On a trip to nearby Epping Forest four of the children with us were delighted to discover Pulpit Oak, probably over four hundred years old, and a boundary marker between the districts of Buckhurst Hill and Loughton. They clambered over what remained of its gnarled broad trunk and imagined it as a sailing boat, sitting astride one of the branches nominated as its prow. As we moved on to explore other parts of the woods, we chatted about what might have been going on at the time it was an acorn: was Elizabeth I on the throne, perhaps? Given that the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II had just been celebrated, it was rather exciting to think of this tree as connecting the reigns of the two monarchs.
And we agreed that we must go and visit the nearby St Andrews Church, Greensted: probably the oldest wooden building in Europe still standing, an Anglo-Saxon church, with its nave consisting of split oak trunks, possibly dating back a thousand years…
I concluded the previous column with a reflection on time, focussing on the way certain events linger in the memory, and though momentary or fleeting, may have the power to affect the whole of a person’s life. In this piece I want to explore time from a different perspective: the effect of instant communication and electronic information on our memories, thinking and institutions.
The oak tree has a life that is almost infinitely longer than the Instagram, but it is the latter that has come to play an increasingly pivotal role in our lives. It represents a way of life that requires little memory, because any information about the past that is needed can be retrieved instantly through a search engine. The present moment, shared with a network of friends, is what counts, and the receiver is expected to drop everything and respond immediately to what has been shared.
There is an umbilical and complex connection between the medium and the message, and as a sociologist I know it is wise to refrain from trying to analyse it. But my sense is that individual and corporate memories are becoming shorter. And this trend has some significant implications. One of these is our view of the timescale of healing or therapeutic processes. Institutions and systems are looking for positive outcomes after say, six sessions of treatment. And contracts and arrangements are set up on a short-term basis. Perhaps this is effective in some cases. But what if healing of mind, body and soul takes much longer?
Mill Grove began in 1899, and at 123 years old as I write this, it is comparatively young compared to Pulpit Oak and the wooden nave of St Andrews Church, but such organisations are becoming increasingly rare in an era of instagrams. Because there has been continuous contact with many of those who lived here as children it is possible to reflect with them on both the nature, and also the timescale, of the healing process. You may not be surprised to learn that they both have more in common with the oak than the Instagram.
For example, two weeks ago I was present at the baptism of someone who had come to live at Mill Grove aged five. She is 65 years old, and over 50 years have passed since she left her childhood home. She was accompanied at the service by her children and grandchildren. Her life has never been straightforward, and she has suffered serious trauma and loss at different stages. But as she shared her story with those present it became clear that a long process of understanding, insight and healing had been taking place. She was a respected and loved mother and grandmother, who life was characterised by integrity, commitment, empathy and grace.
You will notice that I am not trying to describe or analyse how the healing occurred. The point is rather that without continuous contact with her, there would be no way of knowing that it had happened. Time and again it has been our privilege to listen to the stories of others such as her, and to discover the ways in which they had come to terms with aspects of their lives and stories. They have shared how they had reached a point where they felt “okay” (that is a key word here), in the sense that they had been able to provide, care for, and love their children and grandchildren.
Yet I recall the time when I contacted a Social Services Department to let them know how plans we had made together to care for a family had worked reasonably well. I wanted to encourage and thank them. But, as you may have guessed, there was no one present who had any direct knowledge of the children concerned, and to be frank, no interest in what I was saying. Corporate memory did not stretch 20 years.
Because we still have this memory, and do what we can to keep it intact, we are under no illusions that solutions to the challenges that children who have suffered trauma face, are easily found, or that the contributions of professionals have been identified as significant by those concerned. Rather the most common thread is that of a person’s resilience. They are survivors. But alongside this is the desire to share and relive memories of the happy times shared together in childhood. These have remained vivid throughout their lives and remain a source of comfort and inspiration.
An illustration of this occurred a few days ago. Ruth and I were at a meal with several friends, when we were joined by a contemporary of the person who was baptised. She proceeded to describe in minute detail what she recalled of Christmases at Mill Grove, including the games played, their names, and all the rules. She told how fond she was of Noddy, the dog that we had, and how shocked and bereft she felt when she heard on holiday at Westward Ho! that he had died. The happy memories of Noddy, including how he helped to dispose of food that the children found difficult to eat, and sympathised with those who were unhappy, were likewise shared without hesitation. She also told how things were for those living at Mill Grove when Ruth, my then girlfriend, first appeared on the scene. Here we were, over fifty years later, and it felt as if she was drawing from a spring of fresh water.
She has kept in touch with others who lived at Mill Grove at the same time, and in this way, memories are kept alive, and the healing process continues its organic and unplanned course.
In an age of instagrams there needs to be careful attention to what is happening over a person’s lifetime and longer. I am not at all sure how this can be done. But there is a compelling case for places that remain firm and welcoming throughout a young person’s lifetime, for social media that help to keep connections alive, as well as for clambering in oak trees in the presence of adults who are unconditionally committed to being there for you.