I have a convoluted relationship with historical objects. My father was an antique dealer who started out as a barrow boy on Portobello Road Market in the 1950s. He went on to become an expert in Georgian silver and also in diamonds. He has an extraordinary eye and can pick out important items as if by magic. Seeing Dad work the sale room in an auction house is a joy – and as a kid he used to take me with him.
In his office Dad had a safe where he kept items that were not for sale – his own private collection. It was an enormous treat to be shown these – many of these items have been since sold to museums. One of the key pieces of information that I garnered from this collection was that Victorian objects were pretty much ten a penny. Georgian items were rarer and more desirable. Anything that emanated from the pre-Georgian period was automatically precious – even if it wasn’t a flash piece of jewelry or ornate household silverware, the very age of something from before 1700 gave it a hallowed cache.
To Dad the De Lamerie teapots and Jacobite hairbrushes weren’t only objects -they were vital links. He used to make up stories about their erstwhile owners to amuse me, and unsaid, I remember thinking that these items were often all that was left of people’s lives. The obvious progression was to wonder what might be left of me. This provoked a rash of Time Capsules, buried all over our garden – tins of old toys and story books, shoes I’d grown out of and photographs of last year’s summer holiday. My parents have since moved house and I wonder what the new owners must think as they dig over the flower beds and come across scores of 1970s biscuit tins full of junk!
As an adult I write historical fiction. All writers engage imaginatively with the worlds they create. It is a very intense form of concentration – a strange kind of madness. When I write about the cusp of the Georgian and Victorian eras I enter a world before electricity or motorized vehicles, universal literacy and medical care. Occasionally my own kitchen appliances startle me because I am entirely imaginatively occupied two hundred years before they exist!
I didn’t make any decisions about what I was going to write before I visited the V&A to see the beautiful marriage plate from 1653 that I had been allocated. I wanted to write a piece about my reaction to the object so I read a little about it, packed a notepad and headed for London. I was lucky enough to be met by one of the V&A’s ceramic experts, Senior Curator, Hilary Young so I could ask questions about how the plate was made and it’s social significance. Afterwards I sat for a while just looking at it.
I am a confirmed atheist, but the fact the plate was made specifically as a marriage gift – an object of desire – intrigued me. The Adam and Eve figures being tempted by the snake formed a tale of temptation and subjugation that did not seem an entirely fitting present for the occasion. I wonder what the original owners were like and if they had a happy marriage. They came from East London – an area I know well and the history of which I find fascinating. The plate was a luxury – an expensive piece of decoration that confirmed their middle class status and looked to a prosperous future. It struck me that, like all pottery, it was fashioned of mud – something of which there was plenty in Southwark – and then adorned.
It was the image of adorned mud, the idea of social mobility and hope as well as the symbol of the snake that came together to form the words. In first draft the poem encapsulated the idea and then, when Rob Self-Pierson read it for me, he suggested playing up the use of the letter S – the sound of the snake slithering its way through history, tempting people in its wake. It’s difficult to stick to exactly 62 words but that meant every word had to count and not only give meaning but also atmosphere to the poem.
Afterwards I called it On A Plate – in part because that’s how temptation is offered for it always seems easy, and in part because it is a traditional form of title for a poem of the period from which the object comes.
It’s been an honour to take part in this project – I am a longtime member of 26 and always enjoy the open, friendly spirit of my co-creators. I hope people like the poem and it makes them wonder about the connection between historical objects and their long-dead owners. And perhaps, just perhaps provokes a rash of time capsules from September 2010.