from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Unwinding your Life

September 20, 2021.

The old way of memories

Eighteen months ago, I had a grand plan that during the lockdown for Covid-19, I would sort out our cupboards of photographs, paperwork, unwanted artwork, clothes, books and bric-a-brac that we have accumulated over the years. This was the appropriate activity for a time when we would be confined to quarters – with no fixed end in sight. No more excuses. There loomed in my mind an image of a simpler life, à la elegant Marie Kondo  – she of the calm smile and few possessions.

Long ago, I read one of Marie’s slim books, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. I loved the idea of working out what gives me ‘joy’ – who does not warm to this simple method? I progressed as far as folding jumpers (sweathers) her way and rolling scarves in the drawer so they could be viewed at a glance. However, when Marie Kondo mentioned that she kept only 30 or so ‘volumes’ (books) at one time and that she emptied out her bag every time she came home, I began to see that the way forward for me working with Marie was fraught with challenges.

The real challenge lay in photographs: I have boxes of papers and photos from my father, who lived to the age of 97. He and his family were keen photographers, and I have more than 20 black albums of his; boxes of colour slides and storage tubs of old super-8 cine reels. My father recorded his family’s life in Nyasaland from the late 1920s onwards, and kept going… I am one of the few remaining family members who know most of the names of the people in these photographs. (Although the stories behind many of the photographs are lost to me).

I have photographs from the First World War of my grandfather when he fought with South African forces against General von Lettow-Vorbeck (the ‘Lion of Africa’) in Germany East Africa. (Now Tanzania). I have photographs of my father travelling north through Africa to fight the Italians advancing through Somalia. My father was with his African askaris battalion (the KAR) recruited in Nyasaland.

Kings African Rifles Battalion from Nyasaland going north to fight in Somalia (against the Italians)

Let me come next to our more recent photographic enterprises, pre-digital. We have perhaps 30 to 40 albums filled with colour photographs: the early ones are fading. Few are digitised. If I go through these books, I will have to travel back in my life, review each page, consider each image, and cherry-pick a few samples. I could capture them with my smartphone, download them onto my computer, name and date them and sort them into various categories, transfer them onto memory sticks and deliver them to the four children. Should I throw away the albums? Do they still give me ‘joy’ or do I feel sad?

This is not an insignificant task, and at my age, you wonder if this is the best use of my time. That might be a selfish attitude. This would be a painful process – images of all that is passed: the friends and family that have died; your parents and happy times with them: all this must be re-visited; all this must be processed.

Is it not easier to ignore these piles of photos? Frankly, what is lost if I did that. The children are making their own memories. The grandchildren will do the same – and when they are grown and middle-aged, they will have their own problems. Why weigh them down with a load of photos? They would like a summary, of course. They would like a sprinkling of the images. If, when we are no longer here, they were faced with these boxes of albums, slides and negatives, it is highly likely that the family (like me) will store them for later decision making. If ever. Why do we burden our children with such a process? It’s not fair to them. These decisions are ours to make, difficult as they might be.

However, I am aware our generation sits in a unique position in regard to the record of our lives and our parents’ lives. Who else will be the record keeper of the previous generations?

Let’s look at how the young deal with photos and memories. Most youngsters use their phones for photographs which then might be posted on Facebook, Instagram and other messaging services. They sent emails and brief messages. Over the ensuing months, years and the acquisition of the latest smartphones, those photographs and personal emails are seldom edited and stored. Even if they are saved to the cloud, that is not failsafe. Are any printed out, stored or correctly filed? Unlikely. The transient nature of social media will be the death of memories and the history of families.

Thinking of memories, I am reminded of children that have lost their parents. During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, the University of Natal started a project whose aim was to preserve the memories, the family memories, of a dying generation. The concept was to create a small box (often shoebox size) within which any memorabilia relating to the dying parents could be put. Strange, we do not have the words to adequately describe this process. I remember being told how these boxes might contain a few pathetic items, a couple of photos, maybe a bracelet or a ring, a school book, a toy, a letter – a few things to which the child could attach a loving memory – a tenuous connection to the parent, lost too soon.

