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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Raising the St Cuthbert
Last year, as you may remember, I transcribed my grandfather's account of being wrecked on a trans-Atlantic cargo ship in 1908. At the time, endlessrarities suggested I donate the MS to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It took me about a year to get round to doing so, partly because I'd been working from a typescript I'd made thirty years ago and wasn't sure where the MS had got to. However, a couple of months ago my mother dug it out, and with her permission I offered it to the Museum.

For anyone steeped in children's literature, the act of Offering Something to a Museum is a well-known ritual, the various stages of which are as well established as the Mass. First, one climbs the massive marble steps, ventures through the columned entrance, and presents oneself to the uniformed attendant just beyond. There one learns that the person to see is Professor Greengrass, who is the world's expert in this area. However, he is far too busy to see you today. Far, far too busy, except--why, here is Professor Greengrass himself, who has come up the steps a few paces behind you and heard his name mentioned. "You had better bring your find to my office," he says in a vague yet avuncular way. He ushers you down some stairs and along many twisty corridors lined with cardboard boxes, stuffed dodos and the like, and at length into a ramshackle, book-lined office. Shyly you hand over your find. Until now, Prof. Greengrass's manner has been friendly but you get the impression he's been humouring you. However, the moment he sees the Object his demeanour changes. He stiffens like a pointer. He voice comes out as a whisper. "Do - you - know - what - you've - got - here?"

With the Maritime Museum I was denied these pleasures, because these days there's an online form. There's also a warning that the Museum only takes about 10% of what it's offered. Still I thought we were in with a fair chance given that (according to its acquisitions policy) they're particularly open to material deriving from people who were ordinary sailors rather than admirals or captains. My grandfather was officially Fourth Officer on the St Cuthbert, but he was also just a 19-year-old apprentice, and the ship was a rough-and-ready affair, so I think his counts as a voice of the people.

I heard nothing for seven weeks, but today received an email expressing interest and asking for more details. This is very exciting. I believe the next step, if they decide to go ahead, is for a curator to come to us rather than for us to be summoned to Greenwich. Either way, if it happens I will report back here.

I trust that any curator who comes will at least be wearing tweed.


My particular branch of the colonies has never been properly canonical, I fear. My father left his dental records and chair and etc by phone, and that was in the 80s. When I was doing archival training (part of my first degree) I told him he should think about leaving his old material somewhere, so he rang up and they said 'yes' instantly. Some Dad delivered immediately (and solved storage problems) and the rest went after his death. It's the equivalent of your ms, though: the story of people who are otherwise not at all archived. His was an ordinary suburban practise from the 1950s to the late 80s and some of his equipment was 100 years old by the time he died, so it gave the State Library material about ordinary lives that would have otherwise been lost to time. The closest I'll ever get to being famous may well be the few bits I wrote into his accounts, appointment books and other records when I was Assistant Dental Nurse.

Fascinating. I love museums of everyday life (the Castle Museum in York was my second home when I lived there) - huge galleries of baths, cookers, etc. - and discoveries such as this one - though oddly enough when it comes to reading I'm more drawn to elite-centred history.

Most archives and libraries have fascinating stuff, too, if you can get to behind-the-scenes tours, or watch out for exhibitions of non-paper artefacts. I sometimes suspect that these things are collected together for the public in the daily life museums, but are collected for the first time along with documents in libraries.

I hope you get a tweed-jacketed curator *and* a summons to Greenwich! Good luck on getting the MS into the museum collection!

Thank you! The curator will get extra points if the tweed is impregnated with the lingering odour of pipe tobacco.

I miss the smell of pipe tobacco! my father was a pipe smoker, and so were a couple of my undergrad professors in days when some faculty still smoked in their offices or while lecturing. I miss the smell of pipe shops, too.

My philosophy teacher in high school smoked a pipe in his office. Incidentally, he had been Obama's mother's teacher twenty years before (different school), and can be seen on Youtube giving his memories of her. He has since been vilified all over the net for being a "Frankfurt School-style Marxist," which needless to say he was not. http://www.examiner.com/article/marxist-tag-for-obama-has-roots-at-mercer-island-high-school


I hope there's a back door opening on the sea!


I've never been to Greenwich, but one would certainly hope so. I shall make a point of visiting if they take the MS!

That all sounds very cool. Do let us know how you get on with the rest of the process!