It was a rain shower, sixty eight years ago, that started it off. My good father, who could never quite resist the lure of a jumble shop on any occasion, was on his way home without an umbrella when he felt the first drops.
Mr Gittins’ tumbledown store, which offered unsellable leftovers from all around, was conveniently to hand on the street corner and provided an inviting refuge from the rain. It was only after my father had nosed around for a while among the gaudy vases, the trinket boxes and the cups with mismatched saucers that he noticed what old Gittins was up to in the opposite corner, wrapping up a china teapot in old paper. Not any old paper, you must understand, but a copy of the London evening “Star” for February 21st 1818. What is more, lying on a side table in the board-bound annual volume from which fifty copies had already been ripped; two hundred more newspapers lay still, patiently awaiting their fate. Ever with an eye for a bargain, and knowing my schoolboy interest in both history and journalism, my father asked the price of the whole volume. Gittins saw an easy sale in the budding. “Thruppence” he said. And that was that.
I had collected stamps and railway engine numbers because everyone else at school did, but two hundred old newspapers opened a whole new perspective. Here, on one of the crisp white pages, I found elegies still lamenting the death in childbirth, only weeks before, of the unhappy Princess Charlotte, once the hope of the nation. Further down that page, under the heading “Furious Driving” was the tale of a coachman, apprehended by the constables for driving his horses wildly down the Strand. In a report on matters of government there was George Canning, thundering against Parliamentary reform, while for seekers after a bargain the advertising page offered sales by the candle and tempting lots of newly arrived spices from the Indies. The theatrical notices promised an evening with a Goldsmith comedy, while somewhere in Brighton the wretched and obese Prince Regent was putting the finishing touches to his exotic Pavilion and in the meantime pursuing the ladies. I was fascinated; I was hooked; I had suddenly become a hopeless addict to yesterday’s news.
Throughout my life, since that day, I have dragged an ever more voluminous collection of ancient newspapers with me across Europe from one home to another. Early on, I discovered that antiquarian booksellers who would wax exotic over a first edition of Dickens were quite as indifferent to yesterday’s news as old man Gittins had been to whatever old newspapers came his way. Whoever would want them? I did, for one. On a side street in Tunbridge Wells I lighted upon a precious little heap of news pamphlets – the “Newes” and the “Intelligencer” to which Samuel Pepys himself had subscribed in the days of the Plague and the Great Fire – not for threepence this time, but certainly no more than five shillings the lot. I carried them home, wondering as I went how they came to be bundled together with an ancient pink ribbon – could Pepys himself have laid them aside like this? The bookseller a little further down the street was happy to be rid of half a dozen newspapers from the days of the Roundheads and Cavaliers, battling one another in a colourful war of words. Moving two centuries on in my quest, I found a complete newspaper printed in still glittering golden type to mark Victoria’s ascent of the throne. Yet often enough in the years since then, I have found myself venturing back into far earlier times, with a broadside from Amsterdam listing all the ships of the Armada, ready to sail from Spain in 1588, to say nothing of a handwritten newsletter detailing the slaughter in the latest campaign between the Holy Roman Empire and the abominably heathen Turks. And I recall the day when, somewhere in the back streets of Birmingham, I picked up a tiny pamphlet printed by Martin Luther’s followers, relating his ordeal at the Diet of Worms, and culminating in his last words to the tribunal: “Hier stehe ich… Here I stand…”
I wonder: have we been all too eager to set aside our news heritage? True, many of the great libraries still have their massive collections of old papers, but even they are now tiring of them and of the weight they place on creaking shelves; two such libraries that I know are busily scanning them into flimsy electronic bytes and consigning the originals to damp country barns where they can rot forgotten in peace. So be it: sic transit gloria mundi, as they say. But does it have to be like that? Surely we all deserve an opportunity to take a look, once in a while, at the flow of news as it was wont to be when letterpress reigned solid and supreme. Just take an ancient newspaper in your hands when you have the chance. It has defied the centuries; it is likely to be as fresh and crisp today as it was when it came from the hands of the printer. So come along with me: savour the world of all our yesterdays, black on white; and you will find yourself transported truly back through time, perhaps understanding a little better than ever before what history is all about.
“Essays in Wonder”, a collection of essays and remembrances by Graham Dukes [pub. The London Press, 2012] is available now.