Blood on the record: Seeking out history's footnotes is partly Bleak House, partly Bermuda Triangle

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The Independent Online
The dark alleys, lanes and courts of the City have always held a gothic fascination for me, redolent of Charles Dickens-out-of-David Lean. I am drawn here in pursuit of biographical fact, to research the footnotes of history in places aptly named: Somerset House, St Catherine's House, the Public Record Office; forbidding in their exteriors, arcane in their internal rituals.

The researcher progresses from birth to marriage and death through this bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle, trawling archives armed with resolution in the face of officialdom and whatever facts one knows. You begin at St Catherine's House, off Kingsway, for the certificates. Here the hardened veterans of the process fling elbows and caution to the wind as they chuck oversized leatherbound books on to lecterns, jealously guarding their space as grubby fingers run down interminable lists for traces of their forebears. Gimlet-eyed, their brains are locked into search mode, eyes scanning the decades for the right name. The relevant forms are filled out, and taken to the cashiers to pay for ordered copies: the LED on the tills flashes up the acknowledgement of the order: 'FULL DEATH', a macabre legend repeated on collection receipts with which each hopeful applicant is furnished.

Thence to the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane to examine the censuses in the most intimidating of these depositories. One must follow procedure. With a schoolboy's apprehension, I live in fear of being told I'm not using the right writing implement/catalogue/ machine.

In yellowy caverns troglodytes slave under fluorescent light like worker ants, occasionally attended by overseers who are summoned to discern some runic mark on the miles of microfilm which runs non-stop under dimly lit readers. The family tree researcher is a stalwart breed, clad in shirtwaister or car coat, taking the train up to London to apply him or herself with vigour to finding out where ancient aunts and uncles lived and married and died. A competitive atmosphere reigns as spools race each other towards that final, binding fact.

Communication is restricted to grunted surnames and dates and the conspiratorial comparing of notebooks. We stop briefly for lunch, in rooms reserved for visitors to eat their sandwiches, white-painted brick cellars like institutional changing rooms, where talk revolves around the niceties of genealogical technique and whatever triumphs have been scored.

Now awaits the grandest of our venues. Across from St Catherine's, through the overshadowed passage of Montreal Place, lies the forbidding stone facade of Somerset House enclosing a hallowed parade ground of officialdom. Bronze plaques declare the presence of HM Inland Revenue; you stalk across the quad feeling vaguely paranoid, as if somewhere the very man who computes your tax demand is watching your every move with a suspicious eye. Only at the far end are the public permitted entrance, in search of an elusive will. The books here are even bigger, and the strength of an ox is required to lift the biblical tomes. I feel sorry for the blue-rinsed ladies who lug the books in and out of the shelves - until I realise that their biceps are probably twice the size of mine.

Having paid a reading fee to the cashier in a dimly lit office down the corridor, you await the descent of a rickety dumb waiter from some unspecified chamber, lofty rooms where the dying wishes of two centuries are laid down. When the relevant document arrives - bound in a yet more gargantuan volume - the subject's name is shouted out loud, like a costermonger's roll-call of the dead, often unintentionally funny: 'Coward]' 'Bullock]' 'Manners]' The evidence is examined for lost fortunes, awaiting some eagle-eyed amateur historian to resurrect a family's unclaimed inheritance. Everyone has some such family tale; in mine, it's the 19th century sea-captain-cum-tea-planter whose Ceylon estates were lost when he was washed overboard, regrettably intestate, his heir sadly unlegitimised by the bonds of wedlock. But I've never actually been able to pursue the matter; more pressing questions require my attention.

I've spent many an hour in that echoing pillar'd hall. The windows facing the river are unaccountably covered in a bubbly transparent plastic film, creating a murky view which looks as though there's a perpetual rainstorm outside, and thereby rendering the interiors even gloomier. Worried-looking solicitor's clerks in shiny suits scurry through pages turned nicotine-colour from decades of thumbing; desultory adults with crying infants await divorce settlements. There's the occasional raised voice of a thwarted litigant behind ominously locked doors in the Family Division. Long anonymous corridors end in caged lifts leading nowhere. The staff wander in and out, past a notice that announces 'Security Alert: Black'. Grey-faced, they deal with the public with a deep sense of resignation, as if to say, 'We'll never get out of here.'

It is a salutary warning to those condemned, like myself, to a lifetime spent in pursuit of dead men and women. I suppose one day this will all be computerised: the thrill of the chase will be lost, but the subterranean hordes will be freed. Luckily, I can escape when it all gets a bit too Bleak House for comfort. The release is extraordinary, emerging after an afternoon spent in such frenetic yet dolorous gloom, blinking out into the sunlight, and the life of the present. It's like being let out of school to catch the early

bus home.

(Photograph omitted)

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