I had a long one-on-one lunch and even longer conversation with a former colleague this week. The theme of memory, and loss thereof – personal, cultural and institutional – quickly emerged from our discussion of couple of recent incidents.

He’d recently met, by chance, an old friend in a part of London he rarely visits (in fact, he no longer lives in London). This friend passed on the sad news that a mutual pal (let’s call him Henry) had just died while still in his 40s. Henry had lived a busy not to say chaotic life, but had finally settled down in Norway. My ex-colleague was aware that Henry had started to catalogue and post on the internet some of the many (now iconic) photographs he’d taken of the club scene in the 90s. After Henry’s sudden death his Facebook page was still visible but his Instagram account, with all his photos, had been taken down. If my friend had not had this chance encounter he might have gone on for years wondering what had happened to Henry.

The conversation turned to another friend who had, a few years back, taken possession of a box of letters and photographs belonging to her grandfather, Lionel Morris. Someone she vaguely knew had bought the house her grandfather had once lived in, and he found some mysterious personal items in the attic. It transpired that Lionel Morris had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, achieving the distinction of becoming the Red Baron’s first victim. No one in her family had any idea. This led to her writing a substantial book. Will there will be boxes of letters and photos waiting to be discovered in cellars and attics 50 years hence?

Quite possibly not

The interesting/scary thing is that, while every aspect of many people’s lives is recorded online in tedious, granular detail, it could all disappear in a storm of solar flares (which is the “what if?” conceit behind the comedy film Yesterday). My ex-colleague works with a chief press officer who has never actually bought a newspaper. News is something he gets on his tablet and the concept of press cuttings means nothing to him. But if he’d thought to look at them from time to time he would have learned quite a lot about the organisation he was representing.

I may be a lot older but, I should admit, I am beginning to behave in much the same way.

I must have printed fewer than 10 photos in the last 10 years

Of course they are all “saved” to a hard drive that needs to be plugged into a computer (remember the Zip drive? No? Exactly). Maybe my photos aren’t too interesting now, indeed I am certain that they aren’t, but with the passing of time even the mundane becomes interesting, and sometimes fascinating. What’s that in the background? A Triumph Herald parked in front of Woolworth’s? Even on the wonderful web it’s hard to find pictures of your village high street in the 70s. But they are around somewhere.

I have kept nearly every letter received from the age of 15, and they have formed the background to much that I have written about in this blog, but what about the last 10 years? Hardly a postcard to look at.

Maintained under strict archival conditions

Does anyone believe Facebook when they say they “care about you”, as they assure me every week? I wouldn’t depend on any social media giant to look after my digital archive. Or would I? Do I print out and keep these blog posts? Er… no. I am labouring my point, but revisiting and studying one’s personal history is essential to understanding the reasons behind those early successes and failures and trying to do better in future. And the same goes for institutions right up to international level. See my musings on The Good Old Days.

Know your history

My ex-colleague had to work very hard to explain that the job he was being asked to do was not an appropriate job for a civil servant because it was a party political issue. His boss, aged 30 at most, did not get it and it had to be explained slowly to him. It was against the Civil Service Code – which I recommend you read in an idle moment. The institutional knowledge had not been absorbed, and there are real dangers in that.

Perhaps there’s been too much emphasis on quick wins, low-hanging fruit and getting on with it and not enough on conserving, reviewing and understanding. But I’m probably just too old, slow and knackered. And certainly rambling.

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