He’s Not Dead Yet, Keep Scrolling

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‘The machine is temperamental, so when you thread the microfilm through, don’t be surprised if it won’t stay put. We use this little sellotape tab to hold it in place, but it doesn’t always work.’

I look around at the other machines. ‘Should I use another one?’

‘Oh no. They’re actually broken.’

I am in Bristol Central Library. They’ve recently suffered funding cuts and can’t afford new machines, so really this could be any library. I am here to research the local Jewish community for an exhibition. [1] See? I tweeted about it, which makes it Proper Research With Impact, and also Networking.

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As part of my creative and critical writing Ph.D at the University of East Anglia, I wrote a post-Holocaust novel. My research depended upon digital avenues – online collections like the Jewish Virtual Library, where you can walk through any Jewish cemetery in the world – and out-dated technologies that were necessary to access the material promised by online catalogues. VHS tapes. Microfiche. Rooms decorated with dusty Tesla Dynamicky Mikrofons. The research for this exhibition is similar, using the local archive’s online catalogue as a road map, which today has led me here, to the library’s nineteenth century newspaper collection.

I load the microfilm for the Bristol Daily Times and Mirror, 1867, January-December. I am looking for an obituary. Joseph Abraham, the first Jewish Mayor of Bristol, died on a Thursday. It was the 31st of January 1867. I try to load the news of his death, and the black film tongue snaps at me three times in a row, spitting out the sellotape meant to placate it. The librarian senses my anxiety on her special librarian wavelength and comes to help, clunking and cajoling and side-thumping the machine, as if trying to get an elderly relative to cough up a bone. I wince, wanting to hold the machine’s hand.

I am as old as the Internet. The fifteen-minute dial-up tone sound-tracked my childhood. Researchers my age bridge the divide, seeking direct contact with material evidence, and immediate access. The value of touch begins young, with mud pies. The care of shaping, the joy of hurling. Second hand shops provide the same desire for evidence left under the fingernails in teenage years. Dusty, inky fingers. Reverence given to anything and everything that interested me, a devout consumer of analogue transcripts of the past. Give me Penguin paperbacks. Give me flaking dictionaries. Give me binding. And yet: give me the safety and accessibility of the immaterial. Give me entry to archives in Prague from my bedroom. Give me search functions. Give me the ability to Google death days and birthdays. Give me a nineteenth century newspaper on a screen, not film I can scratch irreparably.

The sellotape holds. The microfilm is in place. It is January 1st, 1867. Advertisements for fine wares get the first inch of the year. Then ships, then wars. I nudge the lever. The scrolling is violent, sudden, eager. I release the lever. Time judders to a stop, January 20th already. The future stops loading.

Joseph Abraham was a member of Bristol Common Council from 1861 to 1867, and elected mayor on the 9th of November 1865, thirteen years before Jews were allowed to sit in Parliament in the UK. Abraham was one of the first Jews in Bristol to straddle the divide between Jewish and Gentile life. In the archives, I had been thrilled to find a lease for a warehouse Abraham took over for his Wine and Spirit Merchants business. I read too much into the conviviality of his signature. I liked him.

If I keep scrolling, he’ll die.

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Did people feel that the act of dragging a finger up or down had consequences when a scroll was something you unfurled, let loll across the floor? Considering the difference in Rowan Atkinson’s sketch ‘The Actor’s Art’ between the Messenger Entering Bearing Good News, and Messenger Entering Bearing Bad News, the answer is probably yes.

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The scroll as a physical object has promised the word of god and the next chapter of a story. In 2012, the British Library displayed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road scroll in a specially constructed case, saying it ‘will show the first 50 feet of the story.’ The architectural design paper that Kerouac bound into a 120-foot long scroll manifests the road, meaning exhibition-goers could – as Matthew Shaw, the curator of the British Library’s US collection said – ‘take their own reading journey along it.’ The scroll manifests time. In digital language, we have borrowed much from bookbinding. This began early with cut and paste, and has continued with threads. The scroll, a noun that possesses the promise of its own verb, has carried its connotations into digital experience.

Scrolling through Twitter right now has produced a @nytimes article on what I do with my wallet at the beach, #ShakespeareSunday, and the probable deaths of over seven hundred migrants in the Mediterranean in the past week. My tugging at the screen, forcing Twitter to turn the future into the present, didn’t produce the present I inhabit after scrolling down, but it did provide me with knowledge of it. If I didn’t scroll, my news feed wouldn’t load, and I wouldn’t know. My present could avoid, however briefly, that future. Time would wait. And sometimes, because I know the future, I don’t want to encourage it. It breaks my heart.

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I have been researching the experiences of Muslim refugees today as part of the exhibition. The constant sense of foreboding felt during this research is very similar to that felt while researching Jewish history. As with Jews attempting to flee then, and refugees seeking safety now, we know how the story too often ends. So I don’t want to keep scrolling.

But I do. Joseph Abraham died in his bed, surrounded by family and friends. Just before Mr Abraham’s lungs failed, collapsing beneath the cave-in of his chest, he told the doctor he was feeling much better.

Notes

[1] ‘(Re)collecting: Muslim and Jewish Bristol in the Archives’ was shown between 19th May to 27th of June at Bristol Central Library as part of Salaam Shalom Shared Spaces Festival 2016.


Kim Sherwood pursued her MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia 2011-2012, and then moved onto the Ph.D in critical and creative writing at UEA with a full studentship. Kim’s stories and articles have appeared in Lighthouse Journal, Going Down Swinging, Mslexia, The Letters Page, Belleville Park Pages, and elsewhere. Her debut novel recently won the 2016 Bath Novel Award. Kim is represented by Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh. Kim taught literature and creative writing at UEA for two years before teaching on the critical and creative writing MA at the University of Sussex. Kim lives in Bath.

Follow @kimtsherwood

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