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.