Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Blowing Dust off the Archives


Last year we called in on my mother's sister Olive, and, amongst other gifts and far too much food, she handed over a collection of photographs - some taken on a Welsh beach (probably Llanbedrog) during a holiday our families shared c.1962. I called the Web album Olive's Archive.

With our MAD archive project now underway, I've been thinking quite a lot about archives. The word has a slightly dusty, institutional, ring to it. You know - long rows of box files on grey metal shelves. But actually, lying inert inside those boxes can be jewels from the past that just need to be taken out, rubbed on your sleeve and used for them to return to full, vivid, breathing life.  As Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, said of English Folk Music:
"If you don’t open that treasure box I think you are going to miss a certain dimension, a whole dimension of cultural life in this country so I urge you to do it".

Back in the late 80s I was fortunate to be involved in conversations with the late educationalist Harold Rosen. One of the (many) stories he told was about his son, the poet and writer, Michael Rosen.
Michael, Harold said, often used to return home and disappear off to his room. Through closed doors could be heard gales of laughter - Michael was reading from his complete collection of old school exercise books again. Then I understood where his wonderful understanding of children's lives was rooted; in the access to his own memory his exercise book archive provided .

Looking at the beach pictures again I remembered sitting on Llanbedrog beach on a rather grey day eating our picnic lunch. We had chicken soup in a flask. I remembered, too, the gritty sandwiches. Suddenly I remembered complaining about them and my Dad's reply, "It sounds like you need witches." Huh?  "Sandwiches with no sand.". A joke from nearly 50 years ago, floating up from an old photograph. A reminder too, that I have a genetic predisposition to tell bad jokes.

Looking back matters. It is much more than just nostalgia. It tells where we were, and the ways we became the people we are now.

Nowadays many of us are held in thrall by the biggest archive of them all - The Internet. Vast quantities of memorabilia are becoming available all the time. Back in my student days I was inordinately fond of the American rock band Little Feat. Via a series of links, I came upon the following album in the Internet Archive. It was originally "released" as a bootleg LP called "Electrif Lycanthrope". Only really cool, wealthy and lucky people owned it i.e. not me. I was really intrigued by the powerful effect hearing this album had on me. Despite owning, or perhaps because I've owned, some of their albums on just about every musical format available since the 70s I am now listening to ghosts. Hearing this album the sheer joy their music brought me for several years returned, not as a ghost, but real and visceral. I just played it loud and danced very badly. You can too.