The Miniature Desk
In Ashby Museum is a beautiful miniature desk. It was built by a French prisoner during the Napoleonic wars. Its construction filled the hours of a life, perhaps too full, become quiet.
It is easy to fancy the French officer filling his time with naive carpentry. There was no written message in the desk but the desk itself carries a dumb message from the old soldier which perhaps we can read as follows.
Once Battle filled my every moment with sound and fury.
Now I calmly carve this miniature desk.
The revolution came and I looked forward to changing the world.
Now I am pleased to see a the linen changed on my bed.
Once I took part in marches across Europe.
Now I am happy to walk to the local market.
Once I wanted to find glory and adulation from the cheering crowds.
Now all I want is a friendly 'hello' from my neighbours.
Once I wanted to march in the company of a thousand soldiers.
Now I only want an old comrade to pass the time with.
Once I wanted the adulation of all the women of France.
Now I am happy with a smile from the girl who brings our rations.
Once I hoped to live in the palaces of toppled monarchs.
Now I am happy to have a room of my own.
Once I wanted to see the whole world.
Now I only want to see my home again.
Once I thought I could easily change the world.
Now I struggle to finish this toy desk.
Once I shared dreams of conquest and glory with my fellow-soldiers.
Now I am content to dream at night like any common man.
Once I gloried in the gardens of Versailles.
Now I am content with a single flower to brighten up my little room.
There is no such written message hidden in the desk. Nor indeed would such a message fulfil any function. Life's true lessons cannot be taught in words. They must be learnt from life.
ASHBY WRITERS’ CLUB MEMBERS AT ASHBY MUSEUM 14th MAY 2013.
Museum - a building in which objects of interest or importance are stored and displayed. That’s what my dictionary says. And I think that’s a pretty good description of our own Ashby Museum.
On 14th May 2013 Ashby Museum was visited by Ashby Writers’ Club members, who had been invited to look at on-display and hidden-away artefacts – and afterwards write their socks off about what they’d seen.
I went along with other Club members, took my camera, gazed at everything in wonder, and wondered what I could possibly select to write about in particular. I took a few pictures of the displays. (I also took pictures of other visitors. Don’t tell them!)
Anyway, I picked a couple of things displayed and tried to imagine what might have been their life before landing in Ashby Museum. And now I tell you what I reckon.
First, upstairs, I saw a small see-through envelope-style package containing typed pages of suggestions for overcoming some aspects of food rationing difficulties in World War II. I couldn’t take useful pictures of the small print meal descriptions, so I just read them and hoped I’d remember everything afterwards.
Not being a brilliant cook and not having a brilliant memory for unfamiliar things – probably mainly due to old age – I sat down as soon as I could – actually on the next afternoon – to write about my thoughts on the two artefacts I’d selected.
First was the one about food limits in the second World War. And guess what! I couldn’t remember a darned thing about it; no detail anyway. I couldn’t really ask Wendy if I could borrow the printed sheets – they were wrapped in some sort of material and placed in a carton (with other things) and were kept upstairs (not for general viewing). Not a good start!
Maybe I’d do better with my second item. This was a poster hanging on the wall downstairs with “MAFEKING IS RELIEVED” and “TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION” shouting at us. The small print was not too easy to discern, but oh! what the heck – I’d solved that problem with a couple of close-up pictures with my camera.
I developed the pictures. Excitedly anticipated writing about what I imagined might have been a very special local remembrance event.
Grrrrrrrrr!!! Guess what. All my pictures were blurred – I’d forgotten to select ‘on’ on my “Camera Shake Connection.” What a disappointment. I’ll say.
So, I look forward to making another Club visit to Ashby Museum in the near future. I’ll go well prepared – notebook, pen/s, camera properly set, mind properly set – the lot!
Of course, this depends on whether AWC will want a stupido like me to still be a member …
MICHAEL WILLIAM MOXLEY
As well as trying to be exciting places, museums also like to make visitors feel at home. For some people as old as Mike Moxley, though, this can be a bit too literal,
When grandchildren ask “What was it like in the olden days?” they don’t quite mean it the way it sounds. While they love tales of how you slapped a saddle between the stegs of a stegosaurus and rode out to save Princess Barbie from a tyrannical tyrannosaurus, what they’re really after are examples of deprivation so that they can feel secure and superior to an adult in what they have.
They already know that you’re useless when it comes to Mushy Monsters or Club Penguin or Wizard 101, but they are truly amazed that there was a time when i-pads didn’t exist and the only cell phones were in prisons and there were no TV remotes because there was only one black and white channel. Mind you this is from a generation that believes that cheese comes directly from plants without the inconvenient intermediary of a cow and that instead of blood, toil, tears and sweat, the Churchill offer is for the best motor insurance.
If you do manage to prise their large glowing eyes from their little glowing screens and actually take them to a museum you can keep their attention by explaining that a mangle was used for compressing the fingers of naughty children and a toasting fork was designed to prod kids who fell asleep during school lessons and that as for a whip and top…we won’t go there*.
Grandchildren aside (which may be the best place for them), as you progress through the museum, you can see through your misty eyes of reminiscence that things have improved out of all recognition in virtually every department of life – you only have to contrast the fired up copper, dolly dragging, propped pegged all day washing Mondays of old with the shove it in, switch it on, all day coffee of today. I have only ever found one item that I believe could not be bettered and that was the aptly named Household Wants Indicator.
The Wants Indicator does exactly what it says on the tin frame. It is about portrait size and intended to be hung on a kitchen wall. Listed on it, in four columns, are 137 different household items, covering practically everything a Victorian or Edwardian household would need, from almonds to wines and including essentials that are as much in demand now as they were then (Bacon, Butter, Bread, Eggs, Milk, Tea and so on), things that are long gone or changed (Ammonia, Bathbrick, Borax, Hearthstone, Isinglass, Gas Mantles, Whiting Stone), items in sub-categories that we no longer separate (Fish - Dried, Fresh, Potted, Shell and Tinned; Polish - Boot, Floor, Furniture, Grate and Metal) and foodstuffs that most modern parents are far too cowardly to contemplate (Sago, Tapioca).
The really neat part of the Indicator, though, is in the columns of small markers, each one adjacent to an item on the list and each one neatly hinged. The markers are fawn-grey in colour to match their surroundings, but
when the household is running short of any particular item, then flicking over the appropriate marker reveals a bright red underside. So, as the days progress the Indicator will show a red dotted pattern of grocery needs. When an item is purchased, the marker is flipped back to its anonymous fawn-grey.
So what’s stopping me from reproducing and marketing an item as undeniably useful as the Indicator? Two factors: firstly, there will probably be some spotty whizz-kid somewhere designing a flat, hang-on-the-wall, touch-screen low-cost version right now and secondly, I’m just too old to bother. So old in fact, that I think that I’ll curtail my visits to the museum because there’s a distinct risk that one day I won’t be progressing from exhibit to exhibit, but will be detained in there, installed as a prime exhibit myself, with somebody else’s grandchildren pointing at me and asking their grandfather “Granddad, were things really that bad in the olden days?”
* For readers who haven’t read Roald Dahl and feel that such descriptions betray an underlying propensity for child cruelty, it’s worth noting that kids only believe this guff for the instant that it takes to detect the twinkle in a grandfatherly eye, but it is gratifying to know that grandchildren will continue to believe all sorts of mischievously outlandish sub-truths, albeit for steadily decreasing periods as you both they and you get older but they get wiser. For readers who themselves believed this guff, sorry to let you down.