[ 13:12 saturday 31 december – perranwell station, cornwall ]
for this final day of the year i’m back in cornwall, where i grew up. i’m sitting in mum and dad’s conservatory with a vase of daffodils blazing yellow beside me. outside the sky is dove grey and the air hangs motionless. three chaffinches and a pair of robins hop and chatter in the lichen-covered tree beyond the window. cornwall has been especially beautiful in these days. every morning i wake to a different world. there have been spring-like days with clear blue skies, golden sunlight and waves lapping at the sand. there have been stormy days with atlantic gales, surf crashing on the granite rocks and squalls driving in from the writhing ocean. finally there have been damp mysterious days like today when moss and gorse blossom glow in the diffuse light.
2016 has been an unsettling year for the world. old certainties are fracturing and dark fears start to creep in through the cracks. for my part, i end the year with a greater sense of clarity, purpose and optimism than i’ve felt in a long while. across several strands of my life this has been a year of addressing unresolved legacies from the past and preparing for new stages of my journey.
the most personal part of this has been the process of sorting through my archived papers. when i was six years old i asked my parents for an album to store postcards received from grandparents, aunts and uncles. they got me a beautiful big book with a forest green cover. whenever i received a postcard that was too large i’d snip off the edges to make it fit. thus began a habit of preserving ephemera which expanded through my childhood to include scribbled notes, ticket stubs, concert programmes, pieces of art and design, recordings on cassette and minidisc, newspaper articles mentioning me; anything really that carried some personal significance or memory. it was completely disorganised. i’d put things in a pile. when the pile got too big i’d sweep its contents into a plastic bag. when the plastic bag was full it would be thrown into a cardboard box and i’d start a new bag. when a cardboard box was full i’d close it and find another.
this process of accumulation continued steadily through my childhood in cornwall, sixth form in cheltenham, studies at cambridge, establishing my first businesses in london, the year-long project in the isles of scilly, back in london with michael young and the school for social entrepreneurs, my two years living on stromboli and my return to london to set up trampoline systems. then finally a decade ago it began to abate. throughout this period the cardboard boxes kept on filling up. until the end of my time at cambridge the boxes all gravitated back to mum and dad’s attic. after that, each time i changed location i’d find somewhere new to stash them.
five years ago when my parents were preparing to move back to cornwall i was given an ultimatum that i could either pick up everything deposited at their house or it would be thrown on the tip. i rented a van and drove down with mattia. climbing the ladder to their attic i realised shamefully that it contained more of my stuff than theirs. i brought everything back to london and hid it in my spare room. then a couple of years later i moved from dalston to old ford lock and gathered the boxes in the dining room. it was the first time i’d seen them all together at once. dozens of them, all different shapes and sizes, with nothing to indicate what place or period they represented. it was obvious i needed to go through everything, throw away as much as possible and organise the bits worth keeping. but it was such an appalling prospect that i kept putting it off so month after month the boxes sat there reproachfully.
finally one evening last october i decided the time had come. i pulled out one of the cardboard boxes, took the uppermost plastic bag, emptied its contents onto the dining table and started sifting through its contents. every free evening since then the work has continued. i’m about three quarters of the way through at this point. fifteen foolscap folders have been filled with preserved material ordered by period, whilst sacks and sacks of rubbish have been jettisoned.
i was expecting it just to be a tedious housekeeping job but it’s proven a lot more charged than that. the experience has been like an intimate and merciless biography. everything is in there. hopes, failures, loves, triumphs, anguish. the fact the boxes are in random order has made it more gruelling. one moment i’ll be wading through notes on social structure from stromboli, the next it’s adolescent poetry from cornwall. thus my picture of each period has developed in a fragmentary and jagged way.
all kinds of treasures have revealed themselves. poetry and paintings from my infancy. copies of the magazines i printed with a friend at truro when i was thirteen. letters from my grandparents filled with love and wisdom which i could barely appreciate at the time. proposals for scores of mad projects from my early twenties.
one of my favourite artefacts comes from my first year at cambridge where i always kept a piece of notepaper clipped to the outside of my door on A staircase cripps, along with a pencil on a piece of string. i would leave messages for friends, friends would leave messages for me; and friends would also comment on each other’s messages. every scrap of paper is preserved. it’s a wonderful and self-contained collective document, distilling the shared life of my group of friends at that moment in our lives.
though leavened by the discovery of delights like these, i’ve found the overall process rather harrowing. the teenager who emerges is cripplingly shy, searching for a role and a way to engage with people. the person i see in my twenties is self-centred and burdened with an overmighty will, unable to acknowledge failures or properly learn the lessons they provide. going through the papers has brought me face to face with who i’ve been at each stage of my life and it hasn’t been an entirely comfortable experience.
this discomfort however is greatly outweighed by the therapeutic value of the process. in a very tangible way it’s forcing me to acknowledge all the shades of my personal history. after this there will be no ghosts left lurking from the past, nothing half-forgotten or swept under the rug. it’s helping me to foster a deeper acceptance of who i am which is perhaps something i needed.
the question remains what drove me to archive all this stuff in the first place. was it born out of narcissism? or a manifestation of my broader tendency to hoard things? or was i subconsciously laying the ground for the process i’m now undertaking? i don’t have a clear answer.
having thrown away so much of what i’d stored and organised the remainder, there remains a lingering thought in my mind that the day will come when i also need to throw away what i’ve kept if i wish to release myself fully from the weight of the past. this may come to pass, but it’s likely to be some years away.
for now i send my love and wishes to family and friends for the year ahead. sometimes it is the moments that seem darkest that give birth to the brightest light.
: c :