Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Unearthing the Past

I am not sure whether this will be a long or short post - it depends on how I manage to weave together what I want to impart, and whether I become carried away in the attempt.

Let me begin with the photograph pictured above: it was taken 72 years ago, early in 1938, and depicts me in my mother's arms, my maternal grandparents on the left, my father and mother and me in the middle, and on the right my great grandmother and my beloved great grandfather, Thomas Henry Guppy (1861 to 1948) and librarian of the John Rylands Library in Manchester from 1899 until his death. It was he who instilled in me a love of books and words and somehow throughout the second world war when new books were unobtainable, he always found me something special for my birthday. Books I treasured and still have.

This unearthing of the past has happened by accident. All spare time in the last month has been spent unravelling this house, searching everywhere for our passports. Not only those but Raymond's driving licence, our birth certificates and our marriage certificate. Not for any specific reason other than renewal; I suddenly noticed they were not where I always keep them. Coupled to that, I had been re-configuring my workspace to accommodate a new sewing machine, which involved making the decision to part with many of my technical books. The workroom took all of January; then came the discovery of my having 'mislaid' the vital documentation. You may think it strange that I cannot locate what I know is carefully put away somewhere; but picture this scenario: a very old house in which we have lived for 40 years; rooms leading into rooms, an accumulation of furniture and properties, boxes and boxes and yet more boxes of books and fabrics, projects from two houses and our former factory sold in 1999, all crammed together and stashed away within the house's three storeys.

our house, taken in 1969 - the little boy on the left is our younger son; it is his 47th birthday today (3rd March)

Another month has gone by, turning out drawers, boxes - most of our remembered - and unremembered - past. And the more I searched, the more panicky I became, until my brain froze and I felt oh so very OLD, and so stupid. Meanwhile I had to focus on work, and somehow completed my immediate batch of five commissioned articles, transferring myself both in thought, or literally, from Goodwood (Chichester), to the Malvern Hills and the music of Edward Elgar, to Aberglasney (Wales), and through gardens in the mind, writing about space-saving climbing vegetables and the edible patchwork quilts that we call 'potagers'. This last completed on Monday. I breathed a huge sigh of relief - don't get me wrong - I love what I do; it was just somewhat compressed this last three weeks.

I tackled the passport office, meeting a stumbling block when required to provide details of the EXACT dates of birth of both our sets of parents. For heaven's sake, they would be over a hundred years old now, if they were still alive! The officials were relatively helpful but did not seem able to understand that a) we had not committed to memory those dates from the 1800s, and b) that we could not instantly if at all lay our hands on our paperwork.

I don't know why, perhaps because I have now stopped, but I feel exhausted; not a part of this world, as if my thought processes are ebbing away; I now cannot find ANYTHING. But I know that given just a little time, I will be up and running and raring to go on whatever is next thrown at me. Just give me space.

My post tonight might have ended here, had it not been for a phone call early this morning from my daughter, inviting me to join her and 11-year-old grand-daughter K. on a girly day out in Oxford (she had a day off school). Three girls together, chattering away on the drive to the park-and-ride, on the bus into the city and throughout the three hours we had together. It was sunny, crisp and cold and we walked with great purpose, talking all the while. Bookshop, art store, stationers, chocolate shop, tea purveyor ... and a students' bistro for lunch.

I did not have a camera with me, I wish I had, but we sat at scrubbed pine tables eating potato wedges (scooped out baked potatoes in their skins, sprinkled with cayenne pepper, topped with grilled cheese), presented to us on wooden trenchers, with fresh leaf salad and sour cream cheese, mexican tortilla chips and salsa / guacamole dips. Mugs of hot tea and fruit juice for K. And still we chattered. It has been years since I shared such a day; and apart from the delicious lunch, I treated myself to a sketch book and notebook. I had a specific purpose for what I bought. The sketch book comprised pages of recycled tobacco-coloured paper, perfect for a forthcoming visit to Ireland; I know from previous trials how well it showcases photos, hand-written text in black or sepia, and sketches in 'neocolor' over-painted with fluid matte medium.

the second little notebook which I bought today in Oxford

The other book (shown above) leaped at me off the stationer's shelf: I had not bought anything like this before; somehow it seems too striking, too much of a statement. I will fill it with my poems. For years, I wrote in very ordinary notebooks, at first those I should have used for my prep at school, then anything small enough to slip into my pocket. Of late, I have scribbled on scraps of paper; and thus I lost much of my word-journey, for like our passports, where are these scraps? Some have appeared on this blog, others could be anywhere, but now I have no excuse. Such a tactile notebook, cream surface of the cover and raised black lettering: scribbles and doodles; pen on paper. My brain has not died, just been overwhelmed these past weeks ... and now comes Spring: snowdrops, crocus and daffodils, hazel catkins and birdsong; a thrush in the apple tree, frost on the grass, paper and pen, and words.

some of my former notebooks filled with my poetry, from young girlhood onwards


  1. How lovely to have a girly day out in Oxford with your family.

    I spend most of my life trying to relocate lost things, maybe that is why I married an Anthony (patron saint of lost things!)

