Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

11 December 2014

On a Sunday afternoon a couple of months ago I was walking along Brick Lane in east London, just one of the countless Sunday wanderers who meander along this street and its market stalls every weekend.

I stopped outside an antiques shop and peered in through the stacks of second-hand crockery, once-loved teddy bears and odds and ends of furniture. I went in and a book caught my eye: the word “opera” was printed in bold, black capital letters on the cover below the author’s name Edward J Dent.

It was a handbook of sorts, printed by Pelican Books in 1945. “Not a collection of plots,” the description on the front cover read, “but a book explaining how opera came to be what it is, its aims and methods, its changing fashions, its failures, its achievements, its conventions, its absurdities.”

I was intrigued. I flicked through the pages and a small postcard slipped out onto the floor. I picked it up and written in pencil in a soft, scrolling cursive on the yellowed piece of card was a performance list of works by Rossini and Verdi – jotted down, it seemed, during a performance at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 11 May 1946.

The conductor that night was none other than Arturo Toscanini and this was, according to a faint note in pencil at the bottom of the postcard, the first performance at the Scala Opera House, which had been severely damaged during the Second World War, since the end of the conflict.

I was captivated and my mind was racing. Who had written this, in English, during this gala reopening of Italy’s most treasured cultural building, nearly 70 years ago?

I slipped the postcard back between the covers and bought the book.

It is difficult to describe the thrill these little discoveries conjure for me. The questions they evoke and the answers they invariably keep hidden away.

The paper trails we leave behind us are, to those of us Sunday wanderers who poke their noses into jumbled antique stores from time to time, a jigsaw whose pieces will likely never be complete.

A postcard tucked away between the pages of a book, a handwritten note forgotten in the pocket of an old blazer or an inscription on the front page of a novel that has long left the possession of the reader it was intended for are, for me, magic.

And as more and more of our printed lives slip quietly into digital incarnations, the likelihood of finding a fragment of a life gone before – like the postcard from the Scala Opera House on 11 May 1946 – is quietly fading away too.

Finding some of the flotsam someone leaves behind them is for me the triumph of things you can hold, feel and pass on; the unpredictability and the magic that brings isn’t something that translates very well in a digital vocabulary.

Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.

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