Rediscovering the past: Recording the Present.
I’ve always had a fascination with the past. Whether it’s railways, history, folk music or classic English literature, I’m always looking backwards. Ever since I was child I’ve heard stories about my family. I have a burning need to find out more about them and write down what I find out. This is partly because, in a sense, I owe it to them. I’ve had a comfortable and reasonably easy passage through life, and much of that’s because of the hard work and sacrifice of the generations that came before me.
Mostly, I think my ancestors were ordinary working people, without much money or formal learning. They have left barely a trace behind to show for all their effort in sustaining their lives and bringing up their families. It feels as though it is my duty to bring them back to life in words and pictures, however briefly their flickering presences hang around. With each successive generation they recede into the background, and there’s less chance of them being recalled to life.
And that would be unfair. If my ancestors were unmarked in life, I feel strongly that they deserve a tribute now. As well as what I owe them, I have a burning curiosity to satisfy: I need to know where I come from.
So I am determined to search for my ancestors and, however slim the evidence, mark their lives.
Past and Present
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a dusty old fart, with no awareness of the present. I like to get out and about in the world and I am just as curious about ‘now’ as I am about ‘then’. I like to visit places that interest me, especially in the countryside and I like to photograph what I see and write about it. I suppose a great drive for this is the desire to leave something of myself behind and continue the story of my ancestors. I don’t see a great difference between delving into the past and recording the present: it’s all part of one great never-ending march through time.
Put baldly I want to know the story of my family and the times they lived in, and carry on the story by recording what I see around me every day.
Spanning The Years
I’ve always had a diverse set of interests, and the Spanning The Years project is my way of pulling them all together. It is, at the age of sixty, a life’s work. Probably several lives to be exact. But I need to make a start and satisfy my curiosity. So this is my project and this blog is where a lot of the story will be recorded. But there are six strands to it, each one critical in their own right, but some more interesting than others.
Archiving and cataloguing.
We have a family archive of about two thousand pictures, certificates, letters and other documents. The oldest, most precious and physically frail of these – about 750 items, all need to be photographed, listed and stored safely. As well as these I have at thousands of my own photographs, which I want to put into some kind of order and catalogue.
Recording the present.
I’ll continue to add photographs to my own collection and keep a diary. The photographs I’ll publish, the diary is my memory jogger and will never see the light of day in the form that it is now. It is still important though because it helps keep me on track and focussed.
This is the painstaking and often frustrating process of finding out some of the basic facts about my ancestors: who they were, where they lived, when they were born, married and died, basic facts about their working lives. Apart form the few insights I’ve had from our family archive, this information will be almost completely gathered from official documents. Previous generations did not leave a large or visible official trail behind them, so I’m expecting to hit some snags along the way. The genealogy is only a basis on which to start, and I’ll focus on mine and my sister’s immediate ancestors initially and then branch out further. I’ve a few conundrums to look at one the way, which will make interesting stories in themselves.
This is where I go beyond the bare facts I can discover about my ancestors, and try and imagine what their lives were like. This will involve looking at other, more general sources to try and recreate what their lives were like. I can only take the facts, add some inspired guesses and fill in the holes with my imagination. It’s not pure history, but it’s where the fun and the magic is.
I think I can only truly understand what my ancestors lives were like if I try and understand the wider world they lived in. This is the fun kind of research and reading that will widen out this project. I’ll be including things like, landscape history, demographic history, economic history, social history, political history, cultural history and religious history. All on top of the personal histories of my family.
All this hard work and research is nothing unless I write about it and publish it. I’ll start with this blog and, hopefully, get a book or two to of it too. I’ve had a go at writing pure fiction, and it doesn’t work for me, so I’ll stick to creative non-fiction. I don’t want to end up with a load of dry-as-dust papers, I want to interest people and make it fun. There will be articles about my family, photo essays about what I see around me, ‘how to’ articles on the process I’m following, and reviews of interesting and relevant things that I read, see and hear.
So not much to do really. I’m trying not to be too impetuous with this and just jump in without a plan. I’ve tried that before, and I’ve just got into a muddle. This means that I’ve got to resist the temptation to skip the routine and go direct to the fun stuff. But it feels great to be doing it and the right thing too. And it’s not often that those two feelings go together.