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Object lessons

The power of possessions is the subject of Gillian Tindall’s latest book

05 December, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

A titular pulse glass owned by Gillian Tindall

LOOK about your home. Look at the objects that surround you, the objects you possess.

Some might be of monetary value, others possibly worth nothing to anyone but you. Others may be in situ simply due to an oversight – the object has simply not been thrown away… yet.

Kentish Town-based historian Gillian Tindall’s latest book, The Pulse Glass, uses objects as a way to consider a personal history.

Stories emerge via a variety of objects that shed light on individuals’ lives – and also act as a gateway into a reflection into Gillian’s own life and that of her predecessors.

“It is the vanished doorways to the past that concern me, and the traces of them that survive that are the materials of this account,” she writes.

One such object she prizes is a map of London dating from 1818. It was given to her by the actor Leonard Fenton, who played Dr Legg for many years in EastEnders.

The map captures, says Gillian, the moment fields by Stepney Green were still open to the skies and had yet to be developed with workers’ terraced housing.

“Len’s grandparents had arrived at various times from Eastern Europe or Russia,” she writes.

An old china plate

“By the time of Len’s birth in 1926 his parents and elder sister were living, along with a family of cousins, in a small house in Duckett Street…. where it was basically a happy childhood, a world of neighbourliness and street games.”

He told Gillian as he handed over the map how he knew “you like these things”.

“He had had it in his possession for most of his life, having been charmed by it as a young man,” she adds.

Len’s map illustrates the book’s theme of “memory, loss and the arbitrary survival of a few objects,” as Gillian writes.

As with the map, the book offers an insight into historical investigation, citing how physical evidence can be used to create a hypothesis.

Gillian argues the objects that surround us might be of importance to someone at one moment in time – but that value fades and is lost and forgotten for the vast majority of these objects. However, there will always be some that survive, gaining extra meaning as they are passed down from one generation to another – each adding a new layer of myth to the object.

The book begins with the historian scattering the ashes of her brother along a cherished spot from their Sussex childhoods – and ends with her describing his death seven decades later.

Between these two personal stories is an anecdote-filled history that ranges from considering her ancestors to biblical tales, the life and times of a small French village and the accidental death of a child, and the evolution of her Kentish Town home.

By the 18th century, she writes, the UK had a burgeoning middle class – and middle classes collect possessions.

Gillian Tindall

“Wills, and still more private inventories, reveal a mass of sheer stuff, all valued and obsessively itemised,” she writes.

Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations noted how even “modest” homes had objects that were either bought or copied from objects around the world, and they would be passed down, taking on an intrinsic value by the memory attached to such an object.

One such piece in Gillian’s possession is the pulse glass.

When watches were not widespread, it was common for a doctor to use such an instrument. Like egg timers with 30 seconds of sand in them, physicians watched the sand fall as they measured a pulse rate.

Gillian has one she inherited from her great-great-grandfather.

The pulse glass is from Gillian’s father’s side of the family: her grandmother, the letter-writing Blanche, was the daughter of a Dublin doctor, who came from a line of doctors. Dr Arthur Jacob – Blanche’s grandfather – had used the pulse glass and this “tiny elongated hour glass half filled with a fine reddish sand” ended up in her possession.

It appears Arthur had bought it from a manufacturer in Paris, where he studied for a time, though probably it was outdated soon after as watches were more common in the waistcoat of a Victorian doctor.

“But evidently Arthur was attached to it, kept it, and after his death it was enshrined in a small case, suitably labelled, by his son,” adds Gillian.

Gillian has been helped by her grandmother Blanche’s own squirrel-like attributes: she and her husband Bertie, a chronic diary keeper, saved the letters they exchanged and other personal papers. They reveal much about Gillian’s predecessors’ lives, including the saga of their daughter Monica’s marriage to her lifelong love Brian – a man her parents did not approve of.

The objects discussed range from a chipped ivory saint to a painted plate Gillian has in her sitting room, a piece of mahogany propping up a floor originally cut for use on a sailing ship and may well have circumnavigated the globe to a small leather bag.

This motley collection of seemingly unrelated objects all act as beams of light, helping the historian illuminate times gone by.

The Pulse Glass: And the Beat of Other Hearts. By Gillian Tindall, Penguin, £16.99

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