Here you still find old houses with walls covered with scrim. Hessian, rotted with age. Sometimes, beneath the scrim you find old newspapers. Messages from the time when war was still “The War”; when everything was scarce except memories of loss; before television; when families listened to the radio in the evenings; when tobacconists sold Kauri flake in tin cans. The time when engineers calculated with slide rules and people wrote letters by hand, with fountain pens. I’ve torn faded wallpaper from old walls, pulled the scrim from sarking walls and read those brittle scraps of newspapers; stood among the dust, the fragile past.
You find builders’ names pencilled on dwangs, with a date before you were born. Calculations in feet and inches. Sometimes you find a coin—a penny perhaps, or a sixpence or a florin—and you wonder whether it fell or was placed; whether the person who left it still lives.
Someone, somewhere in Canada, writes a poem on a basement floor; someone else covers the floor; eventually someone removes the covering and finds the poem. Will the reader remember or wonder?
In a set of handmade bookshelves a small, hidden compartment contains a little scroll of paper, on which is written a simple message from the woodworker to his partner. He made the shelves for her years ago and sealed the message inside. They are no longer together but the significance of that time is there, still, in the wood.
Before customwood and modern glues—when, to be a cabinetmaker you had to know more about how wood moves and twists and shrinks and swells than about how to set up machinery for a production run—dressers and drawers, desks and chests and other items often included secret compartments. Press a certain part of the underside of a desk and a panel popped open or a drawer slid out, revealing an unsuspected hollow; a space, waiting. Blanket chests often have false bottoms. Some fine-furniture makers still incorporate these in their cabinets; some not-so-fine-furniture also includes simple secret spaces.
How many of these secret compartments are now known to no one? The old desk at which you sit, scribbling shopping lists and reminder notes, might contain a hidden compartment, or two, or twenty-one. Perhaps in one of those, a message waits. Perhaps it’s a trinket, a postage stamp, a lock of hair from someone now anonymous—someone who may or may not still be alive. What remains to be found; who will remember; when will the past become a present?
What have you hidden? What’s behind your walls? Who will tear them down and read your messages? Will the reader remember, or wonder?
1. Sarking has various meanings; here I refer to boards nailed across walls to act as a lining. In old houses the sarking also functioned as strengthening before dwangs came into common use.
2. Dwangs ("noggins" in the UK) are the horizontal cross pieces between wall studs.
3. A florin was a two bob (i.e. 2 shilling) piece. New Zealand changed to decimal currency on 10 July 1967, and the 20 cent coin became the equivalent of a florin.
This is my granddad, my mother's father. He was 85, going on 86, when I photographed him at the wedding of one of my cousins in February 1983. I came across the photo recently and copied it, hastily, in poor light, simply by snapping a photo with the digital camera.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor