Sunday, 28 August 2011

Archive fever

I’ve been down in London looking at archives: leafing through old copies of the TV Times and the Orkney Herald in the soon-to-be-defunct British Newspaper Library at Colindale; scrolling through the Radio Times on microfilm in Humanities 2 at the British library at St Pancras; looking at government files about the mounting of television masts in the National Archives at Kew. It’s a living.

In her book, Dust, the historian Carolyn Steedman uses a term borrowed from Jacques Derrida to describe the sensation that scholars sometimes feel when visiting archives: ‘Archive Fever’. Since the nineteenth century, she writes, a visit to an archive has been regarded as ‘a foundational and paradigmatic activity of historians’. She quotes the French Romanticist Jules Michelet’s phrase about the ‘dust of the dead’ which he believed he inhaled while in the archive. Archives really are dirty and dusty as the elderly paper disintegrates – at Colindale you can see bits of old newspaper all over the floor by the reading desks. I hope the cleaners are appropriately remunerated. When reading Michelet for the first time, Steedman understood ‘history-writing in generic terms, as a form of magical realism, with the historian’s contribution not the mountains that move, the girls that fly, the rivers that run backwards, but the everyday and fantastic act of making the dead walk and talk … Then there is romance in another meaning, in an earlier sense, as in chivalric romance, as in the sense of the quest: endurance of all kinds of trial and tribulation, in pursuit of some goal or grail.’ Agreed: I mean the National Archives at Kew are such a long way away, almost right at the end of the District Line, for goodness sake.

Steedman is sceptical about this ‘cult of the archive’ because it suggests some material, graspable world which once existed but can be recaptured, when actually an archive contains only the most fragmentary record of what happened in the past. Archive Fever, Steedman writes, is a kind of desire: ‘the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings’. The archive inspires ‘a Freudian romance, of finding all the lost things and names, whatever they may be: things gone astray, mislaid, forgotten, wasted.’ In fact, she argues, ‘nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught half way through: the middle of things; discontinuities.’

And yet … the lovely, efficient way the files arrive by magic in your own little locker half an hour after you have ordered them by computer. The gentle sound of thousands of fingers tapping on laptop keyboards. The race against time to get through one last file before they kick you out at the absurdly early hour of 4.45. I have suffered from my own mild form of archive fever. And then I look at my notes and realise that most of the stuff I’m interested in – ‘the stupid little tragedies of those clipped and limited lives’ (H.G. Wells) – doesn’t end up in archives. And the fever vanishes as quickly as it arrived.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Tonight, the long-awaited leaders’ debate. The bland leading the bland. After about 30 minutes I found myself losing consciousness and went upstairs to watch a BBC2 documentary about the men who scratch a living on the huge garbage dump in Lagos. Uplifting, moving, humbling. Not a trace of self-pity. Their dignity, wit, optimism, sense of solidarity and community causing them to soar above their awful circumstances, putting to shame those of us leading what, to the scavengers of Lagos, must be lives of unimaginable comfort, wallowing in our tabloid-induced misery.’ - Chris Mullin, Thursday 15 April 2010, Decline & Fall: Diaries 2005-2010.

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