Preserving the Past Part 1: Revisiting the Scrapbooks I Made in Primary School

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an obsession with preserving the past and a fear of losing it. Like many kids, I used to fantasize about what I’d do if I ever became rich, and one of my recurring fantasies was to one day build a private museum that stored the memories of myself and those close to me. I pictured an extensive bunker packed with exhibits of the past. Naturally there would be photos and home movies, but also treasured toys, childhood drawings, old football boots, Tae Kwon-Do belts, trading card collections, favorite books, and so on. Things I had no use for but which, through their preservation, ensured that the past wouldn’t one day become inaccessible to me.

One of the things my school friends and I used to do a lot was relive our experiences down the years. We were very much a group of storytellers, and it was pretty common for us to simply ask each other “Tell the story of ____ again.”

We would gleefully sit back and listen, encouraging whomever it was that was doing the telling to spare no detail. By retelling the same stories over and over, we prevented the memories from fading away. More than that, we found that the act of telling them was akin to a limited form of time travel. On some level, we were reliving the memories. By the time we were 15, Primary School was already beginning to feel quite hazy. As strange as it sounds, Primary School felt as far away back then as it does now, almost fifteen years later. The reason is that we went through so many changes during puberty, so it felt like a lot happened. Our fifteen-year-old selves were very different from our ten-year-old selves.

There’s also the phenomenon of time being perceived to go faster the older you get, on account of the fact that a year becomes an exponentially smaller fraction of your life. Secondary School was only five years long, but those five years felt like an immense passage of time. If I think back to five years ago from now, when I was 23, the picture is very clear. It was the year I photographed my two best friends getting engaged in Barcelona. The memory is as crisp as if it happened yesterday. The image of myself and my friends is more or less the same as the one I have now. I feel like I can inhabit that mindset quite easily. In contrast, when I was 16 looking back on when I was 11, I could hardly recognize myself or my friends. The picture was murky. It felt like we had been in Secondary School for as long as we could remember.

I think Secondary School coming to an end exacerbated this desire to preserve things. In my Rough Books post, I wrote about how I would actually write down random anecdotes in my notebooks so that I wouldn’t one day forget them. As it turns out, I did the exact same thing when Primary School came to an end. Just as I did at the age of 16, at the age of 11 I made time capsules for my future-self. The fact that I was nostalgic for the past when I was 16 doesn’t surprise me, because that’s the age when school ends and it feels like you’re embarking into the great unknown. Adulthood felt like it would be a completely different life, as though once we left school we were about to be reincarnated. But the fact that I had this fear of losing touch with my past when I was 11 is surprising to me. I figured that at that age I would have lived exclusively in the present, with no foresight or anticipation for the future and no yearning to inhabit the past. But reading through the scrapbooks and journals I kept toward the end of Primary School, it’s obvious to me that I was just as obsessed with preserving memories back then.

All of the journal entries are very clearly written with a reader from the future in mind. There are several pages where I simply listed in bullet points events I thought significant, all in a very concise, objective style. I wrote about a friend of mine that moved to another Primary School before returning two years later, as though this needed to be kept on record for some reason. I wrote about school fights, who got expelled and why, about who had a crush on whom. I made a table with a list of all my friends in one column, and then a record of when each of them joined or left our school. In another column I recorded when the high point of each friendship was, since at that time we were all friends with each other throughout Primary School but would have gone through phases where we were particularly close to one person or another. On one page I taped a photo of my friends and I posing together during a field trip at St. Fagan’s (a living museum in Wales). Around the photo I scribbled each person’s name, with their nickname in brackets (since nicknames were a big thing back then). On the next page I taped a photo I took of my friends in our dorm room while on school camp at an outdoor activity center called Mill on the Brue. Everyone in the picture is making a funny face or striking a whacky pose for the camera, an endearing testament to an age before we became self-conscious. I also taped postcards inside the scrapbook, one of which I sent my parents while on camp at Mill on the Brue. In the card I boasted “We’ve got enemies as well as girlfriends from Yeo Moor”, referring to the other school that was also on camp there for that week. This was pretty typical for me at the time; I would often exaggerate or outright lie in order to sensationalize everything. But that line does capture the rivalry that me and some of my friends felt toward the students from that other school, which in my imagination I envisioned being like Springfield and Shelbyville in The Simpsons. In fact, a lot of the tall tales I regaled people with as a child were deliberately fashioned to seem like the events of that show. I wanted my real life to resemble The Simpsons as much as possible, to the point I even ended up believing in some of my own porky pies.

It’s obvious reading through these scrapbooks that I assumed I would forget a great deal later in life. Just as I did with my friends, I wrote a list of my family members, with their relation to me next to their names. For example, “Frank: little brother”. I taped family photos too; me as a baby sat on my father’s lap, me crawling across the floor of Mama Mia’s (a long since closed Italian restaurant in Bristol owned by family friends), me and my brother dressed up as Robin Hood characters, et cetera. I made a profile of myself, detailing everything from my eye color to my favorite meal. Perhaps most interestingly, I drew a map of the house I lived in until the age of 8, which was intricately detailed and annotated so that I could provide the clearest, fullest account of its existence as possible. I taped a Pokémon card and a Yu Gi Oh card and wrote, as if for a historical encyclopedia, “These were popular card games many of us played at school. On weekends my brother and I would buy booster packs with our pocket money at a shop called Cards for All.”

There’s a whole page dedicated to all the nicknames my brother and I were given as kids. My dad used to call me “Longshanks”, “Goose”, “Bones”, “Jacob”, “Jake”, and “Jimbo” for some reason. Some nicknames conjure up specific memories. One time at school we were playing indoor cricket, and the P.E. teacher said that if you caught the ball directly, then the entire opposing team were “out”. Somehow I caught it, and a friend said “From now on, we shall call you Safe-Hands Mike”. No one ever did, but it was so catchy it stuck with me. I’m actually shit at catching. In the later years of Secondary School, I adopted the nickname “Galancas”, which my friend (whose first language was Spanish) told me meant “lanky” in Spanish. I thought it was a genius idea, and when we were asked to provide a cool nickname to be printed onto our P.E. uniforms at the age of 15, I put that.

I’m not sure what to make of all this as I look back on it now. Perhaps I will get more out of it when I’m 75, I don’t know. I feel a little bad that I had taped family photos in there, since they probably belong in the family album where others can enjoy them too. My parents get a lot more out of photos of my face than I do. Maybe I will feel different someday, but at the moment I don’t like looking at myself very much. I prefer the group photos of my friends, since they capture a specific memory, dynamic, or lifestyle from the past. But I’ll go deeper into photography in my next post, where I plan to reflect on the photo-taking craze that took hold in my late teens.

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