The Pulse Glass opens with Gillian Tindall’s account of sprinkling the ashes of her younger brother beside a defunct railway line near where they had lived as children, and closes with an account of his death – which is much more uplifting than it might sound, being elegiac rather than depressing. It’s a family memoir encompassing tragedy and devotion, resentment and grief, misunderstanding, empathy and love, as all family histories do. But because it’s by Tindall, it’s much more than this: other themes run through the book (railways being just one of them) and a great store of social history appears, from early Christianity to the myth of King Arthur to the East End in the 1930s, all united by a scholarly yet moving contemplation of the past and how it survives or slips away.
Tindall remembers, as she writes about her brother’s birth, the woven orange blanket in which he was wrapped, which had been sent to her mother from Orkney by an aunt. ‘Such presents were valuable and prized, in 1946,’ she writes, a note of regret or reproach in her voice. This blanket endured the catastrophe that hit her family nine years later. As a young woman, Tindall wore it as a shawl; it swaddled her first son, and later his first son, ‘but somehow between his infancy and the birth of another one four years later it disappeared, perhaps to some other, unknown baby’.