Harry Mount

The joy of an archive

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It’s amazing how quickly you become ancient history. Thirty years after I left Oxford, my old college, Magdalen – alma mater of Oscar Wilde, Edward VIII and my fellow undergraduate George Osborne – sent out a request to former students. The college archivist asked for ‘Academic work. Records of student societies. College magazines and newsletters. Posters and programmes. Menus and tickets. We need them.’

Hard-copy memories have been increasingly replaced by digital records, as the British Library has discovered to its cost. It has just suffered a ransomware attack, paralysing its online systems. The library’s curator of digital publications, Giulia Carla Rossi, is concerned about the fragility of digital publications.

So I looked around in my own ‘archive’ – the top shelf of the wardrobe in my spare room – and bingo! I had stumbled upon a lost world of the pre-digital Oxford undergraduate, now as dead as the forlorn dodo in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

In that wardrobe, I found two collapsing cardboard wineboxes. They contained everything the archivist could want: from the Elvis posters on the walls of my first-year room, to angry letters from my Greek poetry tutor, right down to old cheque stubs for my astonishingly cheap battels – Oxford’s word for accommodation and food bills.

If Proust got a hit of nostalgia from eating a small cake, I overdosed on long-forgotten memories as I leafed through the boxes. Nostalgia in Greek means ‘pain in going back’. And there was plenty of pain in flicking through my archives.

The first girl I’d kissed, on my last evening at Westminster School in 1988, sent me this note in college. She wrote: ‘Harry sweetheart. 1 p.m. possible for you? Hope to see you then. Pizza Express is a brilliant idea. With love N.’

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