All History Now

for Andrew Pastor

Where other Councils would have placed a pier
or bandstand, Lyme keeps its town museum. Here
the past shelters from life’s unseasoned airs,
and graces, with its gothic roof and spires,
a shingle beach, The Cob, and boats that crowd
together in a harbour. Beyond, in closed-in cloud,
the careless tide picks fossils from each day
and turns them, with the humbler stuff, back to decay
and minerals and restless silt. Not so within:
a tweeded woman sitting with The Guardian
admits for 40p we unabrasive folk
whose harmless gaze alone will feast and pluck
at whorls and fragments of the protozoic slime
[and all the other local things that whim
and curiosity have rescued from the past
to fill the labelled cases under glass].

In spectacled insouciance, the lady
turns a page. So much gentility displayed. He
would be forgiven who thought these yesterdays
too crinolined to set a distant world ablaze.
We stroll past testaments to nearby craft
– The Cob [and tides] inlaid in wood; the deft
display of needlepoint; the church window
rescued from a field. “Like rummaging in a bureau
drawer” says Andrew who smiles and disappears.
A History man, he has an eye for what it wears.

I follow on, up towered stairs that tell
in photographs, of days cut off by fall
of snow, and find I’m looking at a small surprise:
the Focus of the Age had twice forgot its fears
of being too provincial, and had sent armies out.
Poor Monmouth was the first – Lyme has no doubt
his “character” lacked “firmness and nobility”.
He came ashore and was defeated. Posterity
allows his name to rule the beach his landing
fell on, if not a reputation standing.
Here are the slivers of his hanged men’s bones –
Judge Jeffreys did for them. He drank the town’s
hospitable wine and had his victim’s bellies split –
here’s the bill for board and booze, and next to it
the blackened disembowelling knife that showed
the innocent their shame and guilt. Three hundred
died, and under glass remain three artefacts.

From battle number two a heap of shot depicts
a bitter siege in 1644.
Not much to leave behind the English Civil War.
The size of gallstones these little things were brought
in having turned up on a tennis court
in 1938. How close and comforting
that sounds! No time of local gore or bloodletting –
unless you count the Great War Battleship
that sank, torpedoed. Downstairs, you mind, they keep
the boot that bailed and saved its owner’s lifeboat.
It looked like battered metal – almost too remote
to bring surviving death as close as words.
Well, maybe things speak louder than their deeds.

The lady with the paper calls us down.
“It’s lunchtime and we’re closing,” curls around
the narrow iron galleries. We go down stairs
as slowly as we dare. At the door she wears
a smile. “Do come back this afternoon.”
The noise of shouts and screams comes squalling in.
“That’s not the kind of person we like to see in Lyme,”
she says, and, sighing, locks the door on time.

October 1990

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