W.G. Sebald is following me around. There are coincidences of the type that interested him, popping up everywhere as I board the train to London. It is the first day of my archival residency at the Imperial War Museum and the newspaper I buy has two articles that relate in some way to the new novel I’ve just begun writing. I finished the first draft only yesterday and with some reluctance put it aside. I need to give my attention to this residency but the characters are still annoyingly alive in my head and here now in front of me is an article on the very subject I’ve been working on. Sebald and his coincidences are nudging me. It seems like an auspicious start.
This archival residency was organised months before I started work on the new novel, and I do not want the characters to stray into the museum, intruding on my thoughts and generally causing havoc with my imagination. I glance at my notes and Sebald is back on my shoulder. I have written:
‘Nothing but a photograph separates us from the next world.’
On the underground travelling towards the river I read a poster.
‘Don’t close your eyes.
Don’t go to sleep.
Don’t end up in…’
The train moves on and another poster tells me
‘Every family has a dark secret…’
‘Terrifying, sinister, gripping…’
We seem to be a nation that likes being frightened.
Between Oxford Circus and Waterloo I count five advertisements for ‘Number One International Bestsellers’. Puzzlingly they are all of different books.
A young girl eats a chocolate while scrutinizing her face in a mirror. But everyone else in the carriage is either hooked up to iPads or iPhones. There is a man at the far end smiling-but only at his screen. Human progress is to avoid looking at others.
I head for the Archives.
There is a puddle of ice in the road that reflects the sky. I am mesmerised by the act of looking. In order to make an archive you have to look. So now I am looking.
The dome of the Museum is covered in the scribble of bare branches. I am cold and need a coffee.
In the archive I talk for several hours with the Archivist. Our conversation meanders. I am aware he is giving up precious work time yet his generosity reminds me why Archivists chose to work in this hidden no-man’s-land of memory and history. I have met these specialists before at other times, in other museums, in other parts of the world. They are the faithful keepers of the past. Without them all museums would be hollow places of mere display.
We look at random boxes of photographs. One set of images stops me in my tracks. The scenes are taking place in deep winter. There are high banks of snow and a group of men and women dressed in black. Why are they weeping?
‘Before retreating from Bende, a Belgian village, the Germans collected all the young men, took them to a cellar and shot them. Nearly every family in the village lost someone.’
The date: 19.01.45.
These are the facts.
But history is about being human
And everything that follows in this residency is a remembering of that fact.