‘Memory books or boxes help children build an identity and strengthen emotional capacity, to understand the past and be less afraid of the future.’

Thankfully we are not in that situation. We have too much, not too little.

Anyway, today, I did not restart the challenge of photographs. That had been a mistake of process: Marie Kondo says, start with the more manageable categories.  So, I started emptying the drawers in an old filing cabinet I seldom open. However, I found that throwing away the letters, postcards, birthday and wedding cards was slow and emotionally challenging. I had to read each one: they transported me back to old friends and old times; to the person I once was; to the places where I once lived; to the journeys I took; to people I no longer connect with, to friends and family who have died. There were pages in diaries of my journeys: travel diaries written in a younger hand.

Before long, I stopped for tea, feeling older and sadder.

A positive and creative way to chronicle your life is to embark on a year of story writing through a program called Storyworth. The online program works as a relationship between the giver and the (target) writer. For $99 (US), you (the writer) will receive a weekly question. The questions can be designed by the giver or the writer (the author). Each week, the typed answer is submitted (can be with pictures) to Storyworth and saved. (These can be edited later). Gradually, a book of 52 chapters is built up, and at the end, your book is printed by Storyworth (more than one book can be ordered). Hey Presto! You have a story of your life – perhaps including the stories of your parents and grandparents: a gift for the next generation.

I have done this and ordered four books: it was much more entertaining than throwing out photos – and some of them found their way into my stories.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: A Portal into another World.

February 1, 2021.

Our Christmas present from Seattle USA, from my daughter and family there, arrived late. Australia is having problems with shipments from across the world: books from Amazon, Aldi’s Chinese specials, cars, furniture and all those nick-knacks in the 2-dollars shops. Amongst the presents was a PORTAL, the latest device from Facebook, a counter to Amazon’s Alexa’s Echo.

My Kitchen Portal reviewing our bird watching by the seashore

I like the word, ‘portal’. It has currency in the computer world but as a child, I devoured The Lion, the Witch & Wardrobe, the Narnia books, by C.S. Lewis. What a marvellous story. The part where Lucy, playing hide-and-seek, is hiding in the cupboard amongst the winter coats and suddenly feels a cold draft behind her captivated me, as it did so many of my generation. (Do kids still read? Sorry!! – do kids read the Narnia series?). Now THAT was a portal, a magic portal into a world of good and evil, of temptation, suffering and fortitude. I suppose not much different to the world we find ourselves in – without a portal to escape away from.

This Christmas-gift-Portal, a communication device, with its wide 10-inch screen, now sits on our kitchen counter between the set of knives and a more distant toaster – sadly, it won’t teleport me to Seattle or to Capetown.

It is about the size of an horizontal iPad with built-in Alexa and video calling using Messenger and Whatsapp. I know Facebook is unpopular in many circles but this device is amazing. Maybe I cannot see the ‘cons’ yet. The 13-megapixel wide-angle camera (114 degrees) follows you in the room so your caller has a sense of place and activity. It makes a Zoom call look boring. With the Portal you can add people to your call using Whatsapp. I am not sure how many people can be in a family or conference call. With our family spread across the world this is a delight! Other Apps can be added – we direct Spotify through the stereo speakers and back woofer.

When I am alone in the kitchen the Portal streams my photos from Whatsapp and Facebook in a random manner. And it becomes a portal into my past life. I am seeing images from our travels 8 years ago.

In a way seeing these happy images is disturbing because I realise that as time passes in our world, locked down with Covid-19, there will less ability for us to do what we used to do relatively easily. Will we be able to take up our cancelled holidays with alacrity? If this world-wide travel shutdown continues this year, as it appears it might, that will be 2 years taken off our lives when we might have seen our families and taken journeys to distant places.

