2004: What is the purpose of the Archive and Study Centre?

2. from: “The Archive and Study Centre and the Business Plan. Where do we want to be in twenty years’ time?” a paper presented to the Trustees of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, 28 April 2004

When I describe the purpose of the Archive and Study Centre to people outside, and even when describing our approach to fellow archivists, I draw attention to the self, and to the role and nature of memory in being human. People readily understand from their own experience the consequences of Alzheimers and dementia, and can see what happens to refugees and others ripped away from living experience of their past. Those who work therapeutically with children or adults, or who know themselves introspectively, know what happens when memory becomes separated from its roots in ongoing experience, and destructive patterns are repeated, or new experience is inhibited or distorted, or the present becomes overwhelmed in memory, or in its fragmentation or inaccessibility. And people readily understand that the deeper and richer memory is, the more readily accessible and inter-connected it is, and the more fully and appropriately engaged with the processes of the present in containing the past and forecasting and realising the future, the healthier, fuller, and more creative a Self and a Society can become.

What the Archive and Study Centre aims to be, with the Conference Centre, is what a healthy memory is within a creative and healthy human being. We need to continue to create the depth and richness of the holdings; we need to improve and enhance their accessibility, and the connections among them and with experience held elsewhere; and we need to get them integrated, as dynamic partners, with people and organisations for whom the experience they contain will be valuable. That will conduce to healthier individuals and a healthier Society.

I suppose I could call this ‘Ruminations’

One morning a while back I was walking across a field near the house. I was taking particular care, because several of the cows in the herd had recently given birth; and while bulls and cattle generally are amenable beings when treated with respect, the atmosphere palpably changes when babies are around.

The herd itself was at the far end of the field, apart from one lone cow off to one side, by the lip leading down to the mill stream. I didn’t know the farmer, and I wasn’t quite sure why the herd had left her alone; but her look at me was so forlorn and empty of challenge that I wandered over, and she accepted my approach almost as if I had been a friend. She didn’t budge or demur, but directed my gaze with supplicating eyes (no, really); and I saw a calf, in the middle of the trickle of the mill-stream below, up to its knees in mud, with thoroughly dried mud caked everywhere. It looked exhausted, and hungry, and as if it had been there throughout the night. It tried but couldn’t escape when I slipped down the bank; and it didn’t have energy to struggle significantly when I put my arms under it to lift.

When the calf was back up the bank and with its mother, it felt as if the mother and I were friends. When I went back the next day, the herd was all together, and the atmosphere was as one would expect: Keep your distance, stranger. No exceptions; and no glimmer of recognition, nor expectation of it from me.

One of my favourite experiences of cattle in those fields was having my daughter on my back in a backpack, scrambling down in the river, and her singing bringing the cows to the fence lining the river above, on the other side. It never failed.

That is the river along which she, my daughter, built a tiny but intricate house for fairies; while her younger brother and I skipped stones and waded.


Face blindness

One of my earliest memories is racing out into the street to ecstatically greet some adult who turned out to be a stranger; while in a more recent encounter, in a meeting at the British Library, a person who drew out no associations when they approached turned out to be someone I had worked closely with in organising and running a conference session only months before.

At least once in any public meeting or event, especially if I have not prepared by reading and re-reading the delegates list, I will abash myself by one mode of tumble into the abyss or the other. Nor is it absolute or predictable. I gave two oral history trainings on consecutive days in neighbouring museums last year, and only in leaving the second and trying to understand both the warmth of welcome from the curator and its cooling did it dawn on me that they had been part of the intensely engaged and creative training on the day before. I recently followed a very old friend down the street without any sense of recognition until we stood next to each other at an intersection; my astonishment doing mid-air pirouettes from the internal Olympic high beam of identity reconstruction, in split seconds, cried out, from her reaction, for explanation. But how do you graciously explain a failure to recognise someone you know well?

Because my default position in life seems to be to like people, and because I am happy to stand in Will Rogers’ shadow with that particular lariat in my hand, the face blindness can  sometimes be a good and welcome friend. Some time after completing my PhD I met someone in the road who was leading a walking tour of my subject-town; and it was only after the warm and lively conversation, drawing the tour members in with the kinds of details and appreciations that only students and lovers of a place can have; and only after the tour had moved on, and was well down the road, that I gradually realised that the leader of the tour was someone who had offended me in the course of my work more than anyone ever has; and indeed did something unforgivable. My face blindness generously saved me from diminishing the reservoir of joy in the world, and from diminishing my soul as well.

But knowing that it is going to open a trap door beneath my feet at some unknown point or points in the midst of an event, with a sense of humour I have not quite learned to appreciate, tickles my native apprehensions about venturing into the world. Conferences approach, and I approach them with trepidation.

‘The essence of music is punctuated silence’

Dave van Ronk with Elijah Wald, The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir, Da Capo Press, 2005/2006; p. 11


“That was a real education and I have spent the rest of my life working with what I learned on those Saturday afternoons at Jack’s place….I learned how to listen.”

“Jack taught me that less is more…Never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence.”


“Will do”. Interesting concept.



Slapping the lads in the tavern on the back


By Ogden Nash

It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,

That all sin is divided into two parts;

One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,

And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,

And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,

And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,

And that is, don’t bother your head about sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.

It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,

That lays eggs under your skin.

The way you get really painfully bitten

Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the cheques you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.

Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,

Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;

You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill

Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,

Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.


No, you never get any fun

Out of the things you haven’t done,

But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,

Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,

Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.


From p. 32-33 of The Face is Familiar: Verses by Ogden Nash, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd. (which explains the “cheques” in this American author (or does it?)), at the Aldine Press, Letchworth, Paperback edition 1965, first published in Great Britain 1942, Revised and rearranged by the author 1954. So, war-baby and baby-boomer, and a child of the 60s, all rolled into one. Would he like that? We went to the same school, but then so did Barack Obama and I: I don’t think it confers privileged insight.



Broadband is not water, not even electricity…

Living in rural England, where mobile phone reception is poor and wi-fi hotspots absent entirely, the BT line goes down: No landline, no broadband. “We’ll try to be out within three working days”. I work like mad over the weekend, but with the line down on Thursday, three days means at least five for BT; and all the calls to India bucked back to the U.K.; and all the deadlines, and all the questions, and all the necessary communications integrated into our daily working assumptions become amputated teasing phantom limbs of impossibility.

If our water was cut, it would be an emergency. If our electricity went down, there would be a sense of urgency. When our means of communication and livelihood break down, the utility offers recorded messages and ultimately people with no remit except to say “No can do”: at first politely, but by the third buck in terse confronting tones of non-apologetic apology: “Back off”. How odd that something so essential to our daily lives and identities is treated so leisurely by its gatekeepers.

Quote of the Week

Every day I wake up to the face of God, and forget to recognise it” . I’m not sure when I first came across this, or in what form – the ‘and’ can become a ‘but’, and so transform the inner narrative of the aphorism; ‘Every’ can become ‘Each’; ‘day’ can become ‘morning’; ‘face’ become ‘fear’, and so on, with each transformation changing its meaning. This is probably the gentlest version, with the substitution of ‘fear’ one of the more interesting and challenging.

January 1st, 2013

On a beautiful winter day, with the days growing longer

Now to clean the toolshed, with doors from one closed

therapeutic community, and steel cabinet from another.

We had a piano from a third, but it came with a mouse;

whose grandchildren many times over still build nests,

having forgotten the therapeutic home of their ancestors,

in the steel cabinet, and among the rusting tools.


([For Neill])