In 1982, when I was seventeen, I was called to interview at King’s College. I didn’t go there for my English degree in the end, but the trip to London that day was one of many I made as a teenager, often alone. I was obsessed with art and the theatre, with the culture of the capital.
It was such an exciting time, then. I knew I wouldn’t be rich as an undergraduate, but I wouldn’t be unbearably poor either, or saddled with eye-watering debts. My parents stumped up the recommended grant, and the government paid the rest. I carried on seeing plays and pictures and visiting museums and libraries all through my first degree. Even as a postgraduate, as poor as I’ve ever been, I had enough state support to go up to London now and then.
A friend from my first year, a Junior Research Fellow at the same college, later joined the Department of English at King’s, and in time she rose to become a Professor there. For twenty years I’ve had letters written from King’s, and my mental picture of the Clare Brant I know, in her wondrous lair of antiquities in Oxford’s Jericho, has been superimposed with a hazier image of her, probably inaccurate, in another book-lined room, this one a bit like the office I remember from interview, all Sixties concrete and grey office furniture.
So my personal link with the Strand is tenuous, vicarious, but enduring. Though I’ve left academia I am still involved with the world of teaching and writing, and absorbed by the same questions Clare addresses in her Strandlines Story. Hedged in, literally, by rural domesticity, I write fiction and poetry about identity and geography, and about memory and friendship, always wondering how is it topography haunts us us so thoroughly as we age? One of the elderly men whose memoirs I have helped to write describes his work as an Air Raid Warden in 1940 and walking into the West End past a double-decker bus on its side and a huge bomb crater. Perhaps his life criss-crossed Clare’s grandfather, valiantly defending St Paul’s.
As it grows and diversifies I foresee Strandlines enabling and exemplifying a transformation in the way we record and understand our lives and our pasts. More so than for any previous generation these will not be single narratives but collective ones in which the connections are as infinite as the digital technologies which lend themselves so well to our human need for belonging and relationship. What better metaphor for a web-based resource could there be than ‘strandlines’? And what could be more uplifting than the internet exploited not as a consumer tool but as a marketplace for the imagination, a bustling virtual metropolis in which conversations cross the boundaries of time and place whilst honouring both?