    I read with interest about your family connection with one of my favourite haunts- The John Rylands Library.

  2. Not to worry, forward motion is still your forte, passports and valued documents will surface.

    Girly days are great remembrances and great fun.

    Looking forward to spring and assorted birds as you see them.

  3. What a wonderful journey you've taken us on, in spite of all the angst you must still feel over your lost passport. May it still show up.

    I'm with you on the build up of possessions. We have lived in our current house since 1980 ad raised four daughters here, three of whom are still in residence. I dread the thought of moving ever, but one day I suspect we will need to and by then the accumulated clutter will be worse.

    I'm also with you on the joys of unexpected outings with loved ones to beautiful places and also the importance of the note book.

    This black and white doodle book looks like magic. No more scraps of paper for you nw, I trust.

    Think of all those lost poems. I'm not a poet but were I so able I think I'd hate to lose a single line of my love and labour.

  4. I found you through Nan, and so pleased about that. I like the way you view the world. And your honesty too. Must be spring ready to explode, all this chucking out. We're doing it here. As soon as I tie my apron strings and snap open paper bags to fill, I tell my self I will be ruthless. But then lurking in the pile I see a holey grey sweater my grandmother used to wear, followed by a chipped cup with the dearest yellow rose painted on it. I'm just biting my lip and tossing.
    fellow spring cleaner

  5. Hi, it's Beth visiting over from Thinking of Thinking. Thank you coming to visit my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. It really means a lot to me! I hope to be back often to gain a glimpse into your life. It sounds so interesting and on the opposite side of the world and connected via blogging!

    I really like the look of your new journal. I always buy pretty journals with good intentions but never seem to keep up with my writing.

  6. You will remember where your documents are. Often in a quiet moment when your brain is focused on the 'now' .. for me, it might be doing the washing up and gazing out of the window, or those moments before you go to sleep. I do love your blog by the way.

  7. I can relate well to the disruption of trying to find specific items and the resulting sense that one has misplaced the brain and memory along with various belongings.
    In the recent packing up of life in the 4th house in 5 years, it occured to me that much of what I compulsively save and move is not of great worth, just a sort of plunder that always goes with us and which I cannot readily locate after the various moves.
    I so enjoy family photos and the accompanying "stories"--thank you for sharing yours. I hope you have a breather to get sorted before the next projects are due.

  8. Thank you for your comment. The mitts were done in classic fair isle knitting technique, changing the colors of the four-ply yarn back and forth to make the pattern. In the mix, I did use one Koigu merino four-ply yarn that was hand painted to have gradual color variants.

    Your posts was very interesting to read.

    Best wishes.

  9. LOVE the photo. Your house sounds just like ours (though we have only been here 22 years) and now with the prospect of moving this year, I am having to go through the house room by room, TRYING to sort things out. I hope you find your missing documents. As a family historian I know where to find mine (though I have actually lost MY passport which ran out 30 years ago!)

    What a lovely day out in Oxford, and I'm with you on those scraps of scribbled-on paper, though I have some squirrelled away in a little notebook sent from America many years ago now, and I have even written some poetry using my word pictures recently.

  10. Your family photo is a true treasure Ann! Love that you have this. Your girls day sounds really lovely. I hope you are feeling a bit better - thank you for your kind comments on my blog today.

  11. I did enjoy your post and your photographs.We too have many boxes and stacks of books and photographs that we cannot bear to part with, yet finding something specific can be a nightmare.

    I love Oxford and can imagine your day out there. One to treasure. Our last visit was on a Sunday in pouring rain, but still the golden stone was beautiful and the bookshops so enticing.

  12. Dear Ann,

    It is lovely to have you back and writing, for I love your usage of language and the rich vocabulary that you posses.

    Your story of having misplaced something, only because it was so well hidden is a familiar one around this house. I have way too much and I seem to lose things that were actually misplaced, only to turn up weeks and even month later.

    I was also taken by the picture of you as a child and surrounded by all the important family members, it is a gem!

    The outing is with a plate of food that sounds like it came from Southern California or Mexico is making me hungry.

    I wish you were not so far away . . .

    Warmest regards,

  13. Oxford is such a pretty town.

    I hope you find your passports soon.