As much as I love working with books, it is the paraphernalia that comes with them which really excites me. Hidden in a novel that is trying to encapsulate the human condition, I often find a photograph or note which manages to say more in a simple image or sentence than most authors could achieve in 200 pages.
That's not a slur against writers. It's more about authenticity and intent. Photograph albums tell us so much and so little at the same time. The albums lie, in that they create a completey false impression of lives lived in perpetual happiness and sunshine, but each photo is unintentionally revealing. Behind the smiles and blue skies, there is a subtext: this is what I want my life to be.
The gulf between the people we'd like to be and who we actually are is pure Richard Yates.
Last week I came across a family's photo album, which had probably arrived at our warehouse because it was book-shaped.
The album is the story of this woman, who was a keen dog breeder:
At some point in the late 1940s, she marries a man who shares her passion for dogs and they move here:
This bungalow is typical of the poor quality, jerry-built housing that flourished in Britain until more rigorous planning legislation was introduced. Today it is next to some dog kennels. Perhaps the husband and wife were responsible for establishing their home and the kennels.
From the photo album, it is clear that dogs were almost their whole life:
Indeed, over half of the the album consists of photos of dogs. But in between breeding dogs, the couple managed to find the time to have two children: a boy and a girl. Here is their young daughter in the late 1960s:
And here is their son:
There is no discernible chronology to the album. Events in the daughter's life - graduation, marriage and the birth of a child - are presented in a random order and both children are eclipsed by the numerous photos from dog shows:
The woman and her husband must have been well-known figures in the dog breeding world and many of the photos are official portraits from shows, where they had won first prize.
Were they a happy family? Aside from the fact that the dogs seem to take centre stage in the album, there is nothing unusual about the photos of family gatherings and boating holidays. These are ordinary people who seem at ease with themelves.
But then I turned the page and saw this:
On the same page, there is a photograph of a gravestone. It is their son's.
Another newspaper cutting reads: "Our dearest son and brother died after much suffering. You were so very brave and were greatly missed."
The album ends here. There are no more pictures of dog shows or boating holidays. As far as I can tell, the couple lived for many years after their son's death, but they chose to end their album with this photo:
I had been complacently flicking through the album, enjoying the 1960s fashions and scenes from dog shows. Nothing prepared me for the shock of the final page.
I went back through the album, and photographs that had once appeared rather comical now seemed terribly poignant. These innocent, smiling faces had no idea what was in store for them.