Our planned April 2020 trip to Indonesia to sail on Seatrek Bali’s beautiful phinisi, the Ombak Putih, to remote islands will not take place in April 2021 although our booking was transferred. April 2022? Will we be fit enough to go? Will the company be still in business? Our challenge this week is, once more, to open up the files on insurance policies and see if we can take the claim further now that travelling this April 2021 is out of the question.

Seatrek Balli has 2 phinisi that sail through the Indonesian islands

We have flight credits for Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines, Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand. All have use-by dates. At the moment, we can plan a local intra-Australian trip – book flights and accommodation – but might find that it is cancelled due to the on-again, off-again border closures. One person wrote in the weekend papers that he had had 3 trips to Queensland aborted due to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk closing borders.

Another example – yesterday, the Western Australia Premier – on a few hours’ notice has shut down the whole of Perth and SW Regions for 5 days because a single case of the more virulent virus has escaped from a quarantine hotel into the community. What about people there on holiday or planning a holiday in the short term? It must be beyond frustrating for the travel industry.

The virus is rampant is many parts of the world and the incidents of new variants bubbling up in such places makes me think that we are not going to be on top of Covid-19 for some time. We all looked to vaccines to be our way back to ‘normal’ life and luckily many vaccines are proving effective. BUT – how to vaccinate the world? The challenges and obstacles are considerable – the cost seems to be only one of the issues – hoarding by richer countries – corruption in many countries – lower effectiveness of some of the vaccines which have not been tested by the west (Sputnik) – slower production. And of course, there are the rabid anti-vaxxers – mostly in the USA courtesy of Past-President Trump. While all this is going on, won’t the virus be mutating? Of course, it will be. Normally, viruses become less deadly. Will Covid-19 follow this ‘rule’? The good news is that this virus apparently mutates slowly.

I am thinking that our new Portal will remain our window into our past, revealing the open, free lives we led only a year ago.

I must not complain. It can become a habit! Yesterday, I took our three-quarter blind Cairn-terrier, Roy dog to the local park for a late-afternoon very slow walk; he sniffed his way from tree to tree. Cricket (in traditional whites) was in progress on the Kensington Gardens Oval and families were packing up their picnics while children screamed around the playground. And while I was admiring the huge lemon-scented gums along the creek, I managed to record a family of laughing kookaburras singing their iconic ‘song’ of chortles and gurgles. Here they are. (PS. Did you notice the blue skies?).

The laughing Kookaburras

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: General Montgomery and my Mother

General Montgomery
My Mother

July 6.  In his Memex 1.1 blog yesterday, my friend and colleague, John Naughton, reproduced the letter sent by General Montgomery to the troops about to launch the D-Day landing in 1944, which has turned up in the papers of his wife’s father.  ‘The time has come to strike the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’ it begins.

I too have seen a copy of the message, sent not to my (as yet unmarried)  father, who was on a ship off the coast of West Africa, but my mother, who spent the war in an anti-aircraft unit, plotting incoming planes and V-bombs* – you may have seen the films in which uniformed young women push models across a map on a table before the order is given to the anti-aircraft gunners.  She was moved down to the south coast as part of the preparations for D-day and was sent the letter.

Her technical role in the war always puzzled me.  During her life as my mother she never once showed the slightest interest in, or affinity for, machines or science.  Her OU degree taken in her retirement was in literature and the social sciences.  I once asked her how she had been recruited for such a role.  She told me that when she was called up, she was given an aptitude test, which was to construct something out of Meccano.   She had spent her childhood playing with her younger brother’s set, made a model in no time, and was sent off to track aircraft. 

In the same way my father, a civil servant in later life with no responsibility for radio technology at work and no competence in it at home, was a chief petty officer in the navy specialising in the arcane skill of listening to Japanese Morse code.   Global conflict took people to places they never visited again, and caused them to learn capacities which died upon the instant peace was declared.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this wartime experience.

Either we humanities people have deep inside us a technical capacity which it requires a well-organised world war to bring out.   I have my doubts, but who knows.

