My brother often spoke of the habit the women in our family had of making bonfires of letters and other valuable papers. My mother did it, and her mother too, but the worst offenders were on the other side of the family, an aunt and my other grandmother. There was real venom in his voice as he said the word ‘bonfire’, and one saw witches, their faces lit by the flames, cackling as they threw the precious material into the fire: letters, diaries, wills, all gone for ever. The only documents that I myself know to have been destroyed in this way are the letters one of my grandmothers received from the gardening writer E.A. Bowles, but my brother said darkly that there were many more.
He is dead now and I shall never hear him say that word with that intonation again, although he continues to do it in my head. In the instructions he left after his death he asked for letters in his bedroom be destroyed unread. Another bonfire, I thought when I heard this, and wondered why he had not done it himself; we would never have known about them. But we obeyed, we did not read them, looked briefly at the photographs, which were all of old girlfriends, then destroyed them.
Now I am destroying some of my own papers, diaries from 1969 to 1973, four large hard-backed notebooks which contain the most embarassing stuff ever to be consigned to paper. One would hope that old diaries would contain some message from the past, at the very least a description of the person one used to be. My diaries did this all right, but it was not a person I was happy to meet again; all she did was wail about one unrequited love after another. It was the idea that someone might open one, about to destroy it, and start reading, that decided me.
Scraps of diary pages, torn but not yet burned, are on my desk now, and I see phrases like ‘his ex-girlfriend’, ‘Oh bliss’, ‘classic bad moods’, ‘he’s been hurt’ and ‘I was so happy’. Perhaps I should piece them together again to read the whole story. The most striking thing is how powerful my emotions were, how they boiled up and filled so many handwritten pages. My brother could sound vehement about bonfires and people who annoyed him, but he hardly ever talked about his girlfriends, and never about his feelings. But he did leave those letters for others to find, and burn for him.