The Past Is Another Cupboard by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

The Past Is Another Cupboard


‘Archives’ sound like something sorted, suggesting that the evidence of a life, a community or an institution has been collected in a way that will enable future generations to study it or simply turn over pages and get some sense of it. The word has a soothingly completed feel to it.

But how mistaken that feeling is. If you doubt me, you should examine what is over-grandly known as ‘my archive cupboard’. Possibly, somewhere in your own home, or a relative’s house, is just such a cupboard, which you will one day be obliged to sort out. In most such cupboards (which may in fact be a series of rarely opened drawers or boxes on top of wardrobes) what is likely to be found is a mass of letters and photos, perhaps some ancient appointment diaries, possibly the older sort of diary full of references, descriptions and records of emotions, maybe even memoirs of distant childhoods dutifully penned in old age by relatives that few people alive can remember. 

The fact is that almost any letter, note or list has an immediate value, practical or sentimental, but six months later most are scrap. If we were to keep every friendly postcard, every laborious note from a child away from home, every love letter, every reminiscence of bygone fun or pain, every letter of condolence, we would all drown in paper. And yet we are tempted to keep this… Oh, and that…

The digital age has created the impression that actually we can, because so much of the kind of correspondence that was previously on paper has come to exist in email form. ‘Digital storage is wonderful!’ an archivist enthused to me a dozen years ago. ‘We’re going to get the whole of X’s [famous writer’s] personal communications on a few thin discs.’ Today, of course, the potential of online storage is greater still and even less space-consuming: discs and memory sticks are already seen as obsolete, like oil lamps. Yet this should alert us to a problem: with such rapidly advancing technology, who in a hundred years is going to be able to fumble and guess their way through long-abandoned digital systems?

The writing on paper or parchment can still be legible after many years, and most surviving documents from the last three centuries or so are written in something close enough to modern languages to be decipherable. Much has, through time and chance, been destroyed or lost, which is why we value what has actually survived. But how many scholars, in another three centuries, are going to want to tackle the impossibly voluminous digital archives of the once-famous that have been so carefully preserved in ‘the cloud’, assuming the cloud still exists and can be accessed? And, if it does, isn’t there a danger that devaluation by excess will have set in?

Authors have a special problem. I actually don’t keep any of my own typescripts (still traditionally known in publishing as ‘manuscripts’). It is not as if I would ever want to look at them myself; only occasionally do I want to read through bits of one of the books that came from them. I am not hopeful (well, not quite) that I will be recognised after my death to have been a George Eliot or a Mrs Gaskell, whose rough drafts are worth scholarly study. But my cut-out articles and reviews inevitably reflect attitudes and preoccupations of my time, and a lifetime researcher’s voice murmurs in my mind, ‘All this might one day be of social interest to someone who is not yet born.’ 

Such are the complications of a writer’s archive cupboard. Let us leave these aside and look, rather, at the mass of other stuff that collects in the homes of families who do not move house much. (The strain of a house move, I have noticed in others, tends to induce an urge to dispose so desperate that it may well be regretted later.) Admittedly, I am an extreme example of a non-mover: my husband and I, in spite of copious world travels for work, have been based in the same home for the past sixty years. But quite a lot of what has accumulated in my archive cupboard is Not My Fault. It comes from relatives who have bestowed it on me, essentially because women are traditionally the keepers of such things. Fate has given me a son and grandsons but no sisters or daughters, and my cousins are almost all male. Inevitably, I am regarded as a suitable repository for collective family memory. 

Granny Milner’s letters from central France in 1910 where, a teenager herself, she was sent to teach in a girls’ seminary for six months: give them to Gillian! The First World War letters of Great-Uncle George, rather too old to be sent to the front, enjoying himself like mad in his officer’s uniform at base: for Gillian too – she told me she’s already got some from a great-uncle on the other side of the family… And so I have, including his last, a pencilled scrap of paper: ‘We are due to go up the line again in the morning. I have to tell you I don’t like the look of it.’ He was right. He did not come back.

Such poignant communications, kept for obvious reasons, survive even today in such numbers that the Imperial War Museum is reluctant to accept any more of them. But then they are a special category – messages that hold meaning beyond the actual words employed, and not just to family members. Love letters, whose value is only to the recipient and may have evaporated five months after being written, mercifully survive in much smaller numbers. 

But what should I do with do with the stacks of loving but essentially trivial letters my grandparents wrote one another over a period of fifty-plus years when apart from each other, even for one night? Bin them, I think. Yes, but many are now over a hundred years old. And what about the envelopes containing their babies’ hair? And the daguerreotypes of their own parents when young, getting on for two centuries old now? And as for the photograph albums, full of the now-unknown… 

What shall I do… What shall we ever do?

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