This morning I received a postcard which I’d purchased on eBay; an early twentieth century hand-tinted photograph of Magdalen Tower postmarked on the reverse Oxford 1906.
The text on the rear of the postcard reads as follows:
“My Dear Boy I am sorry that I will not manage to see you on my visit to Coombe. I go to Wallingford on the 13. Will visit when I get settled then you must come over, much love and blessing, your loving brother…”
It’s amazing as one reads this card, to think that it was posted over 100 years ago. Combe (the version written on the postcard – Combe – is actually a misspelling) is a village near Woodstock and a place where my Mum and Step-Dad once lived, and as I read it, I’m reminded of their cottage and the many memories associated with it. Secondly, at the end, the author signs off as ‘your loving brother’ and so, as I read the words in my own voice, I’m reminded of my own brother. In a text of just a few lines written 101 years ago, I have an image – or rather images – of my own family and a house from my own past. I imagine too the bond between the two brothers as being the same which exists between me and mine and as such I have an interest in their lives – lives which have almost certainly been over for several decades. Yet, although the author of this card is certainly dead, by reading his words, we somehow give him life, albeit for the time it takes to read the message. And in some ways, this message might be likened to the last words of a man killed in war, whose last letter reaches his loved ones after news of his death had already been received.
The fact the postcard features an image of Magdalen Tower, serves to strengthen this feeling of familiarity. The man who wrote the postcard, and his brother who received it, no doubt knew it well, just as I do now. It becomes – as indeed does the postcard as an object in its own right – a memory space, a “‘starting point’, and a place for the ‘purpose of recollecting'”. Reading these words, I am sharing the ‘space ‘ of the postcard as an object, as well as a recollection of the scene it shows, Magdalen Tower.
In his book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says regarding photographs:
“From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”
This quote precisely describes a memory space. “‘From a real body [the author of the postcard], which [who] was there [in 1906], proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here [in 2007]; the duration of the transmission [101 years] is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being [the author] as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing [or the author of the postcard] to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin [a memory space] I share with anyone who has been photographed [or seen the thing I’m seeing].”