Pretty illustration in a pretty book. Too bad it’s Fielding
We have many books that found their way into the archives from the library and they are going to stay by a virtue of being authored by one of our students or staff. Others are here because they mention Marjon is some way. But there are other books that wander by, the ones that won’t stay. They are usually withdrawals from the library, so called ‘weeds’. They might be outdated, they might be damaged or they simply haven’t been checked out for a long time. Those don’t have place in the archives. But do they have a place somewhere else?
I was digging through such a pile recently and found a beautifully bound book. The pattern on the binding had caught my eye so I opened it. To my dismay the pretty book was The History of Tom Jones by Fielding. I hate Fielding. Yes, he was very influential. Yes, he was one of the fathers of modern novel. Yes, he was a smart guy that revolutionized the police force (Bow Street Runners anyone?). But I absolutely can’t stand the way he writes. That makes this pretty book an equivalent of a paperweight to me. I can’t read it.
But then, it’s still a beautiful artefact. It’s well preserved and it looks like there was a mistake in print of the introduction. The printed annotation mentions it, but it’s seems like somebody made corrections by hand (what would be the total copies printed if they did that?). So what would you do with a beautiful paperweight like that? Chuck away? The bibliophile in me howls for blood at this thought. Keep it and never read? The pragmatic in me scoffs at that? Donate? If I only knew somebody that enjoys Fielding… What would you do?
There are many stories in the archives. Stories of great deeds, even if they were never recognized in the wide world. Stories of great minds, the thinkers and the doers. Stories of ideas, great and small. But the stories I enjoy the most are stories of student’s hijinks. Today’s story is from the memories of N. S. Curtis, who was a Marjon student in the years 1931-34. He later became a teacher and a principal of Landsdownre Boys’ School, Linwood Boys’ School and Soar Valley Community College. We have many of his things, including a blazer, a tie, some exercise books and photos. But the most interesting for me are anecdotes from his time in Marjon. One of them seems to me like an absurdist sketch.
The food in Marjon at that time was far from perfect. In fact it was really basic and plain. One day, after dinner, the boys were served rice pudding. Instead of it being completely plain, there were raisins in it. That was something unheard of. But the joy was short-lived as somebody found a cockroach in the pudding. The offending insect was put on a plate and passed to the teachers’ table, to the attention of the principal. The principal himself rose from his seat, ordered Non Nobis to be sung and the meal ended. Many boys were absolutely convinced that the cook knew of the roaches infesting the pudding and added the raisins as a camouflage. As for me, I can’t get rid of the image in my head of the whole school singing a hymn over a body of a dead insect resting on a plate:-)
We interrupt our planned schedule to point to you the arrival of the St. Mark’s day. In the ages past, this was a widely celebrated event in our University. The festivities would start at 10am and go on untill late. It was a tradition that was not interrupted even by the WWI, when the building itself was requisitioned for a military hospital. Sadly, what war couldn’t destroy the sharp tooth of time had consumed. Today you wouldn’t even know that there is something o celebrate.I know that technically it’s a celebration Christian in origin. But would anyone be offended if we wanted to celebrate our school? I know I wouldn’t. So hey, powers-that-be, make it happen. Bring back the celebrations of St. Mark’s Day.
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.
Tolstoy is the writer that I have a complicated relationship with. On the one hand I can’t deny his importance and influence; his books survived the test of time and are still being read after all that time. On the other hand, he was the only man that put me to sleep with his book (okay, that sounded better in my head:-).
In 1861, Tolstoy came to visit Marjon. This visit went almost completely forgotten and undocumented. At that time he was still completely unknown, so we could assumed that for the teachers and students of Marjon he was just another random visitor, a foreigner at that, wishing to see the college and the Practising School attached. Ten years later and we would have a couple accounts and maybe even a photo from the day the famous Russian writer came around. But that was before he gained his fame. At the time, Tolstoy was on a mission to reform education in Russia and, like Shuttleworth, he went around the Europe visiting schools to see how things can be (or should not be) done.
There is one thing I still don’t understand. Apparently, at each school he visited he would request pupils to write short essay for him. You can read the essays the students of the Practising School wrote for him in the book ‘Tolstoy in London’ by Victor Lucas. The essays are full of the simplicity of a young boys’ life- who hit who and who won at marbles. But for some reason Tolstoy needed those as he would collect and take them away with him. Why would he need those? What would he use the essays for? Wouldn’t be more useful to him to make notes and grill the teachers about their methods? This is the Tolstoy secret. If you dear reader, see a method to this madness, please tell me. I really would like to know.
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.