The promise in the photograph

When we were clearing out the house of my granddad’s cousin in northern Cumbria, there were stacks of unlabelled photographs. Each one lovingly taken and printed, but left over the years to fill drawers, unobserved and gathering dust.

Buried in the piles were these un-posed snapshots of a double wedding at a local church:

The church is easily recognisable locally as Raughton Head and appeared to be early twentieth century, but there were no names and no specific date labelled. They are wonderful photographs, but I feared that that we would never know who the couples were. However, in 2017 the church held an exhibition of wedding memorabilia; my parents shared these photographs in that church and to our delight we discovered someone else had photographs of the same wedding. We know now that the couples are sisters Mary and Catherine Coulthard, marrying William Mason and James Armstrong in 1911. The Coulthard sisters were my great-grandmother Ethel Nichol’s (nee Mitchell) first cousins, which explains how they came into our family archive. 

It was a lesson in the value of sharing histories – you never know what connections could be made and what treasure unearthed.

I was reminded of this discovery when listening to the latest episodes of Charlotte Sibtain and Cole Moreton’s The Wedding Detectives. This has been compulsive listening for me as a family historian, a performance maker and radio addict.

Photographs on the radio shouldn’t work, but does.

The premise of the show is that Sibtain and Moreton take an uprooted wedding photograph – the sort of photograph that might be found lodged in a second-hand junk shop – and using any clues available they attempt to uncover its story in order to re-unite it with someone who might treasure it for the future. Perhaps inevitably for an unmoored photograph, the stories that they uncover are often threaded with sadness, and in nearly every episode my eyes have pricked with tears. However, they also discover extraordinary individuals, poignant love stories and valuable social history. The show is a brilliant example of how other people’s family histories can illuminate our understanding of the past. 

Photographs are a promise. They are promise that there will be a future in which the photograph will be admired. Wedding photographs’ particularly powerful promise is of a happy couple whose joy will continue for many years. The Wedding Detectives reminds the listener of the frailty and fragility of the photograph’s promise, but also of the strength and love that can be found when the promise is fulfilled.

The photographic promise is an important part of my performance The space in-between, in which I share Ethel Nichol’s (the cousin of the brides and my great grandmother) holiday slides from 1967. The promise of a slide show fulfilled, fifty years too late.

Sharing Stories

My PhD is called ‘Sharing Stories’. There’s a longer, more theoretical, more particular subheading, but really this is it. It was an investigation into the sharing of stories.

From the start, I wanted this sharing to be reciprocal. It wasn’t just about me sharing my family history stories; it was about me listening to other people’s stories. Finding a way to enable people to perform their family histories was difficult. Would this be a quick interjection into a studio performance? Might one audience member dominate in this situation? Could it be a workshop following a performance? Could people write their stories and share them in that way somehow? Perhaps I could make some sort of tree that people could hang their written stories from? (A literal family history tree…) How would people feel about being asked to share – and being asked to listen – to others’ family histories?

Lines And Ladders was the outcome of these deliberations. This was the way that I decided I would be happiest sharing, and inviting others to share, family histories.

One of best things that I did as part of my PhD was interview my grandmother. These interviews were long conversations, in which we moved and twisted between family history and personal memory. We looked at photographs carefully arranged in albums. We looked at objects, like the aluminium pan that my two times great uncle made for his sister and which her daughter, my grandmother, still uses. We studied my grandmother’s immaculate exercise books revealing her skill as an artist in scientific drawings. These days spent talking, listening, looking and sharing were wonderful; it was some part of this that I wanted to recreate with Lines And Ladders.

Pencil drawing of heart and lungs. Labelled. Drawn by Paddy Matthews in 1943.
Drawing from exercise book of Paddy Matthews, my grandmother.

