After my beloved and much missed uncle William died in 1998, I took a number of mostly unlabelled cassette tapes away from his house, thinking a) that their contents might be of interest and b) that if not, I might be able to reuse them. The bulk of them turned out to contain recordings of organ recitals and carol services in which he had participated, which were duplicated across many tapes.
A couple of the labelled tapes immediately piqued my interest. They contained an archive of messages left on his answering machine from approximately the years 1988 to 1994. These included a number of messages left by me in my infancy, as well as several left by my mother and aunt, by my grandparents, by a handful of his friends and colleagues, some of whom I met once or twice many years ago, and by many people I have never met. There were messages from teachers, pupils, booksellers, mechanics, plumbers, and a small number of messages left erroneously for other people.
Me, aged about six
I would gladly write many essays about the contents of these tapes, but for the need to respect other people’s privacy – not that I can claim to have respected it myself, listening to these tapes – though I feel bound to stress that nobody reveals anything compromising at any point, and that my estimation of nobody has fallen as a result of hearing their messages. It would be possible, one might suppose, to build up an impression of what kind of person the recipient was solely on the basis of such an artefact. Not so in this case, I think, but the insights into other people, at least, are several.
Occasionally one comes across a message capable of evoking a peculiar melancholy. One message is left by a former pupil, about to begin studying psychology at university, who has telephoned to thank William sincerely for his A-level classes and to express the hope that one day they will meet again. What happened to this boy, I wonder? He must be in his mid-30s now. Did they ever meet again? Does he still think of William? Does he even know of his death? I think we must affect more people’s lives than we ever comprehend.
Last month I suddenly realised that a student newly under my jurisdiction, now twenty years old, is the son of one of my uncle’s friends from university. There is a message left by this friend on one of the tapes, which dates perhaps from 1993. For the first time, listening to it last week, I noticed the voice of a child, clear in the background. It doesn’t require too wide a leap of the imagination to suppose that this student was once that boy.
It’s hard to be certain about it, because unlike modern answerphones this one did not possess the capability of recording the date and time of calls. Looking at one of my childhood diaries recently, though, I was taken aback by an entry which related to William’s present to us of a cordless phone he no longer needed:
This corresponds exactly with a message I left on his answerphone, and enables me to date the spoken message to the very day I left it. I therefore have not only a written record of what I did on New Year’s Day 1993, at the age of nine and a half, but also a recording of what I (or my telephone voice) sounded like; moreover, a recording that at the time I could not possibly have expected to hear again.
The eternal possibility of making these infrequent connections between different strands of the past is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to throw things away. See Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past. Please.
As for my old diaries, which date from 1993 to 1995, I find they contain quite a lot of material suitable for future blogging. I know it’s shamelessly self-indulgent, and I’ll try not to make too much of a habit of it, but I hope to be able to excuse it on the basis that I always find excursions into the pasts of other people so unaccountably fascinating. Here’s an example of what I mean.