Relics #3: The possessed.

He told himself he was too pampered, too spoilt by civilization, ever to inhabit nature again; and that made him sad in a not unpleasant bitter-sweet sort of way. After all, he was a Victorian. We could not expect him to see what we are only just beginning – and with so much more knowledge and lessons of existentialist philosophy at our disposal – to realize ourselves: that the desire to hold and the desire to enjoy are mutually destructive. His statement to himself should have been, “I possess this now, therefore I am happy; instead of what it so Victorianly was: “I cannot possess this forever, and therefore I am sad”.    The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter 10, John Fowles (1969)

Carpe diem (or YOLO if you’re Rihanna) – a timeless mode of thought?

Arguably modern attitudes to historical artefacts remain Victorian; fragility, rarity and legacy count for much. Or is it just human nature to infer a state of sanctity?

Does protection prevent real enjoyment by limiting handling, transportation, wider inspection? A missed opportunity for closer contact with something that has experienced the past and is witnessing the present.

This is well-trodden ground, and something that is rightly being challenged, if only for the purpose of pushing more ingenious ways of “engagement”.

But what interests me is when this sanctity is divined? When does something pass into the realms of relicdom?

I pondered this recently with the death of my aunt (bastard cancer).

The inevitable divvying up of possessions followed, although to a lesser degree, my aunt having completed much of this task herself. The horror of accepting (jewels, coffee sets), I cannot accurately describe.

My mother has largely been the recipient of clothes; quite literally stepping into her big sister’s shoes.

The rest? “Charity shop, I s’pose”, shrugged my uncle. Then, “They don’t suit me”. Finally, “They’re just things”.

On a surface level possessions, artefacts, are not a person, so what do they matter?

They matter to living memory and future interpretation. Providing a link between events, conversations, encounters, whilst providing the scope for future persons to guess at these.

1967 book graffiti

1967 book graffiti

I am an acute mixture of these. Having lost my dad at a young age I can’t always be certain what is fact (my genuine memories) or fiction (what I have been told since). I’m not saying that these are mutually exclusive, but the uncertainty is infuriating.

Yet my response to objects is something apart. There is no doubt.

This is his sketch, unearthed, albeit from 1967 – I see him drawing, pen in hand.

The worn patch on the right-side arm of a chair – there, he’s resting his head in his right hand whilst watching telly.

For this reason, I value objects. I cherish them. Things that have meaning to just a few. But I don’t claim exclusivity. The potential for future speculation, wildly inaccurate guesses, thrills me.


Only connect…

The Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Heritage for Society (Faro Convention 2005) identifies cultural heritage as a ‘resource’, but often it has a less utilitarian emphasis when met on an emotional level and touches upon the intangible aspects of heritage that feature more and more in academic and professional discourse.

“To them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir.” Chapter 11, Howards End, E.M.Forster

Taken from

A wily estate agent might well promote a ‘character property’. What does this mean? Simply that it is old? That it is unique?

There is a house for me that has a character, a personality, much like E.M. Forster’s Howards End. My Grandmother’s house.

It is a straightforward case on paper. Grade II* listed, multi-period, original features.

For me? It is a story teller (tales of where priests hid), a trickster (a symphony of nocturnal creaks and groans enough to send even a teenager scuttling to her grandmother’s bed), a secret keeper (mis-spelt faxes folded inside Catherine Cooksons) and more than anything a teacher.

Taken from

I learnt that:

a. 1960s flower power and golden velvet are perfectly matched;

b. Glen Miller and Shirley Bassey accompanied by wild knees, twirling arms and kicking ankles = “the girl who danced through the war”;

c. smoking is an individual art form (clipped bird-like, long sucks. hollow cheeks, sideways mid-speech).

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts, while from others the spirit slips before the body perishes”. Chapter 31, Howards End, E.M. Forster

My Grandmother died in 2006. I saw the house for sale online the other day. – No lumpy horse-hair chairs. No flower power. No orange crayon graffiti by a child twenty years long gone. – Faux fur rugs. Neutral walls. Candles in the hearth where once settled fag ash, twisted chocolate liqueur wrappers, and embers. I’m mourning.

Why memorialize? A Grave Report

A few weeks ago we discussed the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in class. Considering if, why and how such recent history is commemorated and represented proved an emotive subject and a source of much debate. The potent reactions of my classmates interested me. Were they due to: the short amount of time since the event? the severity of 9/11 as a stand-alone event?the global impact and subsequent fallout (we’re an international group and each have contemporary memories to attach to the subject)?

I also wondered about the nature of memorials to the dead. Often phraseology places possession with the deceased, ‘Nelson’s Column’ for example. Yet I feel that in reality memorial’s are for the benefit of the living; a cathartic outlet, a tangible reference point. To explore this further I wrote down my feelings towards my dad’s grave and asked Jack to do the same for his mother’s. Having entirely different experiences (I was an oblivious 5-year-old, Jack a fiery teenager) it was intriguing to see where our attitudes overlapped and diverged.

Sarah: I visit alone, about two or three times a year. I wash and clear the gravestone, and I arrange flowers. I enjoy it; it must be a new form of catharsis for me. Nearly two decades after his death I hardly ever become upset, but accept it as a part of my life. I do feel a slight guilt when I sit back, inspect my work, compare it to its neighbours, many of which are clearly lovingly maintained on a regular basis.

My dad’s grave is a physical memorial of his life that will stand the test of time, and I’m glad of its existence, but I do not become too attached to it because I know that I am a living physical memorial to him. The best way that I can honour him is to live my life fully and to be happy.

Jack: I have mixed feelings about the grave and its use. I don’t like the idea of everyone having their focus point that they go to when they want to think of her. I wish they’d do it when they’re going about their daily lives. I do like her grave, its location and message, but I don’t want to be too attached to an object. I don’t even take flowers, I just never have the urge. Weirdly, after all this talk about it not being a focal point, I only talk out-loud to her when I’m there.

St Mary's churchyard, WhitbyHaving claimed that gravestones stand the test of time I am now going to consider the condition and use of St. Mary’s churchyard in Whitby. High on a cliff above the North Sea, the stones suffer from severe weathering and much has been made of a landslip in 2012. The often intricate decoration of the stones is gradually eroding, their documentation of Whitby’s past individuals along with it. What real effect does this loss of information have? I spoke to a groundsman in the churchyard and we discussed its’ status today. Interments ceased in the mid-nineteenth century and the gravestones capture a particular era in the town’s history as a burgeoning port, forging connections across the globe. The groundsman detailed the international mix of modern visitors to the site in search of past relatives, from Australia to Japan. But crossing the globe is no longer a necessary requirement when carrying out such tasks when one can search an online catalogue instead. I can’t help but wonder, what would Captain Cook have thought of the internet, a pioneering venture in its own right.