I've come late to this game. Unlike my more practical and organised friends, over lockdown I've had difficulty getting into a decluttering frame of mind, but there's nothing like the death of a significant national figure to remind one of matters mortal. My husband has been on at me for months, reminding me how hard it was to clear my mother's house a decade ago when she had to enter a care home. Every cupboard, every drawer, every corner everywhere was just stuffed with stuff, from expensive clothes rarely worn to bars of chocolate never eaten.
I'm going about it slowly, pile by pile. A smidgeon at a time. It would be too overwhelming otherwise. I watch programmes about house moves and refurbishments and marvel at images of gleaming kitchens devoid of clutter. Why can't we be more like that? As a couple without dependents we don't use much stuff, but over the years, after several house moves and clearances, we've accumulated enough to equip several households – crockery, cutlery, ornaments, souvenirs, not to mention books. When charity shops reopen I have stuff ready to go.
Many items I have no wish to part with. My maternal grandmother's wedding tea set, for instance. Delicate little cups and saucers, only one missing after more than a century, pure white porcelain, gilt-rimmed, painted with looped green garlands and tiny pink roses. My grandfather bought it in Harrods in London in 1905. Not long back from serving with the Lovat Scouts during both Boer Wars, within a decade he would be at war on the Western Front and in the Middle East. There are eyeless wally dugs that sat either end of the kitchen mantelpiece in their Highland home and a tall brass and engraved pink glass paraffin lamp that hasn't been lit in my lifetime.
There are gifts from friends, mugs galore from the 1960s and 70s, expressive of the nomadic freedom of those years, and some later Emma Bridgewater designs. There's a tall Dartington ceramic vase in a chequered design, a large jolly Royal Doulton beer mug in the shape of Falstaff my brother thought would amuse me and a more elegant one of Elizabeth Bennet serving tea I bought for my mother. More recently my brother, who lives in Hong Kong, bought me a set of miniature Dickensian figures purchased from a company called King and Country from whom, before he married, he spent a fortune assembling whole battalions of military miniatures. I was duly appreciative, although I would have loved some street-trading figures of old Hong Kong.
And these don't scratch the surface of the souvenirs we've brought home from Russia, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Beijing, Xian, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and, before Covid blotted out the world, Denmark and Prague. Pleasant reminders, but they hog space, and don't get me started on the dusting.
In a bulging orange file I found a clutch of old newspapers. Most relate to the period 1948-80. The earliest, a copy of The Press and Journal
for September, 1948, lists the MB.ChB graduates from Aberdeen University for that year, my mother's name among them. The headline runs '25 out of 65 new doctors are women'. Clearly the number was unusual enough to be highlighted. The papers for 1952 and 1955 record the births of my two younger brothers. 1976 records the tragic death, just weeks before what would have been his 21st birthday of the younger one. Those for November 1980 record my father's death, ominously not much older than I am now.
The oldest newspaper of the lot, however, is a copy of the Falkirk Herald and Midland Counties Journal
for 26 September 1897, costing 'One Penny'. I had never seen it before. It's in a distinctly fragile state, folded in eight with ragged edges, the tops of the pages still uncut, and a great hole torn out of the bottom, possibly before the perpetrator realised there might be something worth keeping in it. The front page is full of notices and ads, emphasising, I suppose, why many established papers carried the word 'Advertiser' in their title. Among them is the notice of my paternal grandparents' wedding in Denny, Stirlingshire. Brief, unremarkable, it contains the date and place of the wedding, the name of the minister who presided, the names of the couple and the fact that my grandmother's father was a 'retired farmer'.
My eye slid over to the Wanted column. A printworks: 'Wanted, Intelligent, Well Educated Boy (not under 14) as Apprentice Compositor; also Strong, Active Lad (not under 15 preferred) as Apprentice in Machine Department'. The ages caught my attention. Further down a 'Smart, Strong Boy for Messages' was wanted. Wages: 6 shillings a week. Further down still, came opportunities for the girls. A fully trained 'Infant Mistress' was required at a salary of £65-£75 'according to experience'. A year, presumably? A shop wanted 'Smart Girl (16)'. And then a legion of servants, housekeepers, cooks: 'Strong Girl (about 16)’' wanted 'for Housework'. You can imagine what that might entail. Finally, 'Wanted, a Respectable Woman as Housekeeper for a Working Man; Middle-Aged.'. Interesting.
There are shop adverts, 'A Grand Show of New Millinery', Church notices, Masonic notices, tuition offered in dressmaking, languages and dancing, a turnip growing competition and an intriguing invitation to join an expedition direct by steamer from Glasgow's Broomielaw to the Yukon River 'in good time for operations at the [Klondyke] Gold Fields'. I wonder if anyone followed that up. If so, was it worth it?
In the middle, over eight and a half full-length columns in tightly packed print, is an account of a Jubilee Celebration held in Falkirk Town Hall with 400 guests for Mr George Liddle, a local schoolmaster. It begins with an astonishingly detailed account of the decorations within the hall, naming the local firms who supplied materials. There's a full guest list, including many of Mr Liddle's grateful former pupils and colleagues. Speeches are recorded verbatim, including insertions of '(Applause)', '(Loud Applause)', even '(cries of 'Hear! Hear!')'.
Mr Liddle had taught in three parish schools in Scotland, in Glasgow, Ecclesmachan and Falkirk. He began his career in 1847 and was minded to continue, his energy apparently undimmed. In his own speech, he reflected on the changes in the education system he had experienced, the 1872 Act being the most significant and controversial. He was a man after Miss Jean Brodie's heart. One who sought to 'lead out' rather than 'cram in'. He did not believe in the tawse. Surely rare at the time? He was presented with fulsome addresses from the school board and his former pupils in a sumptuous silver casket engraved with the burgh arms and a personal inscription.
It seems to have been a unique occasion: the man's longevity and the regard in which he was held. It paints an evocative picture of the state of education in a rural Scottish burgh over a century ago, the year of Queen Victoria's own Jubilee. Change is lamented, Gradgrindery deplored. There is much kailyard sentiment, but also community warmth, a belief in the value of education and how best to deliver it. I've decided not to throw it out. Local though its references, it's rather an interesting time capsule.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh