Save the photographs

That was a good tag-line, ‘Save the photographs’ (used in adverts for the Prudential a few years ago). There were other adverts in the sequence, and I know, because I wrote some of the copy, but I think my contract prevents me from quoting myself. Writing advertising copy is hard: you have to achieve a kind of banal genius, and I am rarely a genius, just …

Anyway. My father’s cousin, who died earlier this year, and who left her estate with great care and generosity to charity, possessed (I suspected, unless, like her mother, she had ripped them up) a small cache of photographs, and there is nothing I like better than old photographs. I act as a kind of clearing house for them, matching them up (I have about twenty albums from different sources now). Because probate on her estate took a while to come through, it was a while before I was allowed to set foot on the premises (presumption of the innate thief in all of us, I suppose). But I did go back to her house this week, in a search for the remaining photos. I knew there would not be many, although she had personally in fact been a picture-taker of great art, and a traveller, too, so there were rolls and discs and albums full of landscapes and places, through which I had to trawl (and which will literally be consigned to some flames).

The solicitor’s representative suddenly said, ‘Have you see this?’, and there they were – in a small cardboard box on a table over which I had already cast an eye. I nearly missed them. So: now I have a few more pictures of my great-grandfather, and his daughter, and his grandson (who was not only my father’s cousin, but also, a decade before my parents married, my mother’s boyfriend – he was killed in 1942 when a torpedo hit the destroyer on which he was a lieutenant, off Algeria).

But I had seen something else: she had kept diaries, and over a quarter of her life was lined up – and by diaries, I mean, an account, a page long of every day. Plainly these too would be shredded. I didn’t think it was right to leave them, although was it ethical to take them? I will be looking into someone’s innermost thoughts. Because there was a huge rift opened up by my grandfather and his sister (her mother) in 1954, there was virtually no communication between the two families – my side and her side, call it – until 1993, when I phoned her. (To prove this, she records hearing of my father’s death in 1987, and having to go a library to look up his address, so that she could send my mother some flowers, and admits to feeling hypocritical about it. She also admits to some anxiety when I write to her about the rift – and no, I have only dipped into the diaries, so far. There are about five million words to read.)

I’ve gone only for the dates I know, so far. She records my having rung her up for the first time, and pays me a severely back-handed compliment. ‘Bill sounds like a very ordinary bloke. Friendly, but not public school.’ I think the latter would have been expected of me, so I laughed out loud with pleasure.

The words are as interesting as the photos, so perhaps ‘Save the diaries’ should be another tag-line for an advert. Anyway, here is my great-grandfather on what he would have considered a Sunday picnic. He may have worked hard to establish his ship-yard, and he certainlydid (unlike my grandfather), but he repaid himself in champagne. He’s the one in the hat at the front, and it’s about 1932.

Thomas William Greenwell, picnic, 1933

Thomas William Greenwell, picnic, 1933

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