Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Put back in the attic: memories of failure and marital breakup

It's an annual event. Every winter I go up into my attic and fetch down some boxes of photo prints or slides to scan. There's an awful lot up there. I took some 5,000 pictures from 1965 to 1989 using colour transparency film (mounted after processing as 'slides'), and 23,400 pictures from 1989 to 2000 using colour or black and white print film. I discarded anything that wasn't technically perfect (or near-perfect), but still ended up with a collection of 2,500 transparencies and some 15,000 prints, kept in boxes.

My ideal would be the scan the cream of all those pictures, and add them to the Melford digital photo archive. But although I have been having a go at that every winter since 2000, I doubt whether as many as 3,500 have been scanned, processed, and filed away in the archive. Scanning and processing (captioning and so forth) is a slow task. So it's definitely a thing for dull and rainy winter days. And although it's often interesting and satisfying to digitise these pictures, it stretches the notion of 'a labour of love' a very long way, and I soon tire of it.

Each winter, though, I have another attempt. Generally I do it by theme: pictures of a certain person, or a place, or a particular subject. This year I decided to be more comprehensive: I would examine all my pictures of individuals and groups during the 1980s, and scan the best ones. The 1980s were very much under-represented in my digital photo archive. It was high time I addressed that.

So down came five boxes of transparencies. Even if I selected only the best pictures, this represented weeks of work, on and off. But once done, that hole in my digital photo record would finally be filled.

Why hadn't I scanned much from the 1980s before?

Well, you need to understand that it was the decade that I lived in London. It was punctuated by several events, some good, some bad:

1980: Selected for Final Course Training in the Inland Revenue. This was a demanding, degree-standard course involving notoriously difficult exams. If I were successful, my career would really take off. Dad had taken this course before me, in the 1960s, and had won a well-deserved promotion from it. If I were equally successful, I would no longer be an ordinary Inspector of Taxes, but an officer who could command a Tax District, or even occupy a policy seat at the Revenue's Head Office. So much rode on being picked for Final Course Training. It was an honour.

1983: After two failures at the exams, I was denied a further attempt. It meant a return to ordinary duties. Mum and Dad must have felt humiliated. I'd done my best, but it hadn't been good enough. I felt a failure. To compensate, I promptly got married. I'd been pressed to agree, and I was thirty. At the time, getting married seemed, in a way, to offer an alternative career path.

1985: Based on my office results, I was selected for promotion to a new grade, in which I would manage the investigation work of the other Inspectors, answerable only to the District Inspector. It was an achievement. But I knew I'd never now get higher. (And I never did) 

1987: The first four years of my marriage were over, and we had settled down to our humdrum existence in south-west London. The spark had gone. There was no sharing. There would be no more holidays. The pointless arguments had begun.

1989: A fresh start. We moved out of London to Sussex, just outside Horsham. There was the excitement of buying new furnishings, of sampling life in the sticks. But after only a year, the harmony broke down and the tensions came back.

By the winter of 1990/91 my marriage was finished as a going concern. We split. We were both working in London, but W--- left to live there, while I stayed on in Sussex. Divorce eventually followed.

You can see from this brief résumé that I did not have a uniformly good time in the 1980s. High hopes turned sour. Everyday existence was dull and unrewarding. My best times were at the office, but they were overshadowed by the knowledge of having failed those important exams. I was in some respects over-qualified for what I now did. I was regarded as something of an oddity, and my background and office history were never forgotten. I found London stifling.

I remember going off to Liverpool in 1984, on a two-day trust course. I spent the sunny evenings riding the Liverpool Metro, sailing on the Mersey Ferry, and walking the streets of the City centre. Liverpool was mine. It was such a friendly place. I felt free. I was reluctant to return to London, to my marriage, and the daily torture of home-to-office and office-to-home.

I thought of all this, as I contemplated the five slide boxes brought down from the attic.

There would be pictures in them I hadn't seen for a very long time. It hadn't all been dispiriting. There had been some good times, some sophistication, certainly plenty of laughter. But also some despair, and a constant feeling of being trapped. And memories of something between anger and boredom. It was my first marriage, W---'s second. Why had it failed? We never had a proper inquest. We just agreed that it had fallen apart, and that we needed to live separately.

Did I want to rekindle any of this, by scanning the photos? I decided that I didn't. I'd pondered on my marriage too much already. It was kinder to myself to leave the pictures in the boxes. Some reason to dig them out again would no doubt arise in the future, but for now I didn't want to relive the past. And it was, after all, thirty years ago; nearly everyone in those shots was out of my life. What, really, was the point? To get at the truth, to look for evidence, to correct my memory?

Yes...but to be honest, I wasn't in the mood to play the dispassionate historian. I'd taken years to get over failing those exams, disappointing my parents, and not managing to make a marriage work. Reviving all that wouldn't help me now. It might drag me down.

So the boxes went back up into the attic.

It's a New Year, I thought. You're a much more accomplished person now than you were in the 1980s.  Don't spoil it. The future lies ahead. Look forwards, not backwards.

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