I have the seeds of a historian within me. Thus far, they are contained within the mind of someone who would prefer that another person trawled through years of old newspaper ads to find out the cost of hats in 1972. One day, though, I’m sure a fully formed historian will wake in my body and I’ll spend the rest of my life surrounded by decaying newspapers.
I will possibly contribute the long account of my daily life I keep in my diary to posterity, or at least to posterity in the form of blinking historians, or at least an older version of myself. It’s something I’ve been conscious of ever since I began it. I like records. I like the idea of reality fading into dried ink as it whizzes by.
There is dismay at the increasingly hard to access media on which we dry our ink. What will be the Rosetta Stone that teaches our descendents to read data in Microsoft Word format off a CD-ROM? How we will unearth the early digital pictures of a young photographer from a dusty flash card in an attic in a century’s time?
On the other hand, I’m a little obsessed with preservation. I want to print my diary to paper. I want to send my sisters copies of theirs. I want to scan every photo I take – even the ones of nameless people at parties that didn’t have the floods of light that my poor cheap camera prefers.
I hoard my mail. If anyone is interested in seeing what mail I received in one hundred and fifty years time, mailing list mail will outnumber my personal mail by about fifty times. For each insight into the life of a young stay-at-home twenty-something, they will uncover the inner workings of about fifteen different technical and other groups. They might also assume I read it all.
Sometimes I think creativity is helped more by destruction. The Brontes left an immense amount of juvenilia, but there are those who argue that their obsessive writing tied them to a child’s imaginary world, and a child’s writing, that they broke away from much too late. Would it have been better to throw it all in the fire, go on a long holiday, and start again on a cleaner page?
Should I be obsessed with keeping everything I write, every picture I take, and with archiving the mundane, or with reworking it, purging it, burning it, and creating from the ashes?
Does history want our lives or our greatest works?