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Dancing With The Missing

Stories from the archives

Dancing with the missing

This is about written archives. Not digital — I’ve worked that way but to me physical documents are still the real thing. Why are they so alluring?

They’re tactile, of course, sometimes to the point of sensuality. One summer day in the Second World War, the novelist Henry Green, a Fire Service volunteer, sat beside the Serpentine with a girlfriend. She was reading a new story of his — so bad, she said, that she was going to eat it. Her lipstick is still on the manuscript, as I saw when I lifted it out of its envelope among the papers of Green’s editor, John Lehmann.

And they’re often disordered, leaving you to reconstruct historical sequence. After teaching an Arvon course, Angela Carter joked to the organisers that the main snag was people who brought 500-page novels. But there were exceptions. ‘I personally think that having students who are not unbalanced cancels out the extra work involved in reading all those manuscripts.’ That was in 1979, as I discovered in the Arvon archive at the University of Exeter. Perhaps she was thinking back to the previous year, when, during another Arvon week, someone called Pat Barker gave her a stack of paper she had been submitting to publishers for years. ‘If they can’t sympathise with the women you’re creating,’ Carter told her, ‘then sod their fucking luck’, and suggested she send it to Virago. They brought out Union Street in 1982. A movie called Stanley & Iris, loosely but lucratively based on the book, was directed by Martin Ritt and starred Jane Fonda and Robert de Niro. Talk about life-changing.

Anyone who thinks working in archives is boring hasn’t done it.

A lot of the fascination is intimacy. To hold in your hand the signed contract for Treasure Island (it’s in the British Library), or a letter from the scandalous seventeenth-century Earl of Rochester to his wife, regretting that ‘the methods’ of his life ‘seem so utterly to contradict’ his protestations that he loves her (also in the British Library). True, many such documents are easily available in digital form these days, which also helps preserve them. True again, in some cases an old manuscript, like an old painting, reveals more of itself digitally than physically. Still, to hold it in your hand — how much more touch can mean than sight.

Sheer greedy curiosity may come closest to an explanation, the way that one document can set you off on a chase, not necessarily for treasure – a newsworthy discovery, lost jigsaw pieces that turn a jumble into a picture – but simply for knowledge. The busy pacifist poet, dramatist and political activist Adrian Mitchell pulls out of an engagement in 1977 because a play of his may open soon afterwards, ‘and I’ll have to be available for rewrites suggestions despair etc.’ The last two words may be light in tone but they tell you something, if only about theatrical tantrums. There’s more in this short letter, also among Arvon’s papers. He’s particularly sorry, he says, because he would have been sharing the gig with his friend Albert Hunt. Who? Almost forgotten today, Hunt was important in the agitprop theatre of the time. His father was a Bradford cotton-mill weaver; both parents were intensely religious; Albert won a scholarship to Oxford, taught for the WEA, joined the staff of Bradford College of Art and transformed it into a platform for radical improvised performance. Along the way, he worked with Charles Marowitz and Peter Brook, particularly on the latter’s 1966 RSC anti-Vietnam War project, US. You can see why he and Mitchell got on.

Well, I’ve got to know them both a little, now. Is it that I’m short of friends, don’t go out enough? I began to think so when I spent a few days in the pre-digital Births, Marriages and Deaths section of the old Public Record Office in the Aldwych. Each quarter’s records were in huge hardbound folders with metal corner-caps. The protection was needed because researchers tracking down a date or a name banged the heavy folder down on a sloping communal desk, looked quickly and then – unless they’d got lucky – slammed it back into its metal shelf before moving sideways to the next quarter. The place sounded like a factory, loud, rhythmic, purposive, a little threatening. Too noisy for conversation but so what, when you’re dancing with the missing?

