Thursday, 17 December 2015

Magic Lanterns: Reflections on the Past

Barrel rolling at the annual Westleton Barrel Fair

Writing in the late 1970s, the sociologist, Professor Ronald Fletcher, described the genesis of his book, 'In A Country Churchyard', a recreation of the lives of the dead, lying within the graveyards in and around the Suffolk village of Westleton. Having just re-read this work, I thought I would share the first two paragraphs with you here. For me, the journey described here - from archival research, to oral history; putting faces to names; imaginatively connecting with the once living, and the traces of their presence - captures something of the wonder that I feel is at the heart of local history. 

'I stumbled accidentally across some aspects of its history, and began to learn and think more about it, but then - as I studied the records - people began to rise up out of them. Where before I had seen only names on lists, individual characters began to shake their shoulders and stand up. It was as though these dead were being awakened, resurrected. They seemed close, as though they had something to say. And there were reasons for this. 

Besides the historic records, the materials in the county archives, I began to find all sorts of things in the village itself. In an antique shop, in a mouldy old chest on a bottom shelf. I found a whole box full of Victorian photographic plates. Nearby, I also came across many boxes of magic lantern slides (and the magic lantern itself) which had been mounted by the photographer who owned the plates. These slides gave a pictorial history of the village from about the late 1870s to the early 1960s - a span of almost a century. The archive records began to be filled in with details of places, faces and events. I discovered that there were still old people in the village - in their eighties and upwards - who not only remembered them but who also possessed other photographs, newspaper cuttings and objects of various kinds which added many other details. Gradually, the village community and its people came to life.'


Looking towards Stump Cross, Magdalen Street, where the flyover now looms
© Nick Stone* Source: Invisible Works: St Botolph the Traveller

The Magdalen Walks members are also going with me on a similar journey. Our focus is on the inner northern portion of Norwich. Yes, it would be amazing if we stumble upon our own equivalent of the magic lantern slides, but even if it is merely the sherds of a 'bundle of broken mirrors' that we find, that will be plenty enough. Also, whereas, in an urban area, we might not find such a 'rooted' community, what we will have is a richness of diversity. In addition, although the north of the city has had relatively little archaeological investigation, we can still look to this for some hitherto hidden presences (for instance, the Alms Lane and Fishergate excavations) If you know how and where to look, you will find many long-gone lives reflected in the present. 

* Our thanks go out to the phenomenally talented Nick Stone for generously granting us permission to use his photographs in our project. Check out his Invisible Works website (click HERE), which contains several pieces about our locality - and much more besides!

No comments:

Post a Comment