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  • William Tyler

History and Memory

One of the strange things about teaching contemporary history is that the teacher, as well as the students, tend to have but a muddled memory of it. Timelines in particular get messed up in our minds. We may have lived through these events but we can't with any clarity recall them. This has absolutely nothing to do with memory loss, but more to do with the fact that at the time we didn't think them sufficiently important to us for us to store them in our long term memory.


Asking people five relevant facts about Elizabethan England, most reasonably well read people would have little difficulty in answering. Ask people, however, the date of the first referendum in Britain and the nature of the question asked and people will begin to shuffle uneasily in their seat. It was whether we were to stay in The Common Market or not (not whether to join or not!) and the date was 1975. The PM Wilson not Heath. Then ask, as a follow-up, which way Margaret Thatcher campaigned. It was to remain, and she wore a most ghastly jumper with all the flags of Europe on it.


Why should all this be so? Perhaps the answer is the same one as to the question I am frequently asked - why is it the old who come to history classes? During our childhood and teenage years we were too busy following what Freud called 'the pleasure principle' to care about what was going on, but not directly affecting us. When we were adults we had too much on our plate, balancing work, home, and family. Of course there was always a minority who proved the exception to the rule, but they always have remained a definite minority.


Perhaps the truth is that older people have one enormous advantage, although it seems almost de rigeur to deny it - Time. Time to reflect on their own lives, and on the life of the nation. A simple consequence of the ageing process.


Reflection is a wonderful thing and we should use this experience in the service of others. I strongly believe each of us has a story worth telling, if only to our grandchildren. I also believe it will be of huge interest to later generations of our family if we leave 'memory boxes'. Or, as my wife says, why do you keep all that awful c...p. I do it in the hope, I trust not in vain, that one of my descendants will trawl through it and send up a prayer of thanks to me! One such piece of paper is the bill for my parents' honeymoon, in the middle of the war, at The Luttrell Arms in Dunster, Somerset; Total for the week coming to the princely sum of £10 -11- 8d. The set daily dinner cost £1-16-0d. It is still a nice hotel, but I can't guarantee the prices are the same.


All this has been brought home to me following the appeal from West Sussex Record Office for people to keep a Coronvirus Journal. I have done just that. I am on to my second volume, actually half way through it. Indeed on looking back to the early entries I see I wrote things down that I have already forgotten - and certainly forgotten the timeline. So enthused have I become with the project that I have now embarked on a second Journal dealing this time with Brexit.


One worry that I share with historians is that with the death of paper - letters, invoices, holiday postcards, even newspapers and magazines - future generations will be short of material. Yes, they will have more access to photographic, video, and audio resources but these are far more subject to the ravages of time, let alone developments in technology. All those videos of family weddings, for example, now largely unplayable.


For me, ebay has been a revelation during this virus period. Before this all started, my collection of paper based ephemera was reliant on attendance at antique fairs. Now, I have, quite literally, the world at the end of my typing fingertips. Of course, be careful you still have to pay for the items even if you can do so with one click of a button rather than fumbling around in purse and wallet for 'real' money.


Here are some examples of paper ephemera I have acquired:-

- An advert from Robertson's Jams for people to pick wild blackberries for them

- A holiday postcard of Pontins, Hayling Island Camp

- A letter of 1780 requesting £80 payment for grazing land.

- A copy of The Times of 8 November 1805, with an account of the Battle of Trafalgar

- A German paper voucher for bread from The First World War


Word of Caution. We may be older some of us. We may be fascinated by history. Yet we must also live in the present and plan for the future. Even this blog has to be put on hold for a daily swim in the sea. Yes, dear, I'm just coming!


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