Hang on, hang on. It is all too easy at the back end of the year to get over enthusiastic about throwing things out. I love having a good sort through my shelves and cupboards but I do wonder if I get carried away and throw out something precious. Or more to the point, something that might be precious to others in the future. At the beginning of this month I had the great good fortune to have a behind the scenes visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The curator of Early Modern Manuscripts, Mike Webb, produced a small number of treasures to illustrate various stories about life during the seventeenth century. One of the objects he showed us was an accounts book kept by Mary Gofton, previously Lady Sandys, between 1645 and 1649. In this little volume she listed every item of expenditure she made. They range from £2 11s 6d for ‘16 yards of selver and gold lace for my morning cotte’ (mourning coat) to 2s 6d for a ‘play thinge for nick and miles’ (her grandsons), while on other occasions she made huge donations to her children, such as £2,000 to her son stuard in March 1647, the equivalent of £250,000 or $375,000 in 2015.
Account book of Mary Gofton (née Hanbury,
afterwards Lady Sandys,
afterwards Richardson), 1645-1649
Shelfmark: MS. Eng. e. 3651
|Page beginning 16 March 1647|
When I was working on my first book Fearless on Everest, about the disappearance of Sandy Irvine with George Mallory on Mount Everest in 1924, I had a stroke of luck with a find of material that too might have ended up in the bin. Sandy was my great uncle, though of course I never knew him.
|Willie Irvine, 1877|
I did however once meet his father, my great-grandfather, Willie Irvine, when I was a baby. There is a photograph of me aged about 9 months with legs like sausages sitting on the old man’s knee. He was 93 and died not long after the photograph was taken. Fast forward 38 years and I was living in California with my young family. Our third son had been born in Stanford and we called him Sandy after his namesake because, like him, he was blonde haired and blue-eyed. A few weeks after he was born I was walking down the high street in Palo Alto when I saw a photograph in a bookshop window. It was the last photograph of Mallory and Irvine taken the morning they left camp IV to head for camps V and VI before launching their bid on the summit on 8 June 1924. They disappeared in a blanket of cloud at about midday, last seen by Noel Odell in what is probably the most famous sighting in mountaineering history. They were, in his words, ‘going strong for the top.’ We came back to Britain in 1998 and the following year George Mallory’s frozen remains were found by an Anglo-American team and interest in the mystery of Mallory and Irvine soared.
|Sandy Irvine, Spitsbergen 1923|
|Sandy Irvine (left) with Willie, Evelyn (my grandmother) and older brother Hugh, 1904|
|The trunk, found 75 years after Sandy's death|
The fact that this trunk had not been thrown out is almost unbelievable. The house had been sold after Willie’s death and run as an old people’s home. Then Alec Irvine, Sandy’s younger brother, bought the house back in the late 1970s and by the luck of the stars no one had bothered to clear out the attic. The letters, in particular, gave me Sandy’s voice. He wrote as he spoke, in a breathless and impatient way. When he couldn’t find the words to describe something he would draw it. The letters were literally priceless to me for my book. And for posterity?
|Sandy's letter to his mother from Sikkim, en route to Everest|
So, when you are throwing out the old to make space for the new, just ask yourself if in doing so you are condemning something not only to the bin but to silence…