They Took His Life and Threw it on a Skip by Julia Jones

The morning after,
with the cable repair in progress

‘I Took My Life and Threw It on the Skip’
Poem by James Fenton
Francis Wheen remembers meeting James Fenton in the early 1980s in a state of high excitement. He’d just found an Adana printing press on a skip in the Gray’s Inn Road …

The morning after the night before did not bring quiet sorrow. An employee from the National Grid called early. They had been searching for a break in a main power cable. Somewhere, 10,000 volts was pouring into the ground. Their search had led them to our house.

On the previous night (Friday 13th for the superstitious) the two rooms and roof space that contained my partner Francis Wheen’s current and past writing; his letters, articles, books and CDs collected over forty years, had burned down, with a sudden and shocking thoroughness. Now, our grief at what had been lost was moderated by a realisation that we were lucky, all of us, to be alive. One end of the severed cable was dangling directly into the area where the fire brigade had set up a small table for the cups of tea and chocolate digestive biscuits we had carried out to them: the other was in the open field where the teenage children had migrated for an alternative view of the conflagration.

A forensic investigator was soon on the scene. Diligent, painstaking and intelligent he tramped the site, removed samples of attenuated cable and took both Francis and I repeatedly though our memories of what had happened. I expected that at any moment he would read us a caution or shut us into separate rooms to guard against collusion. The timing of Francis’s 999 call was checked against the time that the fault alarm had been registered at the electricity sub station some seven miles away. There were only minutes between the two events but sufficient for the supply company to reassure themselves that our fire had caused their cable to part and not vice versa. It was possible, said the investigator,  that our insurance company might want to send out their own forensic team. Meanwhile he shared our assumption (and that of the fire-brigade) that the fire had begun somewhere in the array of IT equipment on and around Francis’s desk.

IT equipment generates heat, heat ignites paper. Or maybe some philistine army of rodents had gnawed through the cabling, like the knights of the Fourth Crusade who looted and burned the Imperial Library of Constantinople in 1204. Or the Mongol invaders who destroyed Baghdad’s House of Wisdom in 1258 – making the waters of the Tigris ‘run black with ink’. Francis remembers being present in 1981 immediately after the Tamil library at Jaffna, Sri Lanka, had been destroyed by the Singalese in a deliberate act of cultural vandalism. He's hoping that the article in which he recorded his impressions is preserved somewhere in the files of the Guardian.
Third of the skips that are taking  away the record of a life -- so far.
The destruction of a library – or a lifetime time’s work (to date) – is a pivotal event. In Francis’s case I’m guessing that Friday April 13th 2012 will be felt as a demarcation point on many different levels – not least his (and our) attitude to paper. The neatly stacked print-out of his novel-in-progress could not ensure its survival any more than the back-up copy on the memory stick in his desk drawer. Cue: sudden family conversion to remote forms of storage. I use Dropbox: He is now emailing every day’s new work to a location somewhere in the vaults of the Google Empire.

But how secure is this? Or how permanent? And how permanent do we expect or want it to be? One of my private anxieties about publishing in electronic formats is that, as soon as technology moves on, work published for today’s e-readers will become inaccessible as these particular devices are superseded. I look at the gutted heap of PCs and laptops Francis had preserved so faithfully since his first purchase of an Amstrad in 1986 and they tell their own tale of obsolescence. Perhaps, in the future, our 2012 ebooks will be able to be re-mastered into new formats, like the breathtakingly emotive series of Bach Cantatas recorded in Berlin 1949 – 1952 by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) and now re-released by Archiv. (My belated birthday gift to myself.) At Authors Electric we are independent writer-publishers. These ebooks are so purely our own property. There’s no copyright library where we can deposit our files for enlightened generations to come. Will Google Books provide our permanence?

Some burned laptops
 Either electronic storage is a mess, or I am confused. I read Debbie Bennett’s recent comments about the unwelcome permanency of blogs. I’ve heard people’s irritation that details supposedly removed from Facebook resurface unexpectedly. Yet I’ve also gone to retrieve cached articles to discover they are no longer there and I listened, recently, to a friend who was in the forefront of IT analysis from the later 1970s to early 1990s. He had attempted an Internet search to reacquaint himself with the history of his own generation, to discover that there was almost nothing electronically saved. “It’s in no-one’s interest to maintain archives,” he said. “There’s no responsibility beyond the commercial.” (Cally Phillips’s Brand Loyalty will have a view, I’m sure.)

The record of Herbert Allingham's working life  (fl 1886 - 1936)
I cleared an attic to make a new place for Francis to work. I was ruthless with the heaps of paper that had accumulated there. “Why should you remain?” I asked my old tax records and OFSTED files, “when all Francis’s letters from Michael Foot and Christopher Hitchens are gone?” One wall of boxes remained undisturbed. The Herbert Allingham archive. These are papers that have only survived because his daughters, Margery and Joyce, believed that their father’s lifetime of unappreciated labour had a value. 

