What they should say as you go into an archive is “If you’ve been to Argos, you’ll be fine”

You can believe Iain Duncan Smith resigned yesterday over disability benefit cuts or because of the EU referendum or because he can no longer serve under a man who did unthinkable things to a pig. We choose a perspective, or have one chosen for us by the people we choose to listen to.

And then there are archives. Not entirely free from bias (someone has chosen what’s important and what’s twaddle of course) but with the right sort of time and inclination (and two forms of ID and proper writing tools) we can try and unpick what we’re told or find something we’ve never heard before — we can try and understand for ourselves more than one side to a story.

Even if actually going to an archive is a little confusing the first time.

You walk in and you’re offered a pencil. And if you say you’re fine and take out a pen they set off an alarm, rugby tackle you to the floor, take the pen out of your hand and throw it out of the window into a vat of acid, and then wrestle a pencil in its place. Or rather they gently push a pencil your way with a sheet of paper explaining why pens are the enemy of archives. The room is small, filled with nice drawers and wood and you want to take pictures for instagram but you can’t. There’s a sign. You might see the sign after you’ve already taken the photo.

lovely drawers

The first step is to look at a catalogue. Not laminated catalogues, but bound catalogues in various shades of red and brown. They include descriptions of what the items are, dates and a code. You put in a request using the codes on paper (at this point I tried to use pen again, it was an accident and it will never happen again, I promise) and hand it in. Only five requests at a time. Someone takes your piece of paper to a room you don’t see and they return clutching the wares like newborn kittens. And leave you with them.

And then the rigmarole all makes sense. Rather than a harrowing number of boxes filled with bathroom mirrors and fridge freezers, the mysterious rooms of an archive hold a different sort of treasure. Keys in the shape of letters folded and unfolded so many times you’re scared your touch will be the last time it will be seen in one piece. They link us to a time we didn’t experience. To people we didn’t meet, could never have met. They can help us rethink stories we think we know. Running my fingers over marks made by the actual hands of the people I’ve been reading and thinking about has shifted something for me.

I’ve been reading letters to and from Lord and Lady Penrhyn around the time of the strike at the quarry between 1900 and 1903. Letters from neighbouring quarry owners grateful for gifts in the form of peacocks and game. Grateful after the strike for having fought the battle, the result of which is no doubt very beneficial to Welsh Slate Quarry owners”. Some, like those, were exactly as I’d expected — even though they did make me feel a bit ill. And others surprised me. I was surprised to see how much Lord Penrhyn worried what other people thought of him. How quickly he wanted to correct what he saw to be misinformation and misrepresentation of him in the press. I was surprised that they had kept letters that seemed full of contempt — why didn’t they just throw them in the fire? Like this one written by “an Englishman”:

20th April, 1901
Dear Sir
I have this night had one of the happiest evening of my life in hearing the Penrhyn Choir render songs, in order to raise sums of money to support people who are now suffering through your own fault and through the fault of an uncivilised being. I do hope that you will think over your decision and remember that you will one day have to give an account of the deeds done in the body that is, you will be charged with having caused the suffering of 15000 of your own people. I do pray that you will “Repent and be corrected” and also reinstate your old and honest workmen who have done nothing whatever to cause this crisis, always remembering that the selfish will suffer one day. Yours Truly “An Englishman”.

A year later there’s a report from private investigators who have been hired to look into the slanderous statements given at concerts by “the Bethesda choir”.

Perhaps the two are connected.

Perhaps not.

There’s a limit to how much an archive can reveal. We still have to join our own dots. And that’s where perspective comes blundering in again.

I’m grateful to the kind and patient and clever people from Bangor University (especially Sarah Vaughan) who have introduced me to their world and given me keys to get lost in another.

You should find a reason to go to one near you.