A while ago in internet terms, there was a post on Spike, the Meanjin blog about the site forgotten bookmarks, which I promptly visited. I liked it a lot. It’s the kind of blog that I love, feeding as it does, the social eavesdropper, collector, lover of books, librarian and general internet addict in me.
But even as I loved it, I found myself feeling unsettled by the postcard highlighted and transcribed on Spike. The one that was found in The Remains of the Day. I tried to write a comment on Spike at the time, but couldn’t get the words quite right so deleted it (as I so often do, I’m crap at commenting, I really am).
The discomfort I felt, however, kept following me. I would say it haunted me. I even dreamt about it one night. My discomfort had nothing at all to do with the general idea of putting these treasures on the internet. Like I say, I love the site. My discomfort was to do specifically with that letter.
Having, as I do, time on my hands to engage in emotional over-analysis, I have been doing some thinking about why I have been so affected by this particular postcard.
Probably, I’m more sensitive about things and artefacts and mementos than I might previously have been. Having, within the space of twelve months, co-ordinated the cleaning out of my grandfather’s house when he moved into aged accommodation; my family home after my father died; and my own house when we moved over here, has left me…well, let’s just leave it at sensitive for now.
In the last six months, I’ve been writing a bit about how it has been, what it means to deal with so many things, things that quickly translate into memories and artefacts and mementos. I’ve been fiddling it all into essays which will hopefully weave themselves into a book. Through that, I’ve been doing, as I’ve said, a lot of thinking about the rights and wrongs, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, the oughts and the ought nots. The ethics of it all. Topped off with some postgraduate research into ethics and life writing. So, that’s affected (affecting) my thinking too. While the thinks that I’ve thought about life writing don’t automatically transfer to this situation, some of those thinks do.
Now in the end, I did leave a comment on the Spike blog, to which Jessica replied that I have raised an interesting point about privacy and ethics. I guess my comment over there does seem to be specifically about privacy, but actually, my discomfort goes deeper than simple privacy. It is more to do with the rights we do or don’t have to tell other people’s stories. Certainly, privacy is an aspect of this, but it is only one aspect.
Life writing cannot avoid the telling of other people’s stories to a greater or lesser extent. Each writer will need to decide whose stories, and how much of those stories, they are allowed to tell, and that decision will be affected by all sorts of factors (journals and books and essays filled with such factors if you are interested, let me know, I can point you at some good places to get started).
So it is with this postcard. Do we have a right to this postcard, its contents and the story it tells? My simple, general answer would be that yes, as a society we do have a right to such things and my simplest arguments in favour would be that we are all enriched, we all learn from them, there is more good than harm generally done.
But this particular postcard? Why is this troubling me?
One crucial issue is, I think, the time. It is dated 00. That’s 2000, barely ten years ago. In internet years, ten is a lifetime, but in stories of loves lost and found, ten years might not be much time at all. If I were a player in that story, if I were him or her, or if I were the person now wearing that ring, I wonder what I would think if I came upon that postcard on the internet?
And then I started thinking not so much, ‘What if that were me?’, but, ‘What if I were the custodian of that letter?’
If I had come across this letter in my father’s things, would I share it with the world? Possibly – probably – I would share it with my closest friends, but not with the internet. So if I can think of circumstances under which I might not share it, then wouldn’t they stand for a stranger too? Don’t we owe more benefit of the doubt to a stranger simply because we have even less chance of knowing their ins and outs?
All of these are interesting questions, but they are intellectual, theoretical questions and don’t explain what it is that is specifically bothering me. Why did I dream about that postcard? Why do I care that much about its publication?
It took me a while, but I finally worked it out. The real reason this particular letter is gnawing at me is because when you are left with someone’s things, you could quite easily become the custodian of such a letter.
You could easily become the custodian, but not even know.
So when I look at that postcard, I’m not thinking of all the boxes that I bundled up in my grandfather’s and father’s houses and took to my own. But of all the boxes I bundled up and gave away.