08 April, 2013

"Recalled to Life........"

I have recently finished re-reading the great Dickens' novel "A Tale of two Cities" - over half a century after I first read it. It is one of the world’s very great tales which I am sure that everyone in the English speaking world must know. But if there is anyone out there who has slipped through the mesh it has one of the very great opening lines which many - including me - can quote at the drop of a hat: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.........." And several hundred pages later the last few words have also gone down in literary (and indeed cultural) history - Sydney Carton's immortal "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."  It is the story of how ordinary people can get swept up in the maelstrom of great events – in the case the French Revolution - how their own lives and personal histories and backgrounds can enmesh them and immerse them in situations they did not plan for or can control - and then years later these things from the past return to haunt or inspire them.

I have thought about this in recent weeks – and, especially, I have thought about the opening chapters of Dicken’s masterpiece – which are headed “Recalled to Life”. It is the phrase that one of the tale’s central characters, Mr Jarvis Lorry, uses to pass on the message that he has “found” a man from the past Dr Mannette who has languished, unheard of for twenty years in the terrifying Paris prison, the Bastille. And my reason for thinking of this? – I have been unearthing people from the past, not my past, but that of my friend Mary. And in doing so I have been on a fascinating, unpredictable, occasionally frustrating but always interesting journey – a journey that would not have been remotely possible without the advent of computer technology. Let me explain!  
Mary with some of the information
that we've discovered

Some weeks ago Mary asked if I would do something for her. Recently widowed, Mary had been looking back over her life and remembering the many wonderful years with her husband – my very dear friend David. Like all of as we get older (at least it’s true of me!) she also looked back to her childhood and teenage years. While thinking of this she remembered the many friends she had then – and the good times they had – this was the early fifties and Mary could remember a  group of young people enjoying roller skating, going to parties, meeting in the amusement arcades of Blackpool and Fleetwood where she grew up. She could also remember a young man of whom she was quite keen – let us call him Brian. Brian often watched Mary play the piano (she was an accomplished pianist) and they were quite close. He was a little older than Mary and went off perhaps to University or maybe to do his National Service – Mary described in detail the last time they met – by “the swan pond” she said. And she didn’t see him again for several years. She herself went off to college, became a teacher, met her future husband, married, moved away from the area and moved on.

It is the stuff of everyday life!

A few years later, however, in the mid sixties Brian visited to her to say that he was going to Queensland, Australia – and that really was the last time she saw him. But then, about fifteen years ago, Mary received a letter via a third party – saying that Brian was in Australia. Understandably (she was happily married) and because of circumstances Mary ignored the letter and forgot about it – until a few weeks ago, when, as she looked back over her life, she felt a tinge of regret that she had never replied to say that she was well and well remembered their friendship a life time ago.

So, Mary has asked me if I can trace this gentleman – and what a story. By using social networking sites, school web sites, going through Australian telephone directories via the internet and a million of other lines of enquiry I at last found a man of the right age, right name, who attended the right school – and knew Mary well. He knew the friends that went around together, including Mary and ticked all the boxes “It’s him”, I thought! It may well be him, but then I also quickly discovered that there was another boy of the same name who went to the same school and who Mary also knew! And this one also fitted the bill – and he remembered well watching Mary play the piano! Sadly, however, he had never been to Australia! And so the thing grew – what started as a quest to find one person has developed – I now have a growing list of Mary’s old friends all with their individual memories and I am trying to sift through these to make sense of it all – it gets more and more complex and interesting! Of course, complicating the whole thing is the fact that these events took place almost a life time ago and memories fade and become jumbled.
Just a few of the pages of mails and responses that the
investigation has so far generated

Each morning I switch on my PC and I can’t wait to see if any more mails have come in to help me untangle this web. Nearly every day I speak with Mary and pass on some other tit bit of new information for her to consider.  Or, I might ask a question that has occurred to me in the middle of the night as I lay pondering our progress and which will undoubtedly muddy the waters further. We’ve had many false leads, many times when the trail has seemed go dead and then re-wakened with  an e-mail from the far side of the world or by simply asking a different question. The whole thing has been quite enthralling – and slowly but surely we are getting there – we have a lot of loose ends, a lot of things that don’t quite add up – yet. But overall we are reconnecting across the years a group of people that Mary spent her teenage years with and one of whom who was very special to her. I often sit staring at my computer screen with my scribbled notes around me thinking this has all the makings of a future Oscar winning film or at least a great romantic novel – where are you Steven Spielberg or Jane Austen!

As I weave through the web of information and listen to Mary’s reminiscences I am reminded of my own youth and the memories that I have – of people that were special to me then. And I wonder what has happened to them, do they remember me as I remember them, has their pathway through life been as trouble free as mine has been (at least up till now), what parts have we all played (if any) in the fabric of society and the nation, do they, like me, sometimes step back and be amazed at all the things that have happened to them and the places they have visited or responsibilities that they have held?

And at the same time I am amazed that because of the wonders of technology I can instantly leap back through the years and across the world, and, for example, find someone who left these shores half a century ago and now lives on the opposite side of the world. I know the town in Queensland that Bill settled in and with the aid of Google have “visited” that town. I have “walked” down the streets and seen the sights that he must see each day as he goes to the shops. And no matter how hard I try I cannot but be slightly humbled and certainly amazed that this quest which is rooted a life time ago  I am now able to play a small part in unravelling.

One of the people to whom I have “spoken” across cyberspace said that “yes” he remembered Mary and that he did see her playing the piano as a teenager – “To be truthful” he said,  "she was so pretty I would have been a most attentive audience if she had been playing the comb and paper or the spoons!!! Please give her my regards and say how good it has been to have such delightful memories recalled so unexpectedly”. I have in front of me now a print off of the school Speech Day Programme from December 1954 which lists Mary and her successes at the end of her school career. It also, of course, lists the successes of all her many peers - all people she knew then and who were important to her. And now, by the wonders of technology they have all been recalled to life! And that is the nub of it – it is about or history and our hopes, fears, aspirations, dreams, emotions and ambitions. When Mary was a teenager - enjoying the friendship of a group of her peers, playing the slot machines, going dancing, going to the roller skating rink, studying for exams, playing the piano while being watched by an admirer and doing all the other things that youngsters of her generation did in the early and mid-fifties – fate was already, it seems, dictating that sixty years later, with the help of modern technology and a few clicks on  a computer button all these people, places, events, hopes, fears and emotions would be, as Dickens’ said,  “recalled to life”. Little did she dream then of what would happen sixty years down the line. Little did I know then that in sixty years time I would be sucked into this quest - trying to contact a group of people that I have never met and do not know - but in doing so getting a glimpse of their lives over the years.  We might never get right to the bottom of everything, we might never find everyone that we want to – but we are enjoying this amazing journey through time and place! And, I have often thought in the past week or two - what would Dickens have made of it all - he could not in his wildest dreams have envisaged the internet and the instant communication with far parts of the world and far people. And what glorious stories he would have woven into the characters as each was "recalled to life"!

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