old stuff. Time’s wingéd chariot is constantly dropping feathers and hubcaps, and it is our job to come along with the dustpan of history and sweep up behind them. It is extraordinary just how much significance can be gleaned from Tennyson’s blotter or Lord Byron’s laundry list, in much the same way that an archaeologist can determine an entire diet from a coprolite, and likewise we must both shine our respective droppings.
But where to keep the meticulously cleaned and catalogued collections of metaphorical toenail clippings ? In this regard, we can learn a lesson from those archivists of old, the monks. It takes a certain kind of personality to find great excitement in holy relics, in the prospect of touching a box that is touching a item that touched a genius. And above all, it takes great faith to instinctively know that this prepuce is the only one of the hundreds claimed to be the prepuce, or indeed to trust that the gaudy casket contains anything at all. For us these days, it is less body parts and more autographs we engather, but it does no harm to think that a few skin cells must have brushed off onto the page.
Anyway, there were fewer starry-eyes at this week’s workshop as Christine Shirley got us underway, floating with the leaves on the river of memory, while Pat Francis imagined evacuees leaving London but not the Thames. For Peter Francis, it is rabbits all the way as he recalls the stews of his youth, whereas it was always the trees and the girls which would do for the boyish Doig Simmonds.
John Hurley then recalled a relative who had married well and soon knew her trencher from her porcelain, while Anne Furneaux has been eavesdropping on the Axis bomber command and their fateful decision to target high streets over runways. Next was Martin Choules seeking to unseat an unscrupulous politician, who seems a safe target not likely to sue, given that he’s both a century old and fictional (the politician, not Martin), handing over to Alan Chambers to navigate both the foggy waters and the soundtrack.
The current restoration of Pitzhanger Manor is turning up plenty of would-be relics from the Tuesday convocations, from Bill Wordsworth’s pressed daffodils to Willy Yeats’ trampled dreams. They all have to be carefully removed from beneath the floorboards and behind the wainscot and laboriously conserved by many different techniques that all seem to involve formaldehyde. They are then very carefully slid into a manila envelope and reverently laid into a box file which is then stacked with the others currently propping open the door to the teleprinter room.
And then we come to Patrick Moore’s monocles, of which we have thousands. The astronomer would often pop in after filming The Sky at Night in Lime Grove studios just down the road in Shepherds Bush, and it was guaranteed that he would get through half a dozen of Colonel Mustard’s finest over the course of the evening. Indeed, it only took a particularly surprising or shocking poem to be read out and there went another one down between the cushions – so much so that the other guests would deliberately spice up their verses just to see the scale falling from his eye.