I tremble for them. The penny periodicals that printed Allingham’s long melodramatic serials are dying as surely than the back issues of Private Eye which went up in the flames of April 13th. The 1880s, when Herbert Allingham’s publishing career began, was the first decade in which wood pulp became a significant raw material for British paper-making. In 1800 paper was still hand-made from rags; in the 1820s Fourdrinier machines devalued the artisans, then the publishing entrepreneurs of the 1830s and 40s began importing increasing quantities of esparto grass to bolster productivity as the astonishing nineteenth century got underway.

“Paper was to the urban revolution what iron was to the industrial revolution,” says Scott Bennett in ‘The Golden Stain of Time’, his brilliant essay on periodical preservation. By 1851 Britain was the first country in the world where more people lived in towns than in the countryside. Paper became ubiquitous – for advertisements and announcements, for religious evangelism and for wrapping food. As the move towards universal literacy gathered pace, newspaper proprietors began buying larger areas of the Canadian forests.  

Advertising pages from a 1901 edition of The Christian Globe,an evangelical penny newspaper founded in 1874 by Herbert Allingham's father  
By 1901 Britain imported 16,000 tons of rags, 194,000 tons of esparto and 448, 000 tons of wood pulp. The cheapest papers, for the mass-market, took the least trouble to de-acidify their products. They were ephemeral by design.

And so they have proved. Researchers into nineteenth and early twentieth century periodicals become used to the scent of decomposition in the stacks, to the petillation of toast-coloured fragments strewn beneath the desk at the end of each days’ work. In 2008 15% of the total British Library collection was deemed unusable due to deterioration. Some of the cheapest papers for which Allingham wrote no longer exist in any repository. As soon as Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is finished, the sooner Allingham’s archive gets out of my attic and into the controlled environment of a university library. And the sooner I’ll sleep easy.
          By Julia Jones

File copy for The Czar's Chief Spy
a serial written for Yes and No - a very trashy, therefore very rare, penny paper of 1905
A note in Allingham's handwriting says 'Keep safe. This is the only copy.'


Susan Price said…
A superb post, Julia. Thank you.
Lee said…
Superb indeed!
Anonymous said…
It's very sobering to realise just how fragile whole chunks of our lives really are. I think this post will haunt me for quite a while.
CallyPhillips said…
You actually made me cry, Julia! (That's no mean feat, I'm hard as nails) I'll regather myself and think of something more measured later.... it's sobering, it's horrific, it's Room 101 for writers.
Linda Gillard said…
This wonderful post was moving & thought-provoking at so many levels. Thank you, Julia.
Pauline Fisk said…
We write because we don't want to let things go, so seeing them go - whether our own work or someone else's - is just so terrible. Thank you, Julia, for a post which, as everyone has already said, is thought-provoking, sobering and totally unsettling. We're all so vulnerable. It may not have happened to us [yet] but we all stand by you in this.
Heartrending post, Julia. Especially those skips. Creative work contains so much of our lives.
Clare Mulley said…
Great post, amazing sense of perspective.
Clare Mulley said…
Great post, amazing sense of perspective.
Anonymous said…
Terrifc post, Julia. Heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Thank you, Sheri
Penny Dolan said…
Incredibly moving - and raises so many questions about the "permanence" of technologies.
Jan Needle said…
i come late to the fray, and have nothing to say - except i agree with everyone. that's wonderful, julia. especially, as a natural and unrestructured ghoul, the mental picture of a skeletal and fire-blackened fire crew with digestives in their claws, sitting beneath the death delivering cable from on high. i'm so glad your lovely, lovely house was undamaged, however. love n kisses, jan
adele said…
So very sorry to hear about Francis's loss. This is a most interesting and sobering post. Thank you.
"You can never have too many backups", or so we were taught on our computer programming course... Posts like this always make me think of the Library of Alexandria burning down with all that priceless knowledge lost. A great shame if the material is valuable in some way.

On the other hand, I think the very impermanence of our words could be more of a blessing than a curse? Some writers destroy all their unpublished work before they die, horrified by the thought of someone discovering it later. The idea of all those blog posts hanging around forever has rather put me off blogging.
Lee said…
Katherine raises an interesting question. The world population having just recently topped 7 billion, we can't possibly archive everything that's potentially out there. Nor can we accurately predict what will be of value to future generations. How do we decide what to keep and what to discard? Who gets to decide?

