breathing the dust of our ancestors
On Thursday and Friday, I spent twelve hours in a dusty archive and eight hours commuting there and back.
Between the amount of pollen resident in the country air and the amount of dust in the archive stacks, my lungs (and sinuses) have felt the weight of generations coming and going.
Most of the stuff I’m dealing with in the archive is from the 1940s to 1980s, but some of it goes as far back as the 1880s, and the ancients and prehistory are not uncommon topics of discussion. Leafing through letters; lectures given to students, professional management, and the local church lady’s social; advertisements and brochures of leather, machinery, and the latest shoe fashions segregates oneself from the normal goings-on of the world. But history seen through the narrow lens of shoe trends still bares witness to the large movements of history. The coming and going of the Romans and Vikings are seen in the archaeological record of leather soles and iron tacks. The conflicts of church, state and the rising and falling of mediaeval feudal lords show up in sumptuary laws and the shoes carved in the tombs of the gentry. The English quelling of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 is testified to by a union of shoe makers complaining about not getting paid. And the clock ticks on through glossy catalogues of coronation attire, and post-war patriotism.
Every once in a while the real world, like that unwanted step child, steps in to say hello. I don’t speak German, but the Nazi letterhead and official bureaucratic seal needs no translation. A series of letters dated c. 1935 rested between the leather manufacturer’s sample booklet and a lady’s shoe catalogue. Half of me is curious to know what the Third Reich wanted from Northamptonshire shoe experts. Part of me is content to simply close the box and shuffle on, breathing the dust of friendlier generations.