Forgotten lives

February 15, 2009

This cluster of birthdays I’ve been writing about obviously brings to mind what will be forgotten, and how easily it will be forgotten, when I’ve done a bunk myself. Even the trivia which I can summon up up about my grandmother is not very detailed – and in fact my memory of her (see the Feb 13 posting) is more sensory than anything. I associate her with furs – fur coats, fur blankets, all the accoutrements of being a rich person in a poor world, as my grandmother certainly was in Sunderland. I can remember the sound of her voice: slightly cracked, slightly deep. My grandfather is more of a known quantity (see my web-site) in that I have a pile of his letters and even the texts of a couple of speeches he made. But my memory of him as a man, existing in the world, is much flimsier.

This is not least because he contracted Parkinson’s, or was diagnosed with it, when I was only about six, and was unable to function without help after about 1960. But he was also a very silent type, certainly not given to conversation. He was the one who tempted me into family history, I suppose, since he had been obsessed with it since his forties. (Of course, I might have been tempted anyway.) I do remember him giving me a long lecture about my origins – ‘origins’ – when I was twelve or so, but this was actually, it has since transpired, just a farrago of information he hoped was true. He told me nothing about his own life except that he had once jumped from an observation balloon above the trenches (he was one of the first members of the RFC). He told me nothing about his father’s life or his mother’s life. All of that I have had to discover by other means (sometimes, amazingly, these turn up, as when, within the last six months, his grandmother turned out to have a living niece, who had written down quite a bit about her own background – one of the advantages of the many share-your-info sites which deal with family history).

But unless I record all this, it will be lost, too. And does anyone need to know that my father’s first recorded utterance was reputed to be ‘Tootie-too’, having been told that he was going to a house numbered 22. No. Maybe I’m the only one left who knows that. It is hardly an insight into history. But I had better get a move on and write on the backs of photographs. Nothing appals me more than nameless photographs, especially saddening when you come across them in albums in antique stalls or amidst jumble. But I am just as guilty – I have albums filled with faces to which I am, in some cases, the only key. (My uncle spilt the beans on two photographs from about 1920 only two weeks before he died, at the age of 92, last year, naming five people in the nick of time.)

Photography, I think, gives us an illusion of permanence. Increasingly, the nineteenth century seems to me to be so near to our own time that we have lost our bearings a bit. Earlier centuries, and especially those before 1500, have just been wiped away. Most of what we know is educated guesswork. Part of me thinks that archiving is the most important thing we can do, that what we hand on to the white-gloved hands of the future is really important. But buildings fall, rivers shift, languages vanish, creatures become extinct. We are very sentimental. We want more power, and the power of the waves in the Severn would produce it cleanly. But that would mean the extinction, practically, of some wildlife. Morally, I can’t see the difference between this and eating meat and fish and fowl.

I have gone all serious on myself. I should get a life (and write on the back of it, of course).