Without Knowledge of the Past, What of the Future?

I think it fair to say that there is a general recognition that the life-chances of individuals, and the survival of groups and organisations, are closely related to their ability to remember or recall their past. If you put it the other way round it is reasonably clear that a child with no knowledge of her past (whether because of trauma, amnesia, the absence of family or lack of information about kin) is likely to be hampered in her personal and social development. Likewise an organisation that has little or no corporate memory is going to have difficulty learning from its past as it tries to adapt and plan for future development.

So it matters greatly how such knowledge is stored or recorded. In families there are numerous occasions when family members gather together and recount favourite anecdotes and stories. There are also formal records stored by government and institutions such as the health service and schools.

Children and young people who are “looked after” by Local Authorities will have LAC forms, life-story books, and files kept by those charged with their well-being. Organisations too have special events and occasions when their story is rehearsed. Information is passed on through induction processes and by more formal record-keeping in the form of annual reports and accounts, for example.

Over the centuries there has been a gradual shift from oral transmission of information (“remembrances of things past”, to allude to that great work by Marcel Proust) towards written, and more recently, photographed records. And it is pretty obvious that with the electronic revolution the storing and retrieval of information about a person’s or group’s past is being done in a variety of new ways. Searches on the web for family trees are common, and most groups have a website setting out something of their history. For those minded to do so it is increasingly easy to gain access to newspaper reports, books and records from your own computer.

In residential homes for children and young people or in foster care, records are expected to be kept for three main reasons: safety-first (so that if something goes wrong the home or carers can demonstrate that they acted sensibly); the demonstration that minimum standards have been met (verbal or even actual evidence in the flesh does not count); and to ensure that a child or young person has as complete a life-story as possible.

But we can miss something of great importance if these three objectives form the horizons of our record-keeping, and this has been brought home to me in the past three weeks or so. As regular readers of this Webmag will know, the Mill Grove family spends two or three weeks each summer in Snowdonia, North Wales. In fact we have been doing this for thirty consecutive years.

In addition to personal memories and memorabilia there are a number of ways in which our experiences and adventures are recorded. The reason for recording them has nothing to do with safety-first, minimum standards or individual life-stories. It is because we have so much fun and enjoyment we want to be able to retrieve and relive the past and share it with our friends, children and grandchildren.

Let me tell you some of the ways in which we do this before reflecting on the possible significance of the whole process for the lives of individual children and Mill Grove as a community.

There are photo albums going right back to 1976 with some of the early pictures in black and white. Then every year we keep a scrapbook which includes a diary of each day, together with drawings, cards, diagrams, jokes and comments.

There is a separate diary of the Treasure Hunt and this is full of information about the places visited, sometimes sketches, and occasionally substantial records of historical figures or events.

There is a scorebook that records the details of the yearly cricket match played on our beach for a trophy called “The Grains”.

A digest of photos, diagrams and written material appears once a year in the Mill Grove family newsletter which is called Links. This is sent to hundreds of those who have lived at Mill Grove, and to families and friends.

During the holiday there are awards made for acts of daring, ingenuity or creativity. For a reason too complicated to describe these are called MBTs (Milk Bottle Top Awards) and every person has a set of these if they choose to keep them.

There are also books in our library in North Wales that record special achievements on their title pages, and collections of shells, stones, fossils and the like in what we call the Resource Room.

Nearly everyone contributes in some way to one or more of these records and this adds to the variety of style and texture of the information and perspectives. And for those of us who know the place well it is a treasure trove of memories, ideas and even beauty. But this year the electronic revolution has kicked in. First we have a digital camera that has enabled the youngsters to create a PowerPoint presentation of the holiday. Then a video camera means that we have over an hour of moving images (including climbing, swimming, cricket, a rope slide and horse-riding).

Last Thursday the lounge was full of our extended family eagerly watching this video, shot and edited by one of the youngsters. There was a great, almost party, atmosphere, with plenty of laughter and fun. We’ll share it with the wider family on at least three special occasions in the coming year.

And it’s very common to find youngsters reading Links either singly or in a group. Links goes back to 1900 so there is plenty of scope for finding out about the story of Mill Grove and your own life-story as it emerges through this comprehensive record. But it’s also good to get to know more about others who are significant in your life, and to discover how the place itself and patterns of life within it have changed over the years.

As for what this means, I guess it’s something to do with the significance that information that is put together by members of a group simply because it’s fun to do so. The youngsters play an active part in the whole process. This means that it is likely to be not only of more interest to those people in years to come, but more reliable, more enjoyable and more valuable than formal or individual records.

It’s also about the fact that our personal identity develops within the context of groups and so this sort of information allows a person to trace the social as well as the physical context in which they grew up.

Yesterday I learned that fifteen years ago I still had a beard when I was sure I had been clean-shaven for a quarter of a century at least. Strange how your memory plays tricks on you! I wonder what else I might have forgotten. It was, of course, the children who pointed it out to me. Somehow I don’t think I would have noted this in a life-story book!

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