Did They Beat The Drum Slowly?

Over the years, I have acquired huge quantities of what most other people would consider to be junk.

A postcard from my grandparents in 1973, showing an attractive view of the seafront at Bournemouth, several pebbles from the beach at Sandsend (which I selfishly considered to be too beautiful to leave behind) and tucked away in the back of a book, I have the last note my Dad ever wrote to me – about how much food to give the dog and when I needed to put the bin out.

I have a box full of these things and I can’t bear to part with them.

They’re a fragile link to happier times, when we had a full set of family members and nothing really mattered for all the right reasons.  When I read my father’s handwriting, I can imagine he has only stepped into the next room and when I look up, he will be standing in front of me and everything will be the way it’s always been.

Of course, I have memories as well, but I need to read and hold and touch and feel the past in my hands.  To make sure it was really there.

And I’m frightened of forgetting.

A postcard, a cinema ticket, a pebble from the beach – seemingly insignificant things which are lying at the back of a drawer or hiding in a coat pocket.  One day we will stumble across them again and realise they are amongst the most precious objects we possess.  A gift from the past.

And photographs.  Hundreds of them.  Photographs, which were once stuffed back in a Kodak envelope and forgotten about, are examined over and over again … in the hope that they will be generous enough to release another memory or by staring at them for long enough, we will see something we’ve never noticed before.

My Dad used to say that if someone bothers to dust your photograph after you’ve died, then you’ve done rather well for yourself.

There was an old lady who lived several streets away from here.  Within a few days of her death, a huge skip appeared on the driveway.  Each day when I walked past, I noticed that in addition to the broken furniture and the rolls of carpet, little pieces of the past had begun to appear.  Photographs, letters, treasured ornaments which were once dusted and admired … the last person they mattered to had left this earth and once again, they had become insignificant.

I think this is why I find car boots so fascinating.  Hidden amongst the broken bits of Lego and the soggy paperbacks are items which once had the power to touch someone’s heart, but now find themselves sitting on a trestle table in a wet Sunday market.  Forgotten, lost and worthless.

I once stood looking at one of these trestle tables and a man next to me pointed at one of the items he wanted to buy.  It was a photograph of a soldier from the First World War and, although he was slightly faded and time had stolen some of his spirit, he looked just as a hero should – handsome, courageous and full of hope.  The seller began making idle conversation, as he took his one pound fifty, but the man next to me interrupted him and said:

“I’m not interested in the picture, I only want the frame”

And so the stallholder took the photograph of the old soldier out of the glass casing and threw it away.  The young man in the picture had ceased to mean anything to anyone in this world and there was no one left here who wanted to claim him.

I often wonder what will happen to my box of memories.  To anyone else, they will be an inconvenience – a strange collection of insignificant things which will be thrown on a skip or (if someone is lucky) sold for a few pence at a Sunday market.  And, although it hurts to admit it,  I doubt very much anyone will bother to dust my photograph.

If anyone is wondering, I rescued the old soldier from a black bin liner on Calverton market.  I paid fifty pence for him.  I have no idea who he is – whether he lies in the Green Fields of France or if he returned to a hero’s welcome and lived to a deliciously old age.  But in the spirit of Eric Bogle, I will always think of him as Willie McBride.

And he is dusted and he matters.

Perhaps, long after I’m gone, someone will be kind enough to do the same.


  1. December 20, 2010 / 1:52 pm

    I’m glad you saved the soldier. Awful to think he could be thrown away like that.

    When my dad’s mother died my mum and I went through her flat and it was pretty sad how little there was to show for 94 years of living. She was the opposite of a hoarder, but my dad is quite sentimental and I was beginning to think there’d be nothing to keep bar a couple of family photos she’d put on the wall.

    Then I started on her dressing table, and among her handkerchiefs and few items of jewellery, I found a little coin purse stuffed with newspaper clips. My parents’ wedding announcement, my brother’s local tennis wins, pieces about me and my books. There was even a clipping about the death of my mum’s dad, forty years previously. She’d kept those bits of paper in with her treasures. I was quite touched by that.

  2. December 20, 2010 / 2:06 pm

    My mum’s still got an old cassette recording of a Christmas day back in about 1974. It has my grandad telling us The Bear Story, his own off the cuff composition, and a few words and laughter from my father. They’re both gone now and I’m still not brave enough to listen to it again, but I could never throw it away.



  3. Richard
    December 20, 2010 / 2:17 pm

    Jo, you made a old guy cry today.

  4. Clare
    December 20, 2010 / 4:31 pm

    Yet again, your compassion and your writing skills moved me to tears.
    I wouldn’t know you by your photo but your words leave their own wonderful legacy – thank you so much.
    (Thank you for rescuing Willie McBride – his is a poignant story we should never forget.)

