They Took His Life and Threw it on a Skip

The author and journalist Francis Wheen witnessed the shed in which he worked being burnt to the ground with all his correspondence, his computers and his latest novel. 

The two-storey wooden hut in which Francis Wheen worked and wrote when he was at home was burnt to the ground on 13 April, taking with it all his packed library, manuscripts and correspondence. Francis is the Deputy Editor of Private Eye and the author of an amazing range of books. He is a chronicler of our time, with books on Britain in The Sixties, and the seventies in Strange Days Indeed, and, above all, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, a forensic exposé of the founding moment of our now disintegrating epoch: 1979 and the joint counter-revolutions of Margaret Thatcher and Ayatolla Khomeini. He is a biographer of distinction: Tom Driberg, Who was Dr Charlotte Bach, and the prize winning Karl Marx, the latter followed by a remarkable conceptual biography of Das Kapital. We can also chuck in an early survey of Television and collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies and a book of cats. But he and his family are fine and his partner Julia wrote this reflection. Rise again Francis!  (Anthony Barnett).

The morning after, with the cable repair in progress

The morning after the night before did not bring quiet sorrow. An employee from the National Grid called early. They had been searching for a break in a main power cable. Somewhere, 10,000 volts was pouring into the ground. Their search had led them to our house.

On the previous night (Friday 13th for the superstitious) the two rooms and roof space that contained my partner Francis Wheen’s current and past writing; his letters, articles, books and CDs collected over forty years, had burned down, with a sudden and shocking thoroughness. Now, our grief at what had been lost was moderated by a realisation that we were lucky, all of us, to be alive. One end of the severed cable was dangling directly into the area where the fire brigade had set up a small table for the cups of tea and chocolate digestive biscuits we had carried out to them: the other was in the open field where the teenage children had migrated for an alternative view of the conflagration.

A forensic investigator was soon on the scene. Diligent, painstaking and intelligent he tramped the site, removed samples of attenuated cable and took both Francis and I repeatedly though our memories of what had happened. I expected that at any moment he would read us a caution or shut us into separate rooms to guard against collusion. The timing of Francis’s 999 call was checked against the time that the fault alarm had been registered at the electricity sub station some seven miles away. There were only minutes between the two events but sufficient for the supply company to reassure themselves that our fire had caused their cable to part and not vice versa. It was possible, said the investigator, that our insurance company might want to send out their own forensic team. Meanwhile he shared our assumption (and that of the fire-brigade) that the fire had begun somewhere in the array of IT equipment on and around Francis’s desk.

IT equipment generates heat, heat ignites paper. Or maybe some philistine army of rodents had gnawed through the cabling, like the knights of the Fourth Crusade who looted and burned the Imperial Library of Constantinople in 1204. Or the Mongol invaders who destroyed Baghdad’s House of Wisdom in 1258 – making the waters of the Tigris ‘run black with ink’. Francis remembers being present in 1981 immediately after the Tamil library at Jaffna, Sri Lanka, had been destroyed by the Singalese in a deliberate act of cultural vandalism. He's hoping that the article in which he recorded his impressions is preserved somewhere in the files of the Guardian.

Third of the skips that are taking away the record of a life - - so far.

The destruction of a library – or a lifetime time’s work (to date) – is a pivotal event. In Francis’s case I’m guessing that Friday 13 April 2012 will be felt as a demarcation point on many different levels – not least his (and our) attitude to paper. The neatly stacked print-out of his novel-in-progress could not ensure its survival any more than the back-up copy on the memory stick in his desk drawer. Cue: sudden family conversion to remote forms of storage. I use Dropbox: He is now emailing every day’s new work to a location somewhere in the vaults of the Google Empire.

But how secure is this? Or how permanent? And how permanent do we expect or want it to be? One of my private anxieties about publishing in electronic formats is that, as soon as technology moves on, work published for today’s e-readers will become inaccessible as these particular devices are superseded. I look at the gutted heap of PCs and laptops Francis had preserved so faithfully since his first purchase of an Amstrad in 1986 and they tell their own tale of obsolescence. Perhaps, in the future, our 2012 ebooks will be able to be re-mastered into new formats, like the breathtakingly emotive series of Bach Cantatas recorded in Berlin 1949 – 1952 by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) and now re-released by Archiv. (My belated birthday gift to myself.) At Authors Electric we are independent writer-publishers. These ebooks are so purely our own property. There’s no copyright library where we can deposit our files for enlightened generations to come. Will Google Books provide our permanence?

Some burned laptops

Either electronic storage is a mess, or I am confused. I read Debbie Bennett’s recent comments about the unwelcome permanency of blogs. I’ve heard people’s irritation that details supposedly removed from Facebook resurface unexpectedly. Yet I’ve also gone to retrieve cached articles to discover they are no longer there and I listened, recently, to a friend who was in the forefront of IT analysis from the later 1970s to early 1990s. He had attempted an Internet search to reacquaint himself with the history of his own generation, to discover that there was almost nothing electronically saved. “It’s in no-one’s interest to maintain archives,” he said. “There’s no responsibility beyond the commercial.” (Cally Phillips’s  Brand Loyaltywill have a view, I’m sure.)

The record of Herbert Allingham’s working life (fl 1886-1936)

I cleared an attic to make a new place for Francis to work. I was ruthless with the heaps of paper that had accumulated there. “Why should you remain?” I asked my old tax records and OFSTED files, “when all Francis’s letters from Michael Foot and Christopher Hitchens are gone?” One wall of boxes remained undisturbed. The Herbert Allingham archive. These are papers that have only survived because his daughters, Margery and Joyce, believed that their father’s lifetime of unappreciated labour had a value. 

I tremble for them. The penny periodicals that printed Allingham’s long melodramatic serials are dying as surely than the back issues of Private Eye which went up in the flames of April 13th. The 1880s, when Herbert Allingham’s publishing career began, was the first decade in which wood pulp became a significant raw material for British paper-making. In 1800 paper was still hand-made from rags; in the 1820s Fourdrinier machines devalued the artisans, then the publishing entrepreneurs of the 1830s and 40s began importing increasing quantities of esparto grass to bolster productivity as the astonishing nineteenth century got underway.

“Paper was to the urban revolution what iron was to the industrial revolution,” says Scott Bennett in ‘The Golden Stain of Time’, his brilliant essay on periodical preservation. By 1851 Britain was the first country in the world where more people lived in towns than in the countryside. Paper became ubiquitous – for advertisements and announcements, for religious evangelism and for wrapping food. As the move towards universal literacy gathered pace, newspaper proprietors began buying larger areas of the Canadian forests.

Advertising pages from a 1901 edition of The Christian Globe, an evangelical penny newspaper founded in 1874 by Herbert Allingham’s father

By 1901 Britain imported 16,000 tons of rags, 194,000 tons of esparto and 448, 000 tons of wood pulp. The cheapest papers, for the mass-market, took the least trouble to de-acidify their products. They were ephemeral by design.

And so they have proved. Researchers into nineteenth and early twentieth century periodicals become used to the scent of decomposition in the stacks, to the petillation of toast-coloured fragments strewn beneath the desk at the end of each days’ work. In 2008 15% of the total British Library collection was deemed unusable due to deterioration. Some of the cheapest papers for which Allingham wrote no longer exist in any repository. As soon as Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is finished, the sooner Allingham’s archive gets out of my attic and into the controlled environment of a university library. And the sooner I’ll sleep easy.

Cross-posted with thanks from Do Authors Dream of Electric Books