I'm not quite sure if Julia's IT friend is right that “There’s no responsibility beyond the commercial.” He seems to have worked in IT analysis in the time before the internet really took off, and while commercial interests may indeed predominate, there are also government stakes (security, for one), as well as cultural instititions such as Europeana, the British Museum, the Smithsonian etc. and even projects like the Internet Archive.
julia jones said…
I don't know about the internet archive project - tell us more ...
Jennie Walters said…
Thanks for sharing this with us, Julia. What a traumatic experience you've all been through, but thank goodness you're all OK. Perhaps something positive will come out of this - if nothing more than the fact that you've weathered it together. But undoubtedly a great loss...
Linda Newbery said…
Doh! Just typed a comment and then lost it before posting - a very very minor matter indeed, but reminds me how galling it is to lose even a page or two of unsaved work, let alone a large chunk of novel, and all the other precious things. Gut-wrenching. But an excellent post, as others have said.
Thanks for such a very moving, sad and thought provoking post, Julia. We live in such odd times. A few years ago, an elderly woman in this village lent me a charred copy of the schoolmaster's commonplace book from the early 1800s. It had belonged to a friend, and after she died, her young relatives had put it, along with various papers, on a bonfire. It had only just been rescued in time. I copied what I could from it, put it on a local history website and returned the book as I had promised I would. But that person too has gone and I have an uneasy feeling that the book has disappeared - so that sole, handwritten, surviving record of our school and the children who attended and the day to day accounts of what happened in the school and the village - is only online and probably nowhere in the real world at all.
CallyPhillips said…
Julia, I tried 3 times to post a follow up yesterday but each time failed to convince the system I wasn't a robot. It was just to say that while this post raises so many interesting things to talk about re permanence and data and stuff, it all seems trivial against your REAL experience. For me it's a theoretical horror, for you it's become reality. So empathy and good feelings are all that can be offered, which you have in bucketloads - the rest is silence.
Lee said…
Hi Julia,

I really don't know more about the Internet Archive than that it exists. Here's the link:

Perhaps there are other projects of this sort?

And Cally, my experience with grief is that silence is often the worst thing of all.
julia jones said…
Thank you very much for the link, Lee. I'll probably follow it up and will also get my IT analyst friend to clarify what he had expected to find saved and didn't. A balance of empathy, sympathy and silence is perfect, dear Cally. A lovely Jewish cameraman came a few days after the fire and his very presence reminded me of the many eloquent ways some cultures have evolved to deal with grief and loss. F and I however are typical emotionally buttoned up English and feel stronger (usually) if we can shed our tears in private. I have however been overwhelmed by the responsive kindness that has come my way over the last 24 hours. But I am only the sufferer by proxy.
Lee said…
Julia, I hope I haven't offended or hurt you in any way by intruding on a need for silence, and I apologise if I have. I suppose I just assumed that by writing a blog post, you wished to discuss the experience.
Kathleen Jones said…
Your wonderful post, Julia, reminded me how vulnerable we all are to the elements. I was also fascinated by the paragraphs on Herbert Allingham - it sounds a really interesting project.
You've also made me realise I need to find a home for precious documents that came into my possession when researching the life of Catherine Cookson - 5 hours of tapes made by her, talking frankly about her life, that are utterly unreplaceable. And photographs taken by her husband Tom. Maybe a university is the right place.
Thinking of you and Francis, though I know thoughts are pretty useless.
gillian darley said…
Julia, a wonderful, thoughtful piece. I suppose we are all, well I am, moving away from paper records but at our own sluggish pace. To have that 'decision' taken and by such means - there are no words to deal with it whether on or off the page. And as for such loss, my pennyworth; words are cathartic and silence isn't. Sometimes those things, once written down, need never be read again. But it eases the grief.
julia jones said…
Dear Lee - Of course you haven't offended! I feel immediate support, warmth and also intelligent interest from you - and yes, if one writes a blog piece and no one responds it's only half the value. However, I think one of the reasons that I am writing and Francis isn't, is that I am only peripherally affected whereas with him it is so deep. I was even slightly uncertain whether he would want to read it (as well as distinctly nervous). But Gillian - you know Francis, you can see how he can't at the moment say very much. The lovely cameraman actually filmed him poking about in the soggy blackened heap and was probably disappointed when F stopped talking about a particular packet of letters "because they'd only make me blub". Give the lad time!
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, I've only just read your post because I was away yesterday. It is indeed moving - and also very frightening. However could we have thought our work was permanent? Yellowing flakes in the BL are wonderful when compared to a novel on a floppy disk from a computer with no hard drive and written in a long defunct word-processing program, as some of my favourite books were when my computer was a secondhand Atari. All long beyond recall. I'm having to have them all professionally retyped for Kindle from copies of the published books. All except for the one which never go published because I accidentally threw out the one existing MS with the rubbish one dreadful day when I cleared my cluttered desk. Unlike Thomas Carlyle I didn't have a housemaid to blame.
Dear Julia,
I have not been here as long as most others, so each time I have read about what has happened to Francis' life work I have restrained myself from responding as it felt as though I might be intruding.
I do still feel that to an extent...
But tonight my mind is on Mikhail Bulgakov...and his desperate burning of the manuscript of The Master and Margarita...and his later rewriting of that manuscript from subconscious memory and his inclusion within the new text of the line "manuscripts don't burn".
I hope, regarding Francis' novel-in-progress at the very least, but perhaps even more extensively to encompass his other works, that there is a truth in the spirit of Bulgakov's statement which can later become some measure of a salve for this situation.
All best,
Peter Dowden said…
I believe the word 'skip' comes from the Scandinavian languages' word for 'ship' (you can also see the physical resemblance between the two objects). Anyway I hope the image of ships carrying Francis's stuff away helps. A Viking funeral perhaps?

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

Last Chapter?

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee