Yesterday I travelled with my brother to the Public Records Office at Kew once again, engaged upon a quest to research a series of obscure WW1 soldiers for a project I am hoping to attempt.
The experience prompted memories of ‘getting into trouble’ as a small boy at my boarding prep school. I don’t know, but I suspect that the feelings they brought back are not dissimilar to those experienced by recidivist petty criminals of the kind who spend far too large a proportion of their existence in and around juvenile courts or jails.
Sometimes days occur where every little thing you do or try goes wrong.
Let me explain.
My brother and I have the names of certain soldiers who are important to us – we urgently need to find out what we can about their WW1 service records.
As so often happens, progress yesterday morning was funereal. It took over an hour of intense researching online and in the PRO records before we were even able to book seats in the main reading room and order the documents that we wished to examine.
Before going through the security desk into the reading room, I nipped downstairs to visit the gents’ facilities. My brother had gone on ahead.
When I returned upstairs and presented myself at the security desk, it was my misfortune to assign myself to an officious-looking lady of middling years.
I handed over my ‘standard issue’ transparent bag, swiped my reader’s card through the appropriate machine beside her desk, and waited for her to check that my bag contained nothing untoward or disallowed.
“It’s wet!” she exclaimed, referring to the bag.
I did not understand her problem. “Pardon?”
“It’s wet!” she repeated, beginning to look inside.
I still didn’t understand, but I could sense that she had a problem with there being a few drops of water on the outside of the bag.
“No … it’s too wet …” she pronounced, “… why is it wet?”
“Well, I’ve just been to the toilet – it may have got damp whilst I lay it beside the basin as I washed my hands …” I explained, now to an audience of three, two of them researchers behind me in a fast-forming queue.
A deal was brokered. I would ditch my wet bag and put my research belongings in a new one supplied by Rosa, which was acceptable dry.
She then pulled out my belongings one by one. Eventually, her face lit up in triumph.
“You cannot take that in …” she declared, motioning to a completely unremarkable pencil.
“Why ever not?”
“It’s got a rubber on the tip of it!” she retorted, slam-dunking home the killer punch.
I was beginning to get resentful. “Well, let’s enjoy ourselves then …” I said, taking the offending article and placing it in the ‘not allowed’ tray on her desk.
Off I went to pick up the documents I had ordered and join my brother at his reading desk.
Sometime later, we had examined all six sets of documents we had ordered, bar one – which was taking an enormous amount of time to come up from the vaults. We moved to the ante-chamber (where the document lockers reside and quiet chatting is permitted) so that we could grab the last file as soon as it arrived.
Ten minutes on, and still no file. Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly became aware of the aforementioned Rosa Klebb walking past us and stiffened slightly. You know how it is when you’ve not long been told off by a figure of authority and you find yourself in their presence again.
“You’re not allowed to sit on the tables!” she spat at me, standing to attention whilst I meekly moved off my table in order to comply with a rule of which I was hitherto unaware.
She then resumed her stiff-backed march along the main corridor, leaving me feeling like a small, untidy, ten-year-old schoolboy, dressed in knee-length light grey socks, a light grey shirt with school tie and lastly, a grey blazer. A naughty one. Who then giggled with his brother about attracting the wrath of authority.
As I said, some days you don’t go looking for trouble. Instead, it finds you …