Clearing the space and treasuring what remains
“I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.” ― Freddie Mercury
Bags of crumbling paperwork are heaped high, testament to another New Year’s effort at decluttering. Today it’s my ‘boxroom blitz’ of decades-old professional paperwork. I’ve vowed to scan and e-file it all instead. But the photo albums remain untouched.
A BBC Radio ‘Four Thought’ piece on the car radio sparked some reflection before plunging on.
Tidying Up: Sarah Gristwood is worried that the vogue for tidying will make history harder to uncover… Sarah is an historian herself, and in writing her books has relied heavily on documents which might easily have been discarded. But that's not all: she wonders, too, how her successors will access our digital clutter in 500 years' time.
I’ve run oral history projects and aspired to archive my own family’s photos, scrapbooks and other memorabilia. I struggle to curate material that’s too poignant to part with, and which supplements my faulty memory of long-ago faces and places. This embarrassingly large, sentimental collection battles for that space with the more prosaic everyday bumph. Visitors are either baffled I’d keep this stuff, or wistful - they’ve not printed out a photo for years (“It’s all on my phone!”). But they relish poring over shared memories in these dusty albums, especially when celebrating an anniversary of some kind.
The unexpected death of my former husband had many repercussions for me, from conducting a memorial event for him (spurred by a disappointing funeral) to training as a celebrant. In the weeks of delayed grief for him and for our long-ago failed marriage, I instinctively gathered up the pre-digital memories, got help with scanning and uploading them, then shared with his faraway family and friends. The wedding video, the little poem we’d made up and taped to entertain my mother, the happy images of our early days. Recordings from the beach memorial, too, thanks to a skilled teenager. Sharing these meant something to both the participants and those who’d not been able to travel there.
Some funerals are now live streamed to allow others to participate. We may debate whether a wedding, funeral or baby naming should be filmed and even shared on social media. Views and customs are evolving. Photo albums are a twentieth century relic. Tapes and CDs we thought were a permanent solution become obsolete and require transfer to new formats. Everything crumbles, deteriorates and dies eventually, along with us. Perhaps my descendants will have no interest in the story of this family. But maybe someone in each generation becomes the archivist and collector of memories.
By all means let’s declutter, clear the space we need to move and breathe better. But let’s pause every so often to consider how history (or our children) might lose out, if all the clues to our lives were to become irretrievable. And let’s keep recording our stories somehow. Some treasures really are worth preserving.