Someone asked me this week about my worst experiences in archives during my 30 years or so in the profession; and I didn’t have to think very hard before coming up with a short list of about 100 instances. Maybe more.
Of course, an honourable mention goes to that ceilidh I attended at the end of one discouraging Society of Archivists’ conference in the 1990s. The whole thing was like a scene from one of Bosch’s visions of hell—discarded cardigans, naked bodies, demons and flames and pitchforks—only much worse, because this involved archivists and folk music. (Even now, when a stranger sees me drinking alone in a bar and asks me what’s the matter, I can only stare into space and whisper brokenly, You weren’t there, man; you weren’t there.)
Then there was the time I was examining a dirty, mould-encrusted 18th century ledger and looked down to see my hand completely black with filth, all of it except for the shiny pink tip of my index finger, and I realised I’d been unconsciously licking it as I turned the pages. When I looked in the mirror my tongue was liquorice black.
But perhaps pride of place belongs to the time I was cataloguing coroner’s records in Wales. The papers had got all mixed up in the trunk of the coroner’s car, and I was sorting them into order. There was this small envelope, and something in it clinked when I picked it up. I tipped the contents into my palm and realised too late that they were two blood-covered bullets—you see, one day in the 1930s a man had come home and found his wife in bed with another man, and had shot them both. I was holding the actual bullets in my hand. In a sense I’m holding them still.
With Margaret being away my evenings are no longer devoted to reciting modernist verse or eurhythmic dancing, so I’ve been progressing the gansey along nicely. I’m about 2/3 of the way up the back, and should finish it this week. I’m glad to say that the central panel is starting to make sense—it’s one of those patterns that you really need to see large.
One thing, though— the anchor’s diagonal rope is asymmetrical, which means that I have to be careful when I read the pattern to count from the left, or the right, depending on whether I’m knitting the row from the front or the back. This requires a level of concentration that does not, you will not be surprised to learn, come naturally to me.
Some other rainy Sunday I’ll drunkenly stagger down memory lane with more Tales From The Strong Room—such as the time I was stranded in the basement of Lowestoft library in a power cut the night before the hurricane of 1987; being called out by the police on New Year’s Eve when the security alarm went off; and of course who could forget the case of the Abandoned Police Cell Toilet?
But for now I’m going to play my CD of archivists’ folk songs and get drunk to such timeless classics as, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Archivist, Thomas The Cataloguer, All Around My Pencil and (my favourite) I’ll Go And List For A Records Manager.