It is, at one and the same time, a shining winter afternoon in the grey North with the rain coming down, and a baking noontime on the dusty red hills of the outback. It is 1930, and it is 2015. In Leeds the late sun streams through a window onto a jewellery chest carved of English yew, from which spills diamonds and gold… but we will leave that for now, and travel to one of the many beginnings.
As we said, it is noontime in Western Australia, one day in 1930. The foreman’s clerk at the mine wipes sweat from his dripping hair as he runs down the splintered wooden stairs of the field office to meet the girl coming towards him with lunch in a basket. Her name is Anne, and he loves her. She brings up a hand to brush the matted locks from his forehead, and tuts at him again about wearing a hat. On her finger glints gold – local gold, from this very mine, purchased with many years savings and set with three matched diamonds. It is like the sun wrapped around her hand, and it represents a promise.
Anne and her clerk died childless, and her jewellery came to a beloved niece, who married a man from the cold North and travelled with him to the grey rocks of Scotland. The niece likewise grew grey, and the rings filled with the heat of the outback desert were passed on again, to a granddaughter, who photographs them against the low evening light one rainy day in February.
A simple story, and like many others… yes? The clerk’s beloved passes the rings to the well-travelled niece and on to fanciful granddaughter. So it goes with many an heirloom.
Look closer. Look with different eyes. These rings are bound with a thousand threads, stretching off into yet further times and places.
Begin at that beginning again. Focus in on the hand on the clerk’s cheek, with the rings glinting out like a sunbeam. See how red it is? See Anne’s own face, burned, cracked and ochre as a goanna’s hide. She was not made for these red rocks and russet dust, for the gum trees and ravines and the veins of wealth that run through the ground. The clerk’s people are barely off the boat from Ireland , but even Anne, who considers herself Australian, is in the longer view a stranger here. Her blood did not rise in these hills. Anne’s great-great-grandfather called himself an explorer – history does not record what the people who originally knew these ravines called him. And that is something of the point, is it not? The thread that runs through Anne’s hand to Anne herself, to her blood, takes us through those early violent years when her ancestors claimed a land they thought was unused, like an adult taking from a child a toy which they do not believe is appreciated. Further than that, it runs over the sea to Scotland again, to the hard times when those who are soon to become ‘explorers’ and oppressors are oppressed in their turn by English words bandied in Parliament and in places of business, so Anne’s earlier relations are forced to emigrate through lack of work. Some choose America – others burn for adventure and to use their skills in ‘the wild’, and so this thread is born.
So much for flesh. What about rock? The gold and the diamonds that cause the flash? The gold’s thread begins close by – as mentioned, the clerk tried so very hard to get gold from his own mine, from a sentiment we can perhaps guess. But how did such a man afford such a ring? Is there more to this thread than the months of his labour and the sweat of his brow? Of course there is, as there always must be. The clerk’s labour is less than it might have been, and his time worth more, because of currents that are sweeping through the world. After all, it is 1930, and big things are afoot. This is too wide for our little thread though, and so first we trace it to the pay office, where the clerk finds his weekly cheque a little fatter than it would otherwise have been and is thus able to afford a better ring. From the pay office we visit the manager’s desk, and a note confirming that the mine’s gold is selling at higher than expected prices, enabling them to pay just a little more. Then even further, to Perth, to the offices of the bank, where men in formal suits who ride the currents of the phantom ‘economy’ have noticed the price of gold rise little by little in the last years and months. How much further can this thread go? To London? New York? To Wall Street in October the year before, or even to the nominal entity known as the ‘Great Depression’ in years to come? But this is beyond our scope. We return.
The diamonds show their fire. They have come even further in their first leap – from the dealer in South Africa straight to the jeweller in a small street in Perth where the clerk had them set. But their extraction from the ground? That branches into still further threads – the man who dug them from the ground hundreds of miles north. The overseer, whose skin may or may not have mirrored the digger’s own, who ensures the digger cannot keep the stones for himself. The mine owner who employs the overseer, and his family who purchased it and took ownership of what may once have been the digger’s own home, own valley, and the circumstances that meant the stone would one day reach the surface in the digger’s basket instead of lying undisturbed while he hunts on the land above. The battle that enabled the owner’s people to wrest control of this place. The forces that acted on the owner’s people so that they believed exploration and conquest were their path.
Threads, around a ring. The networks of the past and the future that hold the present in place. This is not a story – this is a web. The past is less a novel and more ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’, a mass of interlinking silk that, at one, distant point, converges on a windowsill in Leeds, three rings, a jewellery box, and the afternoon sun.