13 May 2010
I don't think I've mentioned that I have been doing some voluntary work at the Women's Library cataloguing the photographs from the National Federation of Women's Institutes. The work is undemanding and quite soothingly repetitive - sorting and measuring photographs, putting them into files and adding an entry to what will be the database of the collection. Some of the photos have been especially interesting, like the wartime photos of the work the WI did to preserve food. One favourite is a stall outside a cottage with smart ladies selling meat pies to a woman whose child is sitting in a wicker seat on the back of the her bike. There are some particularly lovely photos of Sussex women drying herbs in cottage kitchens wearing embroidered smocks, as well as more curious pictures of the rabbit fur goods the WI made for Mrs Churchill's Aid to Russia scheme in the 1940s. There's also less stimulating material - what has seemed like ten thousand views of Denman College (yes, I exaggerate, but it felt like it at the time) and innumerable pictures of worthy ladies in hats.
There is rather a poignant circuitry to my ending up doing this work. When I came back to London after travelling in my mid-twenties, I was interviewed for a job at the library, then called the Fawcett Library. It was in a basement with no natural light whatsoever and interested though I was, it would have been too much of a trauma to go from living in the open to working in a dungeon. So here I am, years later, surrounded by gently industrious women, boxes of personal curiosities and women's history.
Working on an archive for the first time has made me think more about what we decide to keep to record our interactions and place in the world. (Kate's archive is a stunning example of how to do this well). So I thought I might retrieve some of the pictures in my online album that have never made it here. This one is Arber's stationery shop in Roman Road, just a short walk from my house. It so happens that the family printed leaflets for the Pankhursts when their HQ was nearby. and Mr A will tell you all about it if you spend time in there. I find any excuse to go in there and buy stuff because it is such a curiosity, packed out with cardboard boxes of envelopes and heaven knows what. Unfortunately he no longer uses the letterpress in the basement because some of the letters are worn out. He once printed some business cards for John on it and decided that he should stick in something about lawns, beds and rockeries "because the card looked a bit bare". Mmm.
I've always liked the signwriting and general decrepitness of this shop but when I walked past earlier this week I was shocked to see that the front had been painted. Thankfully it is not because Mr A, who is coming up for 80, is no longer with us. And thankfully, I have in my archive a reminder of the shop the way I liked it.