And so the game invites players to make time and space for conversation. To commit to listening and to talking. Lines And Ladders became an interpersonal knowledge exchange. An archival hub. Research is often communicated through writing, but my research project was communicated through playing the game. As players we shared stories disrupted by game playing, we made connections through history as we climbed the DNA strands, and we listened to one another’s rich heritage exposed through roll of the dice.

As I finished my PhD, playing the game became impossible. I didn’t manage to play with my examiners as I had planned; playing games in public spaces was not possible in the winter of 2020 and, as we lurch forward with re-introduction of more control measures, live micro-audience performance is still feeling a little distant. I have resisted transitioning it to an online space, because in my gut I feel that it would lose its informal intimacy. The absence of chance encounters in cafés has only made me believe even more strongly in the power of that impromptu personal, face-to-face sharing of stories.

The pleasure of open water

Open water swimming is being talked about as a lockdown phenomenon. When our access to sanitized pools was cut off we turned in massive numbers to the outdoors: walking, running, and swimming. I’m sure that there has been a surge of outdoor swimmers, but it’s certainly not new. My Dad won’t swim indoors – although we did once about five years ago persuade him into the Lido in High Wycombe. My Gran finds the very idea of swimming in a pool curious. She used to swim at Talkin Tarn in north Cumberland. When she was growing up, it was well set up for open water swimming. There were changing rooms on the tarn shore and a man in a boat keeping a watchful eye on those swimmers heading over the legendary depths of this small tarn.

Black and white photograph of a woman on a jetty on the edge of Talkin Tarn
My Granny, then Paddy Matthews, at Talkin Tarn

By the time that I was growing in Cumbria swimming in Talkin Tarn was off limits. Blooms of blue-green algae encouraged by pollutants contaminated the waters. Luckily in Cumbria there was no shortage of alternatives; we still spent our summers exploring lakes, rivers, meres, pools and puddles of open water.

Living now in Sheffield, we miss the sea, so this week we found our way out to it for a few days. Walking out from Flamborough, we traced the edge of Yorkshire where the rock slips into the sea. It’s a stunning coastline. The cliffs are white chalk hollowed into caves, arches, towers and coves. It is a landscape of mystery-familiar worn away with stories of smugglers and their secrets.

On the last morning we got up early, so that I could have a swim before people filled the beaches in search of their own adventures. I had the sea to myself.  I swam head up, soaking in the view. The cove was sheltered; the tide still coming in; the waves were gentle.  The emerald water flecked with the pink of the sunrise. If anyone wonders why people swim outdoors in October, it’s for moments like this.

As I swam outwards, I noticed a dark shape bobbing on the water in the distance. It disappeared. Reappeared. Disappeared. Resurfaced. I realised that I didn’t have the water to myself. I was being watched warily by a seal, or possibly by two seals. Swiftly, I retreated to the shoreline, not wanting to disturb them any more than I already had. Swimming, I studied the seal with the same caution it was inspecting me. My swim was cut short, but I am still fizzing with the excitement of that proximity. As a child, I was slightly obsessed with seals. The child in me still cannot believe that I have now – at great distance – swum with a seal.

I prefer to call what I do open water swimming, rather than wild swimming. Wild implies carelessness; swimming outdoors needs to be undertaken with care and with sensitivity to nature, including for the creatures who share the water. We’ve been swimming outdoors for generations; let’s do what we can to keep the waters clean.

Swimming back to the shore. Seal in distance. Photograph by Shane Surgey.

Can’t I just play a little longer?

Today my university membership expires. It’s six years since I started the PhD and six months since the degree was awarded.

I have been in a post-PhD slump. Struggling to imagine what next, while busying myself with school work and other immediate concerns. I have applied for a plethora of suitable and unsuitable jobs; few of which have resulted in interview. These have swallowed whole days and gobbled up weeks. I haven’t really let myself step back. To think what I want to do.

It takes time to work through ideas. Time to look away and wonder. Time to play.

