I’ve only just got round to reading Julie Myerson’s book about everyone who ever lived in her house, and I recognise a lot about the process, which was essentially about cold-calling, not relatives as I did, but former occupants and their descendants. (A particular thing I have in common is that I was looking for descendants and not ancestors.) It is such a simple and brilliant idea, and the only thing I’m a little less sure of is the way she weaves in another narrative about going back to her own former homes. It’s a clever device, but she pulls it off less well than her search for the people who actually inhabited her space. And of course, in reading all about her children, one of whom she has written about very explicitly and controversially this year, it is impossible to shake off the shadow of that row (she refused to let her son back into her home because of his involvement with drugs, and both she and her husband wrote openly about this).
What is clever about the idea is simply that it will make any reader start to wonder who has inhabited their own space over the last few (or more) decades. I am not sure how old this house is, only that it is half of what used to be a whole house. The oldest house I’ve lived in was built in the 1820s, and, I think, it remains my favourite. It was in Exeter in a tiny, hidden line of artisans’ houses, and it was in the mid-1980s. It was one of those lines of houses that you wouldn’t come across under nornal circumstances, because it was hidden away – it was one of four survivors of what had been a row of sixteen (there was a fifth house, but it had been tacked on much later). Bombs had knocked out the first ten; and Sanderson’s, who owned the six- or seven-storey block close by, had knocked down two more to build a car park. The five left over were threatened with demolition, but reprieved in the mid-1960s.
About the time I was living there, the law changed about the importance of the house’s deeds. They switched from being important legal documents to being interesting curios that the owner could keep, and I suspect this change, nationally, intended to streamline the process of exchanging property, led to a very large number of very interesting bundles of documents being lost. In this particular set of deeds (which I passed to the next owner), there were notes on the lease of the land to grow crops, going back to the late seventeenth century. They were fascinating. But I think they should have been handed in to an archive.
That phrase ‘I think’ is my default setting when it comes to archiving. On the one hand, I think it is sentimental; on the other, I think it is part of human nature to hang on to what shreds of evidence we have of our former selves, or rather those of our forebears.
Still, this week’s New Scientist has an article which claims that, if you were to show children the last common ancestor of humans and animals, they would immediately recognise it.
As a bathroom sponge.
You can read about it here.