The archives are now offering a new series of events that are going to run every month. Those are called ‘Archive Bites’ and will be a small expositions that will feature a thematic series of objects from the depths of the archive’s collections. This past week the subject was Plymouth in the past and featured pictures taken circa 1959 and a historical plan of the market part of Plymouth with all the shops clearly market. For the duration of the day, people were coming up to the archives to look at the pictures and swap the stories of the city. Here is what you’ve missed:
- Throwing stones at rats in the car park
- Driving Ford Prefect with it’s windshield wipes closely connected to the revving of its engine.
- The story of a closure of a famous Plymouth restaurant. Allegedly because of fears that people would choose its terrace to jump off it.
- Debating the intricate difference between collecting pink stamps over the green stamps.
You’ve heard them a thousands of times. The Story of the Cousin No One Speaks About, the story of How Grandpa Proposed, the story about How the Family Moved into the City. Those are our very personal oral traditions. Some people, however, are not content with the unwritten stories of the families. Some people are looking for facts, those people are family historians.
We had a visitor in the archives the other day- Maureen from the Devon Family History Society. She graciously showed us where to start if you are aiming to track down all the stories you have been listening to since you can remember. We live in the information age and it is our privilege to have computers to help us with digging into the past. Computers are not magic, of course, and can only aid at the start of the journey.
But I’m saying it all wrong, because before you run to one of paid or unpaid sites on the internet, you have a starting point a little bit closer. I mean you, yourself. How much do you know? How much facts do you remember? The names of your parents, your Grandparents, their dates of birth, the dates of their marriages. There are different documents that has been already digitized and that will reveal some information to you: marriage certificates, birth certificates, census documents, service records. I could go into details on how to start distilling history from story, but that is not my aim. There are sites and books that could do that better than me. What I want to say is that family history and family stories are not one and the same. Stories change each time they are being told. The one notable example Maureen told us about is that of a researcher who was investigating the story about their grandfather. The family story said that he was gorged to death by a bull. After some time searching they came across his death certificate. The grandfather in question was admitted to the local hospital and died there. But it was not a death by a bull; he was crushed by a cow against the barn door. But with time this story became something else, something more dramatic. That’s why anyone, who wishes to research family history, must be prepared to find that the things may not be as they were told.
Paul Tobin strolling down the memory lane
We recently had Paul Tobin again with us, but this time not as a poet, but as a historical source. He donated pictures from his album from the time he was a student here 1980-1983. He was sittig patiently numbering them and adding names to the faces. He would name the place and the event, from a raging party to a RAG week. Two things I would take away from that session:
1. Archives are no match for human memory. We could have records of students, their names, dates of leaving and enrolment. But we wouldn’t have the stories that go with them. We wouldn’t know that the board games were all the rage (a picture of two students in the middle of a heated scrabble game), what a shirtless, strangely posed man was doing (he was a show-off), and what is that strange thing in a corner ( a coffee grinder, that at the time was a must-have of every student- obviously:- ). A picture might be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a picture demands a thousand words. A thousand words the archives are usually unable to keep.
2.Human memory is no substitute for dating and marking. Paul’s memory is very good. He was able to remember dates, faces and names from over thirty years ago. He could remember the details of parties, places, people, and occasions. But even he would occasionally stumble. A great help was then the notes he made thirty years ago, when the pictures and memories were still fresh. It is so much better to get a picture with date, occasion/place and the people’s names written on the back. This way it would never lose its meaning, even if the human memory fails.
I’m not as good with morals as I would like to be or, as a writer, I should be. But archives need people to fill in where paper and pen cannot. And people need archives at the limits of their memories. So maybe it is time to pop into local archives, see what the archives can do for you and what you can do for the archives.
Poetry can cross boundaries of many disciplines. Sometimes the effect of this can be terrible (*cough* Fugitive Pieces *cough*), but sometimes it is nothing short of awesome. I had a pleasure to witness such a crossing when the archives had a group of poets visiting on the 6th of October. The group of poets, led by Paul Tobin, came over to share their poems. The presentation of the poems was titled ‘Reading the Archives’ and the poems were drawing the inspiration from the many materials that the archive has to offer. The presentation, or rather the performance because the readings by the poets themselves were of a high quality, was a delight. What I witnessed was the history being transformed from science to art, from dry fact to juicy narrative. I’ve heard stories created from one look, one gesture of a person long dead, but captured in a sepia-toned picture. I watched how a sentence taken out of a block of text could be turned a meaningful poem, sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful or sad. I saw a cheap piece of old journalism turning into a commentary on inequality. It was amazing.
I wish that more of the Creative Writing students turned up. They could learn a lot from Paul Tobin and his group as they are just so damn good.
I am so used to thinking about people who came to Marjon all over the world to study. But I rarely see anyone who came a long way to work. A few weeks back, we had the pleasure to have Jan Gutheil as a guest of the archives. His path to Marjon was long and convoluted.
He is a student of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. That’s one of the oldest universities in Germany. He is in the middle of his English Studies MA and was required to complete an internship in an English-speaking country. As you might guess, this is not so simple as it might sound. He reached out to the Totnes European School and they in turn helped to arrange an internship with us. Confused yet?:-)
So now he is stuck within our library. Somebody suggested that he visit us just out of curiosity’s sake. Well, he patiently listened as I babbled about our great history and showed him around our dusty shelves. I must say that we rarely have guests that know nothing about the archives before coming to us and that is a shame since we look more and more like a museum than a regular stuff depository. Maybe in the future we will entertain more guests.
Filed under guests, people