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Present Past

Posted by on December 4, 2013

Note: reposted from November as some text was lost then.

The campus has acquired even more buildings since I last visited. Accretions cover the original 1970s Brutalist concrete. In my mind, I can see through them to the campus landscape in which I worked for over 25 years.  I realise, with a sudden jolt, that I can perceive exactly how every building I knew has been altered and expanded, the ground spaces infilled, the landscape contours flattened. The people on the concourse around me know none of this: they experience only the present, I can see the past drawn into the present.

I am here to meet the Library’s customer relations manager, who is planning a celebration for the fortieth anniversary of the Library building opening. He has found only fragmentary evidence of the history and development of the Library. He would like to tap the memories of former staff.  We meet in a coffee outlet, just outside the boundary of the Library. It is noisy with the buzz of student conversations and the hiss of the coffee machine. I recognise the young man I’ve come to meet, from his photograph on the website. He obviously doesn’t recognise me, and is relieved when I rise to greet him. So, they’ve expunged all memory of me, I think, amused rather than rueful.

He pulls a netbook from its case and we begin. Yes, I have copies of the first floorplans, somewhere in the thirty boxes in the cupboards that store the remains of my previous existences. Yes, I have contacts among the former staff, those to whom I refer as “survivors”. He looks up sharply, asks “Does that mean that some people won’t want to have anything to do with this?” “Undoubtedly”, I reply.  It’s comfortable to reminisce like this about the past, surrounded by the hum of the present.  Chairs scrape on the wooden floor. Through the glass walls, figures hurry to and fro along the concourse. The young man’s fingers type in staccato bursts between questions. I pause to sip my coffee, allowing him time to catch up as he notes my replies. I think of my own handwritten notebooks, carried everywhere, journalling all the details that the documents don’t reveal. Now, they lay silently in those garage cupboards, waiting witnesses.

So many times I’ve tried to retrieve those boxes, trigger the memories and write a history. At first, the fear, of triggering still raw emotions that I couldn’t handle, had prevented me. Then, the fear of finding that the memories had disappeared became the obstacle, that I would have lost a history that was my own history. But now, here, it’s all coming back to me. Surprisingly, there is little emotion attached, other than slight nostalgia and relief. I have moved on. I don’t live in that past any more. I can view it dispassionately, an academic exercise, a historical narrative that is no longer my emotional personal narrative. I can pass on the experiences documented in my archives, close the doors on cupboards finally emptied of reminiscence.

We finish our conversation abruptly, as my next appointment summons me. The young man is so relieved, he says, to have found someone whose memories stretch back forty years and has kept an archive. He obtains my assurance that I will act as the discrete channel to the other “survivors”.

I set off homewards, starting to compile a list of names in my head. I feel a moment of giddiness as I realise the consequence of my engagement.  Hindsight cannot be objective.  Shall select the witnesses from surviving documents and reconstructed memories?   Shall I filter the evidence in the light of all that has happened since?   Shall I present this as an archive, the history of an organisation, of a community?  A little bit of public history will be reconstructed, manipulated, interpreted, narrated by me. Challenge, opportunity, duty, entitlement? Or what?”


One Response to Present Past

  1. Annie Hedington

    Your piece Annie does raise questions about the validity of past history and its story. Who’s memory is it anyway? The stuff of myth and legends!

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