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  • William Tyler

Change is the only Constant: A Personal Rumination

Change is the only constant, as the old adage has it; and, of course, that is unchallengeable in terms of the human lifespan. The only certainty being death.


But it is not true in the sense that each of us carries our past with us through life, an ever constant. And often not just our past but the past of family and friends as well, of institutions and organisations of which we have been a part. We are, each and every one of us, walking, talking, and breathing repositories of historical experience and knowledge.


We should all of us write a down or record this history for it provides both a unique insight into the past as well as a great family record for our grandchildren and great grandchildren. I know many reading this will have already set out on, even completed, this task. There is nothing worse than inheriting boxes of old photographs of long dead relatives and having no one left to ask, 'who is that?' Before they fade from memory make sure any family photos you can identify have that identification written on the reverse. Wedding photographs from the past are, I find, particularly frustrating when there are so many unidentifiable people in them.


In addition to writing up or recording memories, and identifying photographs, many of us have collected what is formally referred to as 'ephemera'. Mark these up too for future generations, or if you feel no one will appreciate them, then find some museum or archive that will. On leaving Essex a few years ago and having acquired in numerous ways - gifts, ebay, second hand shops etc, a wealth of local material I handed them over to The County Record Office. I was mildly, but pleasantly surprised, how welcomed they were, even photographs I had taken some 25 years previously of a goods train crash in my local station was swooped upon by the archivist.


Naturally, perhaps, there are some items I am loathe to part with. I have left instructions on where they must ultimately go. They include my father's 1920 school cap from Bristol Grammar School, together with his tasselled cap awarded with his Ist XV colours.


In the modern age of the internet you can even track down ephemera of family, friends, and institutions of which you had no previous knowledge. Amongst other items I have acquired a tie from my Oxford College which I have never seen elsewhere and have no idea what College Society or event it was produced for. I have found on ebay a photograph of the first school I attended in 1950/51 aged 5. It was a grand Victorian house beside the park in the Staple Hill district of Bristol. It was run by two Edwardian maiden ladies, The Miss Punters. They were lovely as I remember. One things that stands out is their 'gaiety girl' Edwardian make-up. I was to meet the same make-up in the Chairwoman of the College of Further Education in Stratford-upon-Avon when appointed to my second post. She was the redoubtable Alderman Mrs Waldron.


The modern world of ebay has allowed me to begin new collections. I have a collection of postcards of Worthing, where I live, and of Sussex working oxen, Sussex being one of the last English counties to use the ox rather than the horse. I must also admit to an eclectic selection of paper ephemera purchased online. My latest being a newspaper cutting from 1934 giving details of the seizure of goods in the case of non-payment of the land tithe.


We also need to record the things we did before the modern age we now live in. My grandfather remembered, as a child, going on holiday from Bristol to Weston super Mare by horse and carriage; whereas on the other side of the family they remember their pet Dalmatian dogs following the family carriage to church in the Gloucestershire village of Frenchay.


Language changes, almost imperceptibly, and I notice amongst other things that metaphors and similes have almost entirely disappeared. 'He drives like Jehu' my family used to say of a neighbour's fast driving style; I'm going down to the 'whoopee shop', my father said on going out to The Off-Licence. At school phrases like 'A general fag call' are now deeply buried in history, along with sewing circles and stitching squares which in my all boys prep school meant extra lessons on specific out of curriculum themes. Even 'six of the best' has lost its roots.


Behaviour too has changed. At the age of 12, being taken out by a great aunt for the first time to lunch and the cinema in the school holidays, I received a lecture from my mother on how to behave:

  1. Raise your cap on first meeting aunt

  2. Open every door for her so as she could enter first

  3. Walk on her outside on the pavement

  4. Pay for her bus ticket. No respectable lady could be expected to pay if accompanied by a man, even a boy of 12

  5. Lunch was a nightmare of rules in itself

a. Don't choose anything expensive

b. Don't put your elbows on the table

c. Don't wipe your mouth with the napkin

d. Don't slurp your soup, and make sure to tip the bowl away from you

e. And, finally, remember that auntie will give you the money with which to pay

Oh, said mother, and don't forget to go to the toilet before the film starts!


|We should note inherited behaviour from the war which is now largely lost


1. Turn off the lights. I think I must have been the last College Principal in England to go round turning the lights out myself

2. Don't draw the curtains and put the lights on until virtually you can't see the other side of the room

3. I can't leave any scrap of food on a plate and am appalled at how children and even adults today think nothing of leaving a plate half full at the end of a meal

4. Make do and mend was the mantra of my mother and grandmother in my youth. Darning socks, now a forgotten household task - using, of course, a darning mushroom. School jackets and blazers made to last longer with leather sewn onto fraying cuffs, elbows, and sometimes collars too.

5. Making one's own toys. A tank made out of an old cotton reel, pieces of candle, and rubber bands.


So, please don't let your history die. Record it and catalogue it now. After all, don't you watch television programmes set in the 1950s and often think, 'they've got that wrong'. Even reading historians writing of the immediate post war years I think, no it really wasn't like that. I was there and I remember.

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