I was reminded sharply this morning, of the time I spent in New York last year, with breakfast accompanied by the disturbing coverage of superstorm Sandy. The city that never sleeps was deserted, blacked-out and, in many areas, underwater. It was a chilling sight – and weirdly, almost as apocalyptic as 9/11. Thankfully, all our pals are ok, but that’s no consolation for the families of those who’ve died.

So, it seems churlish to complain about the weather here, but it’s definitely settling in for Winter proper, with cold drizzle and darkness now falling at 4.30pm. But despite that, I’ve had a really energising day! I’m trying to work out how to sum it up, because there seems to have been a tenuous common thread – and it’s something about preserving the past for the future – and how we do that.

This afternoon our class attended a talk at the new Public Records Office of NI, by the energetic writer and broadcaster Ian Sansom http://www.iansansom.net/ on his new book about Paper. Whilst it seems a slightly off-beat thing to write about, in the course of his talk, I realised I was listening to a kindred spirit. He talked of his enormous collection of all things paper – from receipts, postcards, photographs, timetables, birthday cards etc etc. Having just spent hours trying to shoe-horn what has turned into 10 of boxes of  what I grandly call ‘archive’ into my loft, I know all about collecting this stuff.  This may seem like rubbish to some, but, asked Ian, where would our civilisation be without paper? And when you think about that, it’s a bit like trying to comprehend infinity. However, the other side of that coin is that we are at a pivitol moment in our history, when the book as we know it, is ceasing to be the way we consume literature – Amazon selling more e-book than ‘real’ books for example. Which for a class of people engaged in trying to write books, is, I think you’ll agree, quite pertinent.

So, head spinning with all of these ground-breaking ideas, I then proceeded upstairs at PRONI, to examine some of the records kept there myself. ( http://www.proni.gov.uk/ ) It’s an amazing resource – and a sort of contradiction in terms. Preserved there are millions of ancient, yellowing, paper documents, but the way you access them is via a smart, brand new building, groaning with computerised equipment to enable you to find the paper document you want! So perhaps actually, rather than a contradiction in terms, maybe PRONI is more of a beautiful synthesis of the old and new?

Anyway, I ordered my documents and collected them and sat down at my allocated table to examine them. One was of no use to me, but was just incredible. A manila file, three inches thick, filled with requistion orders, hand penned notes, receipts, typed reports, anything you can think of, relating to timber supplies! I sifted through the hundreds of different shaped pieces of paper, admiring the ink-inscribed script of the hand-written notes, and wondered just when anyone’s hand had last touched these papers.

Then I found what I was looking for. In another file, all of the witness statements from the 1945 rail accident I am researching for a story. There were page after page of typed statements, and then hand-written ones, the bail note for the accused man, everything relating to the case, before it was taken to court. And again, while it was of great use to me, I wondered how many times it had been looked at since 1945. But, when you think about it, in a way that no longer matters. By simply existing for this long, it has become important - and now its very existance is creating work for someone. PRONI is bristling with librarians, security guards, stewards showing you where to go and how to use the equipment.

So as I try to weed the paper paraphanalia of my life, shredding and ripping up as many of the records of the last 44 years as I think I can do without, across town from me is an entire building dedicated to preserving just such records. Perhaps that’s an antedote to recurring nightmare of being buried under piles of ‘stuff’ – I can comfort myself that maybe one day someone will delighted that I didn’t throw it all away!

 

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