Gillian Tindall is a high-minded Autolycus, devoted not merely to snapping up the “unconsidered trifles” of past lives but holding them to the light to glean the stories they might conceal. “Most objects, like all people, disappear in the end,” she writes at the start of The Pulse Glass, an excellent suite of essays on transience and remembrance. And yet not everything crumbles to dust; some bits and pieces defy the odds by surviving, and it is Tindall’s delight – albeit of a measured and low-key sort – to describe their escape from “the quiet darkness of forgetting”... Tindall has written, inter alia, a very good book about Kentish Town in north London (The Fields Beneath) and a brilliant one about George Gissing (The Born Exile), but I don’t think she has ever written as personally as she does here. “Personally” is a relative term, though, because one hears an austerity in her voice that repels any inclination to make friends with it. Beneath her historian’s fierce curiosity lies an obsessive, near-devotional spirit that puts the reader on guard – in another life she might have been an antiques dealer, or possibly a nun.
Part family memoir, part social history, The Pulse Glass approaches its profoundly personal core obliquely. At a time when many memoirs are published, Tindall hesitates, like a child on a chilly beach contemplating the sea with a mixture of fascination and fear. Beginning with an account of scattering her younger brother’s ashes (“like a large stock of pearl necklaces chopped up and mixed with fine dust”) on a disused railway line – a nod to his lifelong love of trains, model and real – she recalls his birth, her mother in bed with the baby cocooned in an orange Orkney blanket. But then she takes us on a whistlestop history of railways, a disquisition on the disappearance of stuff, and the declaration that her theme is to be “memory, loss and the arbitrary survival of a few objects … It is the vanished doorways of the past that concern me”.
The Pulse Glass is full of such reflections, sparked by various events in Tindall’s family history. It’s an elegant book, thoughtful and cool-headed, at once expansive and precise – a pebble thrown into the pool of the past, from which ripples extend continually outwards.
The result is a rather uneasy mixture of an oblique memoir and general musing on the transience of all things. Tindall is a fine historian, and writes with a wryness of everyday human foibles. I wanted more of her, and her eccentricities; more of the reasons why she keeps reams of old paper, more descriptions of why she has lived in the same house for half a century and more of her memories of her mother, her brother, and how their deaths affected her... It is a shame that in this book she mostly keeps herself in the shadows, hidden from view.