by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library
“How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?”
That’s the question asked by Robert Palmer in his classic exploration of the blues, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History. And it’s the same question – albeit in slightly different form – that comes to mind while browsing a small, but utterly unique and fascinating, set of materials recently donated to the Local and Family History department.
There are just three items in this collection, all designed to advertise the stock and services of one A.R. Turner’s Ironmongery store: two catalogues, one dated August 1903, the other other undated; and one photograph-postcard.
Who was A.R. Turner? Only a few lines are needed to show what we know about the man and his business. Based at 23 Briggate, the store is listed in contemporaneous trade directories, while Turner and his family can be found in the various census of the time. Turner’s first name was Arthur, his middle-name Rigby and he was born in 1863, making him around 40-years old at the time his store catalogues were published.
And that’s it – like almost all the individuals we encounter in the sources of the past, Turner would remain a cipher, an unlockable code communicating nothing more than the bare facts of his life. “Would”, that is – if we didn’t have that postcard and those catalogues.
Because those materials – just like the blues – communicate a great deal of history indeed; they enlarge our sense of what was possible in the past; the myriad ways individuals sought to express their unique identities in conditions “not entirely of their own making.”
So, not for Turner the standard stock listing. Instead, these catalogues were a chance to express the full force of his personality: humorous asides, illogical changes of subject, mock jabs at competitors and himself; all illustrated with his own hand-drawn images, themselves the site of further word-games and visual jokes. It’s a portrait of a man with the intelligence and confidence to mix success with self-deprecation, all from the hand of a born raconteur.
And then there is the photograph-postcard. Showing “The Editoral Staff of A. R. Turner’s Ironmongery Catalogue”, this seems a startlingly modern image – both in its technique and its effect: a kind of mocking self-awareness suffused with an ironic playfulness.
Why does this matter? It matters because it reminds us that each individual life is always more than the small mark that may be left in the kinds of history that get written, even those histories sympathetic to the lives of what are often called “ordinary people”.
Every individual life teems with a vitality and vibrancy not replicated in their peers; a unique force of personality that helps each of us negotiate the psychic travails of the everyday. That force of personality may never emerge from a simple name in a census or a trade directory, nor is it usually possible to reclaim a sense of that identity, no matter how hard we try to build a sense of narrative around a name. The inner life of history is always just out of reach; the past remains trapped between the shadow of official documentation and the generic stuff of “how our ancestors lived.”
But Turner’s catalogues give us a glimpse into that unrecoverable past and brings it crashing through to the present. As we browse his writings, we can feel his voice, his flesh and blood self, living again alongside our own; for a few minutes at least, the veil of history is lifted and we walk the streets of 1900s Leeds with Arthur Rigby Turner.
To view these catalogues – and many, many other items that tell their own stories – visit our Local and Family History department in the Central Library.