On Tuesday evening, despite occupying a position of near complete ignorance on the subject, I attempted to explain the concept of geocaching to a friend. As far as I understand, someone hides something somewhere out of the way, posts the location someplace online and waits for someone else to find it. I went on to say that the treasure might not be valuable in a monetary sense, and at that, my friend’s interest waned even more.
Geocaching may have been on my mind for a reason. In anticipation of our move to new offices, we had spent the day clearing our archives. I must warn you, before you conjure a romantic image of the 4th Estate stacks as in any way resembling the library in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, my discovery was made at the top of the stationery cupboard, behind a straggly heap of perished rubber bands. Within a higgledy-piggledy pile of dusty box files was a collection of glossy author photos – some from not so long ago, others rather older. Needless to say, they will now be tagged, bagged and shipped off to receive the care they deserve from our archivist in Glasgow.
I was struck by the thought that such discoveries will become rarer and rarer. Not simply because the 4th Estate office will be getting tidier (I’ll believe that when I see it) but because the chance of stumbling across a forgotten stash of old snaps seems far less likely now that photography is largely a digital art. Certainly, when it comes to author photos, I’ve only ever exchanged them via email. It seems unthinkable that up until very recently publicists sent out author headshots in the post – I guess so festival organisers would know who to pick up from the station. These were pre-Google days, my children.
While some of us wonder what it is we’re forgetting as that which we remember is shaped by the photos we keep, perhaps we ought to be more concerned that those memories now only exist in high-def, pixel-perfect versions. One of the charms of this box of portraits is taking a peek at those that didn’t make the grade. The words ‘DO NOT USE’ are scrawled in intimidating caps across a number of packets – and yet the photos were still filed away and kept, affording me the opportunity to speculate on why they were deemed so offensive. My suspicion is it’s something to do with all the ill-advised beards.
There’s something so arresting in this jumble of photos: one-hit-wonders rubbing shoulders with literary stalwarts, fresh-faced debutants morphing into rather more statesmen-like versions of themselves. I wondered, did we really publish a book by a US police chief, or if anything could look cooler than a black-and-white Polaroid of Harland Miller smoking a cigarette? This might sound twee, but this collection of 4th Estate authors began to look like nothing more than a family album; wacky uncles, forbidding aunts and achingly hip cousins, who, like, didn’t even want their picture taken, right? This snapshot of our history has given me a perfect moment for reflection – to remember what’s passed and to wonder about who will become part of our story next.
Words by Sharmila Woollam