February 2011 Archives




When travelling on the train from Cork to visit her sisters in Dublin or journalistic colleagues at the Irish Press office on Burgh Quay, my mother would catch up with reading newspapers, particularly the features-rich British Sundays.   She was known to accost strangers seated near her, regardless of age or gender, pushing a folded paper across the table and pronouncing "Fascinating article, you should read it."  When her fellow passenger cast an eye across the page, nodded and resumed looking out the window, she would stab the headline with her forefinger and say "No, you must read it now!"


"Fascinatingarticle" has become a byword in our family for anything interesting in any medium and I have inherited the compulsion to cut and keep and pass on fascinatingarticles. No newspaper can ever be thrown out unless I have gone through it, cut out anything relevant and stacked it for filing. A visiting friend opened a hinged foot-rest by a sofa in our living room and discovered it full of newspapers - American, English, Irish, Swiss, Singaporean - some going back to 1997.   At their raised eyebrow, which implied that the contents should be ditched forthwith and pronto I slammed the box shut protesting "No, no, I haven't gone through them yet".  


The papers ....and then some....had come with us to France when we moved from Ireland and been partly responsible for the extra charges incurred when our removal van was stopped at the Weigh Station in Liverpool docks and 13 boxes of books removed into storage by Customs, to be collected and delivered later as they were too heavy for one trip.


I am not the only one burdened with enthusiasm for well-presented information and particularly the urge to store it for future reference or pass it on. I am the woman in the New Yorker cartoon, brandishing a scissors over a newspaper spread out on a kitchen table telling her bemused husband "I'm taking press clippings while I still can"....or the woman surrounded by piles of paper, in the centre of which she is just visible, cheerfully saying "I'm working on my piling." In an interview with Studs Terkel a few years back .....well maybe it was a decade....the celebrated broadcaster who was then maybe 88 years old, said he couldn't die yet because he hadn't finished his filing.   I often wonder if he had it all organized before he was filed away himself in October 2008. 


We all have our preoccupations and some have tamed their hoards of knowledge. I know just two people who have the confidence in technology and the discipline to destroy hard copies of printed articles. An entomologist of my acquaintance - a world authority on bird strikes by trade and a twitcher by inclination - reads everything ever written about ticks, fleas and aviation, plus international bird spotting figures, scanning s the original print and storing the pieces electronically. Not long after he returned from his sojourn in Washington for the Irish national broadcaster RTE, I asked Mark Little how he stored all the news and historical references he might want from both sides of the Atlantic.  "I don't keep files any more" he replied "all the information one needs is on the Internet."


My mother died aged 90 in 2006 but I still have a yellow A4 folder with her handwritten label, dated 1/8/88 which reads "Shreds and Patches: Hardy, Swift, Bloomsbury, Flann O"Brien etc. plus some basic recipes"  Looking at it now on my desk, I cannot but re-use the folder and have added "Barbarossa+Pirates. Les Insoumises. New Natural Fibres" (all but Hardy would probably approve of their new page-mates, though given his agricultural roots even he might find the one on 'new natural fibres' a fascinatingarticle) Yes, I too could have a scanner - in fact there's probably one in the house already, but I just don't know what it looks like, not to mind how to turn it on. But then I wouldn't have the paper....the lovely paper, yellow and velvety with age. And besides, you can't swat flies with a laptop.


But maybe I should give in, give up and scan. Not only are we ourselves fascinated to the point of obsession with collecting and keeping pieces of paper, but also, like all addicts, somewhat embarrassed and repelled by our own compulsion we are also fascinated and repelled by stories of other hoarders.  "Homer and Langley" by E L Doctorow is a fictional re-telling of the true story of the upper-middle class Manhattan brothers Homer and Langley Collyer whose decaying bodies were found in 1947 buried in their Fifth Avenue brownstone home under over one hundred tons of trash, mainly countless stacks of newspapers which had ...."like some slow flow of lava, brimmed out of Langley's study."


"Grey Gardens" the 1975 Maysles brothers' documentary on the two Edith Beales, mother and daughter, who were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, became a cult film over the years and the story has been adapted both fictionally for television and as a musical. The Beales were wealthy socialites but their story ends in their threatened eviction by the health department from"Grey Gardens" their dilapidated, cluttered East Hampton mansion because of their inability to ever clean up, ever throw anything out......


The Edith Beales had cats.  Lots of cats. I don't do cat food tins, but I sure do paper. Overcome, inundated, swamped and asphysixiated by paper, I told my daughter that I had vowed to rid myself of the cuttings, the notes and notices, patterns and photographs, doodles and drawings which were bogging me down. But how does one throw out the entrance ticket to the New York World Trade Centre viewing roof?.... the Time magazine with Barack Obama on the cover as Man of the Year?.... the signed photograph of Danny La Rue?.... the advice on growing tiger lilies? 


But then, why keep them?  Possible answers are genetic programming or original sin (which could be one and the same thing.)  "I wish I had a museum" I wailed "so I could arrange and display all the pictures and the stories that excite me for everyone to see and enjoy.  I'd call it 'The Museum of Fascinatingarticles' "  "There is already such a thing" said my wise daughter "but it's not called 'The Museum of Fascinatingarticles' it's called 'The Internet.'"



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