While history is a great and sweeping thing, it is personal possessions which tell its stories best of all.
Many a time, I have stood in front of a glass case at some local museum, poring over small cloak-brooches ornately inlaid, which once graced some ancient noblewoman.
And who can remain unimpressed by the chess set of worn walrus ivory, found in some sea cave on the Isle of Lewis?
These things are beautiful, not just because they are beautifully crafted, but because they hint at stories untold.
The joy of local history is that the stories often take over.
Each artefact was someone’s once. Each tells a story with its silence.
And so there I was, at a little Heritage Centre in Maidenhead, on the Thames. The tiny place was humming with activity: the local Alzheimer’s group was there to see an exhibition about the Air Transport Auxiliary, the women who moved spitfires and other planes to where they needed to be during the war.
There was a Remembrance exhibition with military artefacts and information, and a fabulous floor-to ceiling book collection taking up an entire wall.
And then I came to a strange little glass case. It contained a scrapbook and its contents.
Someone in Maidenhead had spied it at a local jumble sale, and snapped it up, bringing it to the Heritage Centre for safekeeping.
And well they might. This scrapbook has a connection with one of the strangest and best known tales of the twentieth century.
It is a set of memorabilia and newspaper cuttings concerning a very beautiful Edwardian woman; Helen Clayton-East, who married into the Clayton-East family of Maidenhead.
It seems the desert captivated the young woman after a visit to Egypt in 1903. Infatuated, she wrote a novel: The Breath Of The Desert. It received a review from The Times which talked about torrents of high-strung emotion. But other papers commented on the beautiful descriptions, which were evocative of the desert sands.
The pictures of her are arresting. She was a great beauty, a trend-setter. Her wedding was reported in all the right places.
She had a dashing son who enlisted in the Navy. Sir Robert Clayton East had inherited her wanderlust. He took six months’ leave from the Navy at the age of 24, seduced by legends of a lost city called Zerzura, white and full of treasure, where tales tell of a sleeping king and queen.
Months after his return, and just a year after he had married a beautiful young wife, Helen was called back home from Scotland by a radio SOS message. Her son was was dead: killed by a rare disease similar to infant paralysis, contracted, doctors said, in the desert, searching for a lost city.
Her son’s wife, Dorothy, spent the next months in a strange fashion.
She chose to fly out and continue the search for the city, using her husband’s findings and maps. Herself a great beauty and not inconsiderable intellect, she compiled a report to be sent to The Times.
But on the day she sent it, she, too, met her end.
The inquest heard that she had jumped from her plane cockpit as the plane was taxiing on the runway. The throttle was stuck, they said, and she, the pilot, jumped out as the plane was travelling at 50 miles per hour.
No-one can explain why she did not simply switch the engine off.
Dorothy Clayton East is said to be the woman behind Michael Ondaatje’s Katharine Clifton, the beautiful gifted aristocrat with whom the EnglishPatient falls fatefully in love.
And here in this little glass case was the prologue: a scrapbook cataloguing the halcyon Edwardian era when Dorothy was just a child, playing far away from the Clayton East empire.
It is, after all, our personal possessions which tell stories best of all.