At last; I’ve thrown out the oar. It’s been gathering dust and cobwebs in the shed ever since we moved here and, before that, it languished in the loft of the coach-house. I forget why I carried it out of a party at Hampton Wick as a cocky and irrepressible youth and have even less idea of how such a useless object – I’ve done enough boating to know you need two oars unless you’re a gondolier – took up space for so many years. I can’t remember now whose party it was so there’s no possibility of returning it but I wondered, just for a moment before I hurled it into the skip at the recycling centre, if someone, somewhere is hanging on to the other one in the hope of one day finding it’s partner at the back of their shed.
When I look back on 2014 I’ll think about the oar. I won’t think about the floor we relaid, the plasterboard we fitted in the loft room or the new partition we built and I’ve already expunged recollections of the painting and decorating. No, what I’ll remember in the year we fixed, closed and prepared to sell our farmhouse and move to a less encumbered life are the memories that the exercise evoked. The musty collection of boxes, old cupboards and dust-sheeted piles in the attic and those big storage boxes that we never open have been brushed-off, sorted and their contents assessed for moving, selling, recycling or, like the oar, dumping. Today I have busy accounts on e-bay and Gumtree; I know the local charity driver and enjoy first-name banter with the bloke at the Council dump. It’s been a long year.
This still incomplete exercise has taken me out of circulation for months at a time and it has manifested itself in a reverie of nostalgia that has frequently been overwhelming. The dust has been blown off old photos of the family and adventures abroad, model trains, a colour TV, school report cards, tape decks, a turntable, empty suitcases, an uncle’s stamp collection, parents albums, yellowing letters from colleagues to a twenty-something exile in the middle east, a baby chair, carpets, clothes racks, a darkroom kit. Under dust sheets my grandmother’s sideboard, my mother’s secret hoard of postcards from her boys, my old Etienne Aigner briefcase, Ikea’s coat stand and my grandfather’s ‘diddybox’, still holding a cache from the first world war that includes his new testament and a couple of bullets, are among the surprises. We’ve been hoarding junk with little value but a wealth of memories.
In the years we’ve been here we’ve made some good friends and lost touch with others; we’ve seen parents leave us, children born and youngsters grow to start their own families; we’ve agonised through divorces and danced at weddings. Memories of occasions down the years materialised as bits and pieces were turned over in the attic and as we sifted through curling photos younger versions of people we know smiled at us from long-forgotten dinner parties and lunches in the garden.
It’s come as something of a surprise to me that so much has accrued so going through this process has been cathartic and, to some extent, energising. It’s felt good to shed detritus that, in some cases, hasn’t seen the light of day for decades but it poses a difficult question – should one keep something just because of it’s association, because of the memories? Throwing out some junk this year made me feel I was committing wanton acts of disloyalty but how much do you keep, how long do you keep it and how much is enough to preserve a memory?
The first world war was the biggest event in my grandfather’s life. Not the most important – he survived Ypres and came home to marry and have three children – but it was something he wouldn’t forget. I can understand why some papers and a few small keepsakes were put into a box and allowed to gather dust under his stairs for seventy years. I don’t think he looked at it unless he was pestered by us grandchildren. Now that dusty box is mine and it’s been a joy – and a little sad – to recall my memories of him as his ‘diddybox’ reaches its centenary.
Today is Armistice Day and marks a hundred years since the start of the great war. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be ‘called up’ and shipped off to war. Rupert Brooke’s poem, written in 1915, captures something of that.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.