Or major technical ventures, think of Bletchley Park, think of NASA, succeed by bringing together all sorts of skills, some scientific at a high level, but many others which have nothing to do directly with the science but nonetheless are crucial to the outcome  of the project.  My new book, The History of Solitude, is dedicated to an aunt by marriage, who died not long ago, and who was at Bletchley Park in the war.  Later in life she was, again, a literary woman, who eventually published books of fiction, poetry and memoir.  She was sent to Bletchley because she was (a) very bright, (b) had security clearance, and (c) had fluent German.  Not a codebreaker, but, along with many others in the huts, critical to the outcome.

So, perhaps, with the skills discovered or mobilised to counter Covid-19.  Except, as world wars go, this has not been well organised.   That is to say not by the British.  The Germans have beaten us hands down.

*A propos my last post on cherries, I discover that V-Bombs were colloquially known in German as ‘kirschkern’ – cherry stones.  I don’t know why.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Prince Phillip again.

Prince Phillip

June 15.  This is the same story told by David Maughan Brown on June 10, from the same perspective.

I too was a Deputy Vice Chancellor when the Royals came to my university.  I too ended up spending time with the Duke of Edinburgh (we both occupied, after all, the same rung in our organisations).

There was some flummery.  Ladies in Waiting really exist, and are indeed well-dressed women who stand around waiting to be useful.  One of them told me that the Queen was excited about the bus we had hired to transport her from one side of the campus to the other, because she had never in her life travelled on one.  Perhaps Ladies in Waiting have a hidden sense of humour.  I was gravely instructed in how to ask the Queen if she wanted to use the loo.  Unfortunately, I have now forgotten the exact form of words, but as she and I are now in perpetual lockdown, the occasion is unlikely to arise in the future.

After an opening ceremony, we divided our forces.  The Vice Chancellor, Janet Finch, took the Queen to see some new buildings, and I escorted Prince Philip to inspect a display of work by staff. He treated them as equals, interrogating the meaning of graphs, demanding to know the evidence for their conclusions.  Aggressive, but in the way that academics are to each other.

Then I walked him down to our main hall.  ‘Has the campus ever been planned?’ he asked me.  I told him that not initially, but a master-plan was developed in 1962.  ‘Are its results showing yet?’ he asked (this was now four decades later).  Fair question if you know the Keele campus.

We entered the hall, in which were gathered a hundred local dignitaries, standing around in groups of ten.  We had arrived before the Queen, but Philip suggested we tour the room without her.  I had a crib sheet and introduced him to each individual in turn.  ‘This is Mr. Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings, this is Mr. Greatbach of the Greatbach Pottery …’. When we got to the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would show her round, leaving the crib sheet with me.  He introduced the Queen to Mr. Blenkinsop and every subsequent person, without missing a name.  I was astonished at this feat of memory in a man who was by then well into his seventies.  ‘How did you do that?’ I asked him.  ‘Ties’ he said.  ‘I remember each tie and the name and activity attached to it.’

I think now, as I thought then, that this was a display of professional competence of a high order.  A little like that shown by nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers as they go about their business in the coronavirus crisis.  Quite unlike that displayed by our political leaders, the product of a democratic system which we thought was a better form of government than royalty.

And I say that as a life-long republican.

Dickens and Sundays, note 1.

The Guardian, as it happened, ran a piece by Peter Fiennes the day after mine, on Dickens and Little Dorrit and the lockdown.  It broadened out into a discussion of his way of life at the time, with the beginning of his public readings, a walking tour of the Lake District, his constant pacing of the London streets.  ‘Dickens of 1857’, it concludes, ‘would have had trouble enduring the lockdown.’

Dickens and Sundays, note 2

It was reported in the Times on Saturday Boris Johnson ‘is facing a cabinet backlash over plans to suspend Sunday trading laws after three ministers, including the chief whip, warned against it.’  Another of those three was the nanny-raised Jacob Rees-Mogg, in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons.