My maternal grandmother, Gladys, was a storyteller. She liked nothing better than the invitation to narrate the family album and as children we were pleased to indulge her in this performative act of remembrance. I do not recall her being particularly attached to or involved with the boxes of photographs – they were stored haphazardly with no apparent system of classification or hierarchy. These were not on permanent display, not holy relics nor revered images – instead they were merely props for my grandmothers narratives, illustrations for her stories, entirely secondary to her own interpretation of a lifetime of events.
The photographs were perhaps surprising in number considering the status of the family at the time, mere working class agricultural folk, yet they abound. Some are snapshots taken with cheapo box brownies, but many are the kind of studio portraits that you would dress up in your Sunday best for and then pay by the print. This photographic history begins in the 1910s and gradually gains in number as the years press on and photographic equipment becomes cheaper and increasingly commonplace.
At the advent of World War Two, the number of photographs swells considerably and a disproportionately large number of images document a reasonably short period. Multiple pictures of my grandmother and her comrades in the Women’s Royal Air Force jostle for space with the images of her glamorous younger sister, Ivy, in NAAFI uniform and the skinny, malnourished young men in various Military outfits that would later become their husbands or forever vanish, romantically immortalised as the lost loves-of-their-lives.
At the moments that the pictures were snapped, either of these outcomes seemed entirely possible, although this uncertainty had been historically resolved before I ever encountered the pictures. The photographic images of those-who-mattered must have been so terribly precious when you had legitimate doubts that you would ever see that loved-one again.
My Grandmother’s position as family storyteller was entirely in opposition to that of my grandfather – the silent one, the keeper of secrets. The consequences of war were no mystery to my Grandfather, Leonard Jnr. His father and namesake had been sent off to Europe in 1912 and in his place returned an oversized, bronze medal, a Death Penny. This killed-in-action medal had pride of place in my family home where it had refugee status, seeing as my grandfather had refused to have it in his own house. Leonard Coote Jnr had rejected it, recognising it for what it was – poor substitute for a father, killed before his son was born. Leonard Coote Snr remains where he died in 1916, buried in the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium, just one of many identical graves.
And it was with the death of his never-known father in mind that Leonard Coote Jnr went off to war, like his father, a lowly private in the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Regiment. He did not talk of his war experiences, returning from a liberated Burmese POW camp with Malaria, a battered leather trunk a fresh tattoo and a new taste for spicy food. He had somehow managed to carry with him a small, battered studio photograph of my grandmother – his future wife, throughout his 5 years of service, through Europe, Africa and Burma, ostensibly in the left-breast pocket of his battle-dress tunic.
In peacetime, he continued to carry the same photograph in his wallet, next to his Labour Party membership card. The image showed the woman who was to become his wife, frozen in perfect late 30s glamour, thick lipstick, rolled hair, a provincial Betty Grable. He carried this picture for the next 50 years.
Indeed, my grandmother attempted to replicate that image of her own former self for the same time period and beyond, her red lipstick densely smeared across her thinning, puckering lips in a fearsome act of defiance. By the time my grandfather died in 1989, the photograph was as worn and tired as the woman.
My grandmother took the photograph from her newly deceased husband’s wallet and transferred it to her own purse, a relic of lost life and lost love. Eventually it was stolen, on pension day along with the rest of her Thursday-morning-shopping bag. She did not care about the money or the keys or even the chops she had just purchased at Saxby’s the Butchers, but she was distraught over that much traveled, ratty old photograph.
I moved to London at seventeen, first to Burnt Oak, then rapidly to Camden and by eighteen I was living in Bow. It was a sunny Saturday on the Roman Road when I first made acquaintance with Mauby. She was poking out of a litterbin, her simple glass frame smashed across the bottom. I could have been mistaken but I concluded that she appeared to be forlorn in response to her current indisposition, although she was clearly posh enough that indignation or outrage would have been a more natural expression. I picked her up, shook off the loose shards of glass and took her home, where she took up a rightful stance on the living room wall. A decade later, several house moves, a new frame and mat and ‘Mauby when she was at school, 1927’ still occupies my living room wall.
Mauby is a curious hybrid; a painted photograph. The indexical trace of the sitter through the camera mechanism is the base, but that base has all but been obliterated by the painter’s hand. Did Mauby really look like that? This is not a question one would ask of the pure photograph – but here we need to know, how much of this image is Mauby and how much is the unknown painter? Who commissioned such a thing? Clearly, Mauby was very important to someone. It is not she, the subject that is now the focus of my curiosity, rather it is her relationship to the possessor, the orchestrator and the keeper of this curious image and by extension, the relationship to her new possessor, me.
Mauby is a prop without a play, an illustration without a story, a silent narrative with an absent storyteller. I know who she is, she is Mauby, when she left school, in 1927. Yet I don’t know why she is frozen this way, mummified on my living room wall, she cannot tell me.
When my grandmother died in 2004 her boxes of photographs were piled amongst a myriad of random objects and detritus, borne of 86 years of living, loving and saving, These things were stacked in their containers in my mother’s conservatory, designated “To be dealt with sometime hence”. When my mother died unexpectedly a few weeks later, the photographs came to me, along with a treadle operated Singer sewing machine and a box of cutlery. My great-grandfather’s Death Penny was strangely absent. In time my grandmother’s boxes of images have become to be just like ‘Mauby’, without my grandmother’s story-telling the people featured are no more or less to me than the random woman I rescued from an East-End bin. Of course, I do know who the people in my grandmother’s photographs are. I have a context for them in the post-memories I have constructed from my grandmother’s narratives, but I still do not know these people. I have no knowledge of how they moved, their voices, their peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, I only know my own relationship to the images. These post-memories are filtered through the mind of my grandmother- I can tell her stories, much the way she did, but as much is forgotten as is remembered. They now are props for a game of filial Chinese whispers.
Moving to Dalston in 2002 introduced me to a lot more “Maubys”, or photographs without attached memories. The famous Dalston Wasteland Market often turned up battered envelopes of fading snapshots or disembodied photographic album pages. More occasionally, I found whole volumes, complete documents of unidentified dynasties. Sometimes the images were of places, tourist spots, exteriors of properties, even domestic interiors; but mostly they featured people, family documents without families, forever separated from their natural owners due to divorce, death or illness. Many of these photographs found their way home with me. Sometimes other things too – used greeting cards, a baby’s (born 1941) booklet recording birth weight and first steps, but not completed, ending abruptly either through lack of novelty or loss of the booklet, or perhaps even the child itself. Most specially, a handbag complete with its entire contents exactly as its last owner had left it – a rain bonnet, a comb, a hand sewn bag containing paper hankies, a button hook and a teeny-tiny statue of the Virgin Mary in her own tomb-like container. A stallholder specialising in house-clearance once remarked that he liked me because I always picked out the things that other people did not seem to notice.
I didn’t just notice them, I fell in love with them. These snapshots that I so adore are not indicative of memories – more they are Barthesian counter-memories – they look like memories (or at least, they look like the way we have culturally assigned visual form to memory), but how can they become real memories if there is no one left to perform the act of memory in their presence? They are instead traces, specimens, samples and cross-sections of times and moments – proof that time itself exists, as much evidence of time as the stark contrast between my grandmother’s 80 year old crudely lipsticked mouth and her perfect portrait of 60 years previous.