“Did I tell you I was a train driver in Africa…?”

Noticing that the subtitle title of the blog is “Exploring the secret histories of the collections” I thought you might be interested in some of the on-going stories an object collects through its life whilst in the collection but outreaching into the community.

Last year I began running series’ of reminiscence sessions at Wheatfields and St. Gemma’s Hospices in North Leeds. I am always taken off guard by the seemingly never-ending ability of objects to get people talking, not just about museums-approved stories but offering the most amazing personal details and memories of past adventures.

Once we get past the initial assumption that the “lady from the museum” (always makes me look round for the lady!) is here to deliver an in-depth lecture on 13th Century Bell Ringing or the complex mating rituals of the common fig wasp, we can get down to the business of “here’s something you might find interesting…did you ever…?” – insert open-ended / humorous question here. People to date have generally contributed willingly – apart from the man who told me it was none of my business after I phrased a question poorly (serves me right for prying).

Unlikely objects which have precipitated good stories have included a 1970s skateboard, alongside which I asked a question about dangerous things people used to do when they were younger. I was bombarded with tales of tree climbing (and falling), rope swinging, “bogey” making (apparently nothing to do with nasal nastiness but making a steerable go-kart out of old pram wheels) and the seemingly ancient Yorkshire pastime of “chumping”.

One gentleman told me with great relish about his group of mates who were paid by a local farmer to gather firewood for the November bonfire. Every year they deliberately piled the wood just a little too close for comfort to the gentleman farmer’s barn wall thereby necessitating another payment to get the pile moved to a safer distance! When asked if the farmer ever got annoyed at this quite transparent money-making venture, the man replied, “Well, he kept paying us!”

During a session on the topic of food and drink, I pulled out a “can opener” from the mystery box of outreach dreams and unwrapped it explaining that it was from our “customs collection” and was made from the tooth of a hippopotamus. I was pontificating about how a whole hippo had died to make what really amounted to quite a pathetic kitchen implement only to be interrupted by a strident voice telling me that I’d got it wrong.

I assured the gentleman that I probably, most certainly was wrong and, offering it as a glaring example of my ignorance, I told the group that my real reason for visiting was in order to fix my highly inadequate “southern” education by soaking up any pearls of wisdom offered by the generous souls I meet. What I actually said was “Well, that’s what it says on the box but I’m not from round these parts so what’s the real answer?” – only to be roundly informed that it was, of course, a can piercer the kind of which one might use to puncture air holes in a can of evaporated milk in order to drink it (apparently a nice thing rather than a punishment) or pour it on your pie.

Imagine then a discussion about people’s cream / custard / condensed milk preferences, tales of hiding food from stern and eagle-eyed dinner ladies, “scrumping” in orchards, making home-made toffee apples out of the caramelised dregs of sugar cane in the corner of a farmer’s field and serving a pint of ale in one powerful pull of the pump (the tiny lady who contributed this little gem spoke so proudly) and then a voice cutting through it all with:

“Did I ever tell you about the time I ran over a hippopotamus with my train?”

The low murmur of conversation around the room disappeared. We searched the room for the speaker who turned out to be the gentleman who had spent the majority of the previous hour drifting in and out of sleep (quite normal for all my sessions).

Tea cups were rattling – a sure sign that I was soon to pack up and leave – but I just got time to hear about the long, heavy cargo trains he had driven across vast areas of sparsely populated, post-war East Africa. He’d seen the beast straddling the tracks too late to stop and the resulting “knock” hadn’t derailed the engine but had left the creature looking “not very clever”. Dead of course – mercifully by the sounds of it!

I feel truly privileged to have heard such an excellent tale! And how bizarre that it was inspired by an object which had been brought to start conversations about people’s food and drink memories.
Seeing the gentleman holding the hippo tooth, telling his tale to an astounded audience and the gentle smile of a good memory remembered was priceless. Call it stolen, call it borrowed but his story has become part of my set of stories I can use to engage people’s interest in the objects I use for outreach. And all good stories should be retold!…

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