I’m spending more time staying with my mum in our family home, and consequently it means I can compose my columns in the very study where my dad wrote his books and articles for the last 36 years of his life.
It is a very special place and where I feel closest to him. I am surrounded by books, magazines and pamphlets that he collected over the years as well as his substantial set of filing cabinets. The folders inside are crammed with clippings that he took from newspapers and other publications with the idea that one day he might use a nugget of useful information contained therein.
In all, there are four big cabinets and each one is stuffed full. Of course, he established his filing system way before the world wide web was invented to provide instant answers to questions and queries he might have. But long after the internet became the norm, he maintained that his bespoke filing system held information that you simply would not be able to find online.
He could have been right, and I will no doubt discover if that’s true the more time I spend in his study. But even if he isn’t, there is something uniquely satisfying about physically rifling through files, inhaling the scent of old cuttings, feeling real paper between your fingers, searching in hopeful anticipation that you might uncover something special hidden away.
You have to know how my dad’s mind worked to be able to understand his quirky way of cataloguing his cuttings collection. If you assume logic will help you find your way around, then you are mistaken. He came up with a system that involved numbers from one to 183 accompanied by an alphabetical card index. If you go to the cabinet with files 43 to 62.2, you will discover that folder 50 is called ‘Christmas’, which sits in front of folder 50.1 which is about Christmas trees, which in turn sits in front of 50.2 which is about mistletoe and 50.3 which is about candles. All well and good, as those are all themed around the festive season, which does make sense.
But then we get to folder 51, which is labelled ‘Wells’ (the ones that contain water, not the city), 52 is labelled ‘Swans’, 53 is ‘Northern Ireland’, 54 is ‘Stars, the Sky and Planets’, 55 is ‘Apples’ and 56 is ‘Bridges’. So there is no sense in trying fathom if the files are grouped in a logical order, they are not. You have to refer to his extensive handwritten card index to make sense of it all and it might take you a good few minutes to locate what you are looking for. It is satisfyingly old-fashioned and I have no doubt that the contents will be a reflection of the passage of time, a historical record of events, trends, fashions and the like spanning the 60 years or so of Dad’s writing career
I mentioned earlier the hope of finding something special hidden away, and as a result of writing this column, I did! When I had a good rummage in folder number 50 (‘Christmas’), hidden among the mountain of clippings was an original typed copy of an article he wrote in October 1962. It was about Christmas motorists from the point of view of a traffic policeman. It was rejected by at least seven different publications, but the most withering came from Police Review Magazine.
‘Dear Mr Walker,’ it said, ‘We doubt whether “Motorists – Through the Eyes of a Policeman” tells our readers anything they do not know already. It should really be read by members of the public, not by the Police. We are returning the manuscript in the hope that you will submit it elsewhere.’
Ouch! But as a man who had 13 full novels rejected before his first was published in 1967, this condescending response certainly wouldn’t have put Dad off, rather it would have fuelled his determination. And sure enough, I found another article from the following year about the traditions and history behind the celebration of Christmas, very much in the vein of what you might read had he been writing today.
This 1500-word piece was published in the Ripon Gazette and Observer, and Dad was paid the princely sum of £1 18s 6d (£1.92½p), a price that may just have covered a couple of celebratory pints down the pub.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 28th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 26th October 2022