  5. BJ Walsh
    December 20, 2010 / 5:57 pm

    Great blog and a fine link to a great song. Thanks.

  6. December 20, 2010 / 8:37 pm

    The Eric Bogle song you reference is beautiful. If folks haven’t heard it, they should find it on the web and give it a listen.

  7. December 20, 2010 / 9:10 pm

    Fabulous, Jo. Just fabulous.

  8. Mike Jarman
    December 20, 2010 / 9:41 pm

    There is no doubt whatsoever that story came straight from the heart of a lovely, compassionate soul. Jo, you brought tears here.
    Not of sorrow, but of love for fellow man. A very touching blog post! Thank you.

  9. December 20, 2010 / 11:03 pm

    My father had an aunt who kept her husband’s hat and umbrella inside the front door where he had always left them. Other people said she was being too sentimental keeping them. Why? It left part of him in the house for her. My father has left my mother’s top drawer just as it was ten years ago. He says it is “too personal” to go through. He misses her. He always will – but, and this is surely the important thing, he is still getting on with life. I am glad you saved the soldier too.

  10. December 21, 2010 / 8:14 am

    What a beautiful and moving post Joanna. I had to wait a few seconds before I could react as your words still lingered in my mind and I could blink away the blur in my eyes. I was expecting you to pick up the photo, because that’s the person you are.

  11. December 21, 2010 / 8:38 am

    Lovely…just lovely. When my brother was killed I found out that he had kept every single letter, card and postcard I had ever written him…the most noticeable thing of all was the big hole left by the absence of the 21st birthday card that I had forgotten to send on time that year. I remembered that I had forgotten, a few days before his birthday, but decided not to send a card because I thought it was too late for it to reach him in time. I realise now that it wasn’t too late, a belated birthday wish is better than none, and I also realised that I had lost my chance to do so when he was killed a few months later. I still forget birthdays – that is just how I am made – but I always send a belated wish to those I have forgotten now.

  12. Tracy Tidswell
    December 21, 2010 / 9:51 am

    I knew you were going to say you’d rescued the photo, that’s what I would have done, and have done before. I bought a second hand book and it had a old photo in it and I couldn’t throw it away. I keep everything, little scraps of drawings in my purse from my children and I still prefer writing good old fashioned letters as they seem more real than emails.
    That was a really moving piece, thank you xx

  13. December 21, 2010 / 9:37 pm

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

  14. Deborah Rickard
    December 24, 2010 / 3:11 pm

    Wow! A lovely, touching story. And a huge coincidence – a friend and I were recently talking about similar things which inspired me to write my first blog – out early in New Year if I can get the site organised and don’t chicken out!

  15. January 1, 2011 / 4:25 pm

    A lovely poignant post – I really like what your dad said about dusting photographs. I am also pleased to read that you rescued the photo. I am sure he mattered to someone at sometime in the past.

  16. January 5, 2011 / 3:42 pm

    This is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing it. D.J.- so sorry for the loss of your brother …please don’t beat yourself up about the card! We all have so many things we wish we had done…

  17. January 28, 2011 / 12:04 pm

    What a lovely story! I suspect your dad was a really special and inspiring person.

    I too have kept lots of reminders of past moments. I’ve encouraged my children to do the same. They all have ‘sentimental’ boxes they’ve made, which are stuffed to the brim. I catch them looking in them quite often, which is really nice.

  18. alisonwells
    February 6, 2011 / 10:46 am

    This is so dear to my heart, those photos, notes, old letters, tickets, things we cut out from newspapers and yes, the memories of people who pass on, it’s always meant so much to me. I still have a cup that was given to me by my gran’s friend, both my gran and she died many years ago. But every time I use the cup I enjoy fond memories of both these kind and lovely ladies.

  19. Martha
    April 25, 2011 / 6:36 pm

    I have a photo exactly like the one you describe on my desk here. I hope it finds it’s way to someone like you when I’m done with it. I can’t bring myself to think of someone throwing it away.

  20. February 5, 2013 / 1:09 am

    I used to have a box like this once. It eventually overflowed so much that I had to get a memory trunk. I too worry about what will become of it when I’m gone. I’d like to imagine someone going through it and remembering my life fondly. It seems unlikely though, as does the idea of anyone polishing my picture, although it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about that one before now.

    At my grandad’s fifth wife’s funeral, where none of the five ‘mourners’ cared that she had gone, I made it my mission to at least make sure that there would be people at my funeral who were sad to be there, rather than just obligated. I’m still hopeful that I can achieve that much at least.

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