It’s uncommon for archives to be deafening, of course, and their usual intense silence is one reason why the off-duty lives of visiting researchers, like actors on tour, can be particularly animated. I’ve known Hermione Lee more than fifty years, but it wasn’t until we coincided at the Ransom Centre in Austin, Texas, not long ago that we went barn-dancing together. (She was working on Tom Stoppard. I was reading memos dictated by a way-over-the-speed-limit David Selznick to his money people about a doomed project to film John Hersey’s Warsaw Ghetto novel, The Wall. Richard Dyer was there, too. I don’t recall why. Some of the conjunctions seemed Stoppardian in themselves.)

Another year in the same city, there was a tornado. Local TV news urged everyone to get indoors and into whatever room was closest to the ground floor’s centre. In my case this was a bathroom which, for the occasion, I shared with another British researcher, along with our landlady. She made some jokes. We did, too. Time passed. My fellow lodger gave a wry smile. ‘Do you think this is the Blitz Spirit we’re experiencing?’ he asked. ‘Should we sing?’

Wartime conditions can seem apt to archives, housed as some of them are in surroundings that don’t seem to have changed for decades, or centuries. The BBC’s Written Archives (radio scripts, correspondence with broadcasters, contracts, minutes of meetings) are at Caversham Park, near Reading, which is also where the Corporation had a foreign-news-gathering branch that I imagined was linked to GCHQ, polyglots tuning in to remote radio transmissions. In the canteen, researchers queued alongside the exotic Listeners, their ears red from a morning’s headphones. It was all a bit like the Churchill War Rooms, an illusion heightened when someone came around at mid-morning to ask whether you wanted tea or coffee and you paid them a ridiculously small contribution towards the cost of biscuits.

The Blitz Spirit, as Henry Green discovered, didn’t prevent opportunist thefts. The contents of archives are valuable, financially or sentimentally, and there are people who find pocketing things a temptation, especially when it wouldn’t be theft, really. At the Bodleian, a distinguished-looking elderly lady was caught stuffing a bunch of Stephen Spender’s letters into her handbag. ‘But they were written to me’, she protested; she was the poet’s widow; she just wanted to spend the evening re-reading them. The librarian explained apologetically that since she sold them to the library, she couldn’t any longer treat them as her own.

So, these days, reading rooms are vigilantly supervised, there are bag-searches. Even in the four-desk space of Exeter University’s Special Collections, where I’ve spent a good deal of time lately, you’re locked in and monitored. The holdings there include thousands of letters to and from Agatha Christie and her agents, manuscripts of works by other writers with west-country connections such as Daphne du Maurier and William Golding, a collection of material written or edited by or about women (Tunaikeion: or, Nine bookes of various history concerninge women, 1624; Famous girls who have become illustrious women: forming models for imitation…, 1864) — and more, ranging between medieval manuscripts from Syon Abbey and, currently on loan from the Arvon Foundation, about two-thirds of the charity’s well-maintained records.

Keeping an eye on it all becomes expensive, so most archives have restricted opening hours. (I think of James Fenton and the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford: ‘Is shut / 22 hours a day and all day Sunday.’) So the expression ‘wandering scholar’ can acquire special meaning for people whose research takes them far from home; you don’t feel like barn-dancing every night. Once, I was arrested for scholarly wandering. My American B&B of the time was surrounded by sloping woodland. At the end of too short a day, what to do but go for a walk? Through the trees a field was visible. Less expectedly, a freeway roared between. Here, as I contemplated how to cross, a police car pulled over with a self-congratulatory whoop-whoop. What did I mean, ‘going for a walk’? To where? Where from? Why? And why without ID? Who was I, in fact?

Some of these questions were like those I was asking in my own job. Perhaps they were in part metaphorical, existential. Do we search so eagerly through our boxes because we want answers to our own most intimate riddles? Every so often, if you’ve lived a long time and have corresponded, as biographical researchers tend to, with people close to fame, you’re liable to find a letter from a past self, or referring to you, like hearing your name spoken or catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a mirror.

Jeremy Treglown began documentary research as a child rummaging through his parents’ desks while they were out. He has worked in many archives since, from the Robert Louis Stevenson collection at the Huntington Library, Pasadena, to the card files kept by the Franco regime on its enemies, in Salamanca.

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