Philip Hoare: A pink ribbon and a tiny blue envelope. How the past literally fell into my hands

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The Independent Online

In the often dry pursuit of historical fact, sometimes the past just falls into your hands. I've been working on a cache of 19th-century papers, and each file seems to burst with stories. A heart-breaking letter from an aristocrat, blaming himself for the fact that his 18-year-old daughter has just shot herself for the love of a young man

of whom the family did not approve; the illegitimate son of Lord Palmerston mourning his wife's sudden death after just three months of marriage - with a lock of her hair tied in a pink ribbon and tucked inside a tiny blue envelope; a weekend guest informing her hostess that her son has since contracted smallpox, and is dangerously ill. Remembering that the smallpox bacillus can be virulent for hundreds of years, I put down the letter gingerly, as if it might still be infected.

Then, in the long, eye-stinging hours of the afternoon shift, an envelope fell out of a diary dated 1876. I thought I recognised the trails of sepia ink. With trembling fingers, I fished the letter from its wrapper - perhaps the first to do so since it was received - and unfolded an uncatalogued and unpublished letter by John Ruskin. It was an amazing moment - all the more so for the greasy fingerprint in the notepaper, probably left as the post was opened over breakfast. The discovery certainly should please the current owners; the value of their collection had just gone up £1,000 or so.

But perhaps most affecting of all were a series of letters from Constance Wilde, the neglected spouse of Oscar, detailing the decay of their marriage. "I don't believe that anyone can be happy unless they marry for love," she tells a close friend in 1890.

Two years later, writing from the Wildes' house, 16 Tite Street in Chelsea, she reports: "Here is another bit from Oscar's play which he wrote out for me last night, 'Pleasures may turn a heart to stone, riches may make it callous, but sorrows cannot break it. Hearts live by being wounded.' This last bit is to be graven on my tomb when I die!"

They are sadly prophetic words. As she and her two sons move from one country house to another, the situation declines. At Grove Farm, Felbrigg, in Norfolk, there are "all things to delight a child. The only thing I fear is that Oscar will get bored to death..." From The Cottage, Goring-on-Thames: "Oscar is, I believe, up in London." Then, from Brighton: "I very much wish that Oscar had not taken the Cottage on the Thames for a year. Things are dreadfully involved for me just now."

Returning to Chelsea, Constance had "a sad home-coming, no-one to meet me and Oscar ill in bed with a feverish attack. He is better to-day, so there is no anxiety about him at all." But Wilde was also already caught in his disastrous affair with "Bosie", Lord Alfred Douglas; and two years later, in 1895, the family name would be irrevocably tainted by shame and scandal.

In that much-recorded drama, Constance has always been the forgotten figure, the unwitting and innocent victim, along with her children, of her husband's fate. In these letters we can reclaim that pain from the past - in a way that future generations will never do for our own lives and loves, instantly lost as they are in the ether of emails and text messages.

Dickie, daarlin' ...  

Adam Low's two-part Arena film for BBC2, broadcast last week in honour of Richard Attenborough's 80th birthday, was highly revealing. Having worked with Low on two films for the BBC, I'm rather in awe of his talent for elegiac portraits which, at the same time, tease his subjects into self-revelation. It's an ability already exhibited in his documentaries on dead heroes - Noël Coward, Luchino Visconti, Dirk Bogarde - deftly edited by Low's collaborator, Sean MacKenzie; but now more warily applied to a living legend. Lord Attenborough is a man criticised for his emotional outbursts - although, as superficial emotion is an actor's stock-in-trade, that's hardly a fair cop. Having felt the warmth of Dickie's handshake and the wash of his encouraging words (after a speech I gave on Coward's contemporary relevance), I've experienced the potent manipulation of his charm for myself.

From the start of the film - when, in a soundcheck, Low asked Attenborough to "say something", to be greeted by a purring "I love you" (which seemed to be addressed as much to a mirror as anything else) - to the scene in which a testy Dickie reprimanded Adam, "You just haven't been listening", the 80-year-old actor-director's complex character emerged, slyly, and in a rather darker manner than his lachrymose latex Spitting Image caricature might indicate. You only have to watch his performance as Pinkie, the murderous psychopath in Brighton Rock - part of next month's season at the National Film Theatre - to realise that there's more to Dickie than friend to Mandela and counsellor to Diana. Psychotic-eyed and tight-buttoned, the Attenborough of the 1940s came back to haunt Low's film - and perhaps his older self, too.

* * *

I've spent most of the rest of the week in hospital. Only visiting, I must add; but I've been in and out of Ward F7 more times than a Casualty extra. Some turn pale at that characteristic whiff of antiseptic, floor polish and bedpans, but I find such sprawling medicropolises fascinating.

As the author of a biography of a military hospital, I might even be accused of obsession with the weirdly named rooms, the particular aesthetic of hospital signage, the passageways that seem to go nowhere - like giant works of installation art of which Damien Hirst could only dream. These sites have grown up organically, devoid of architectural merit; institutions in which patients and staff are removed from the outside world - and yet where dramas of birth, life and death are daily, if not hourly, re-enacted.

Perhaps morbid curiosity runs in my family. One afternoon my 11-year-old surf-dude nephew Oliver arrived from Devon. He and his brother Cyrus (aged three and fond of racing down the corridors on his grandmother's wheelchair) discovered dispensers full of purple rubber gloves and disposable blue aprons (doubtless there for surgeons to dust their own operating theatres, as they were instructed to do by trust managers last week). When I found the shifty-looking pair with their pockets bulging, Oliver (who, needless to say, has his own band), admitted he wanted the accessories for a costume. So if you seeing a posse of Tavistock youth roaming the market town looking like grungey George Clooneys, you know who to blame.

Janet Street-Porter is away.