Remembrance of Things Past
In Berlin the memory of the Third Reich is deliberately kept alive – the fragments of the wall, with its accompanying photographic display of the rise and fall of the regime, the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum – but in the lively Sunday flea market that now takes place on the site of part of the wall, I stumbled across another entirely unintended memorial: a box full of discarded black-and-white photos. Judging by the clothes, these dated from the 30s and 40s – so many faces, so many families, whether smiling or grave, apparently unaware of the juggernaut heading their way. The sadness lies not only in knowing that most would have been overtaken by suffering to some degree, but also in that there is no one to cherish these keepsakes.
But there is a sense in which photos are a burden, and one that our forebears quite happily managed without. The knowledge that I have boxes full of undated photos, and now electronic folders full of files with numbers but no names, weighs heavily on my mind. Arranging all this into a chronological and accessible format is a task I never quite get round to. I remember feeling a quite visceral wave of rage and envy when I read that Caroline Waldegrave, partner in Prue Leith’s cookery school, writer, mother of four children, and wife of a Cabinet Minister, always had her holiday photos printed and arranged in an album within a week of returning from holiday. Now I fear it would take the skills of an experienced forensics officer to piece together the sequence of growing children, occasions and locations and make sense of my archive.
I also, of course, have boxes of family photos from before my time: monochrome or sepia images, some of immense formality, populated both by well-remembered great aunts and complete strangers. Not so long ago, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to identify a few of the unfamiliar faces, when I was contacted by a second cousin that I didn’t even know existed.
Sharing photo collections proved very enlightening – he was able to put names and relationships to many of the strangers, and he in his turn was delighted that I had an imposing photo of one of the family graves he had so far failed to locate.
I wasn’t quite so happy about another piece of the jigsaw he supplied, though. I had been rather alarmed to find a postcard of Hitler among my aunt’s possessions when she died, and my cousin confirmed that several of the generation before her had been ardent – if passive – fascists, including one great aunt whose devotion to Mussolini was so great that she decamped to Italy, becoming a stringer for The Times, so that she could observe the dictator’s doings at close quarters.
I don’t for a minute buy the idea that ‘the cameras never lies’, and if it was ever true, this has gone out of the window with digital manipulation. In any case, self-curation, be it photoshopping your selfies to just picking the best shot (I am ruthless in culling the nine out of ten pictures that make me look as though ‘acid indigestion can strike anywhere, any time’), ensures the messy hinterland of real life is rarely discernible. How many pictures of smiling toddlers and laughing children have we now seen illustrating press accounts of appalling cruelty and neglect?
But burden or treasure, a stash of old photos is a potent legacy, and one I really will Get Around To … doing ‘something’ with.