As my access to the university ends, I really wish that I had made better use of it. If I could re-do the last six months ,here’s what I would do…

I wouldn’t look at the thesis for the first month; it has been good to take a break from it in order to see it a little more clearly. Then I would focus on publishing what I can of it; I intended on doing this straight away, but there was always something pressing to get done – mostly job applications but also school work that inevitably stretches into non-school days. Book proposal in, I would move onto planning a post-doc, until the book proposal returns either accepted so that the thesis needs revising or rejected so that the proposal needs re-working.

It’s easy to look back and realise what would have been more useful than chewing my way through job applications, given that I didn’t get any of the jobs that I applied for. Some of the applications have been useful. I know how close I was to some. I realised what I was lacking for others. But I should have made better use of the six months where I had access to the university’s resources. On the eve of losing it, I am frantically trying to predict what I might need in order to do research that I haven’t planned yet.

But even more perhaps, I wish that I had taken more time in the last six months to appreciate what I have done in the last six years. Not just the bitesize morsels served up on job applications.

I have loved having the support to research and make performances. As well as the opportunity to engage people in conversations about family history. I want to keep doing this. The time spent playing the family history board game opened windows onto so many histories, personal, local and global. Sitting in a café talking to friends, family and people that I was meeting for the first time – never strangers for very long – was special and important. Each game an archival hub and a knowledge exchange. I hope that I can do that again.

This is the end of my tenth year at Sheffield University, spread over twenty plus years. I know how difficult it is to stay connected once I am outside the institution, but I resolve to keep playing.

The Image Speaks Exhibition, 2018. Photograph by me of photograph by Andy Brown.

Ancestral Crockery

Working this morning, but I am struggling to know where to start. There’s a lot to do and everything is important to me, but how to start what?

I delay. I go to brush my teeth and I turn on the radio. Holly McNish is on Lauren Laverne’s radio show. She’s reading a poem about the loss of her grandmother. It’s beautiful and it makes me think.

The poem is called ‘heirloom’ and the opening line is ‘It’s not your jewellery that I want Gran, it’s your butter dish.’ She recalls time spent with her grandmother eating toast and watching TV. To listen to Hollie talk about her loss and to read the poem scroll to an hour and twelve minutes on this morning’s 6 Music show.

Fifteen years since losing my grandmother Georgie, it is the ordinary times that I still miss. It’s our Sunday afternoon chats. It’s eating together.

I have my Granny’s cereal bowls and coffee cups. Unexciting things, but I loved them as a child and I still love them now. They’re a dark chocolate brown with a matt finish. Solid pottery. An uneven glaze making them all individual. Dishwasher proof. I use them every day – a coffee cup is on my desk now as I write this. I never use them without thinking about my Granny. I remember holiday breakfasts at her house as a child. I remember growing older and developing a taste for thick black coffee perfect in the little cups. I remember Granny’s wonderful cooking and our last conversation about whether or not sausages should be pricked before cooking in the oven. (She was moving towards not.)

Near the top of my family history board game, Lines And Ladders, is the discussion prompt, ‘You have family heirlooms’. I worry about this prompt sometimes when we land there, because I don’t want people to feel that they have to talk about something grand. The word ‘heirloom’ seems to point to treasure. Yet these things passed through generations are precious simply because they connect us to our ancestors. These connections are sometimes personal memories or sometimes stories handed on. The provenance of the items is just as significant as for any work of fine art. My cereal bowls are invaluable, but only to me.

The heirloom prompt in Lines And Ladders sometimes led to conversations about jewellery – a necklace gifted to a young bride in a story shared by Arwen and Kelda Heaton – but it always led to stories about people.

I’ve refilled my coffee cup and I’m thinking about Hollie and her more recent loss. My grief is less raw now and the memories are happy. Using the crockery makes me feel close to my Granny Georgie again. I hope that in fifteen years time, the butter dish will bring the same comfort that my coffee cup brings me.

Me and Granny Georgie in the summer of 2000