Friday, 26 August 2011

Grasping the Past

When I was a child, we would often leave London for the weekend, and the road we took in those days ran past Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed. Whenever I saw the sign for Runnymede, I always thought about how, when I was old enough to do things on my own, I would come back and walk very slowly, putting my feet down in front of each other, heel to toe, all over the entire tract of land, so that I would be able to be absolutely sure that I had definitely trodden on the same spot that Bad King John, as we were taught to call him, (I suspect such 'judgemental' terminology has vanished from primary schools since then; in fact, the whole package - King John, the Magna Carta and Runnymede itself - may well have been excised from the curriculum by now, replaced by more topical subjects) had once stood.

I was reminded of this by an interview on the radio this morning with Barry Jones, a former Australian federal government minister, who, it turns out, is also a collector of the signatures of famous people. I imagine he is driven to amass these things by the same desire that made me hatch my - as yet unfulfilled - plan to plod up and down that rather dull stretch of grass next to the A308. For me at least, it was the hopeless but not quite stiflable desire to somehow touch the past that was at work.

The same impulse probably motivated the people whose odd collection I saw in a dimly lit room at Schloss Neuwaldegg in Vienna years ago. I can't remember the name of the exhibition but it was composed purely of objects that had been discarded by famous people. The items themselves were not just trivial; they were pieces of rubbish. The only thing that gave them any importance was who they had belonged to, who had touched them. The two I remember most clearly were some clippings of Beethoven's hair, which someone had swept up from a barber's floor, and a toothpick that Chopin had once used (there was no explanation about who had kept it or where they had retrieved it from.) I like to think there was also someone famous's carefully preserved snotty handkerchief, but this is where my fondness for exaggeration has, I'm fairly certain, kicked in.

Barry Jones explained this morning, when talking about his collection, that he does not collect mere signatures, but signed documents. According to him, 'in the nineteenth century people sometimes would get a handwritten letter from somebody like Tennyson and they'd thoughtfully clip off the signature and chuck away the letter, although it's the content that's important.' He's right, of course, but he's ignoring the almost magical quality that some of us can't quite resist bestowing on mere objects and places. I know perfectly well that I cannot pass back through time, but somehow, in the back of my mind, there is some strange, almost medieval belief, that, by standing on Flodden Field or touching the Alfred Jewel - this last is an ambition not a reality for me, sadly (I've always loved that thing) - I am in direct touch, however briefly, with the past.


  1. One recalls, from Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,

    To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the
    plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

  2. In the entrance to Rochester's Guildhall Museum, there is a 200,000 years-old axe that visitors are allowed to touch - a dramatic introduction to an excellent collection. But it's the locks of hair that get me more than anything.

  3. connections with the past can be staggering. I am always especially moved by hearing a recording I own of real monks in a centuries-old monastary singing centuriesold chant. Can you get ckloser to time-travel than that? -- identical sounds to those that could be heard in the middle ages?

  4. Wow, that was poorly typed. I'm tired.

  5. Chris - the idea of sounds leaking from one time to another is so beguiling
    George - wonderful
    Steerforth - but would you feel the same about nail clippings? (Did you know, by the way, that on the first Saturday of each month you can handle the original manuscript of Great Expectations at Wisbech Museum?)