Everybody is somebody from somewhere. Everybody carries a woven tapestry of stories within them – narratives that constitute the answer to that most fundamental question: ‘who am I?’
We are these stories, and they are us; tales that help to anchor our sense of self in the vast ocean of time. Although we may travel great distances in our lives – geographically, socially, psychologically – the stories we tell of the people that made us possible provide an essential spoken testimony to the reality of our own lives. It’s the poetry of the past that helps to bring a meaning to our present.
I’m privileged to be taking part in the forthcoming Explore Your Archive week – a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. The campaign aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. It’s a campaign close to my heart. I’m a lifelong collector of family history, stories and records. I’ve explored archives since I was a boy – and in return, archives have helped me to explore what it really means to be me.
Earlier this year, The National Archives asked me how I might like to contribute to this year’s Explore Your Archive campaign. I thought of those dozens of stories that populated my own family history – the living, visceral narratives that spoke to me from the many documents I’d discovered. My response was a single word.
I wanted to tell stories from my family. Stories from the city that bore me. Stories that were preserved in the records of our nation, but that really belonged in the mouths and hearts of its people.
Where would I like to tell these stories? There could only be one place. Liverpool. City of my birth – old lady of the sea – a bold Victorian treasure house and melting pot, bubbling with poetry, song and a million stories. You can leave Liverpool, but it doesn’t leave you. It’s the old seaman’s tattoo on your forearm: a permanent tale of past love and passion that settles beneath your skin.
The results of all this can be seen on Sunday 15 November 2015, when I present an afternoon event called ‘Tea and Testimony’ at Liverpool Central Library – the place where I used to explore archives as a teenager. In this event I’ll be reading from some of the wonderful city records, and will be telling some of my own family’s stories through the archives I’ve discovered. I hope to show you how the story of Liverpool is carried in the stories of the local families who’ve been a part of it. It is a spoken testimony – a living thing – born of documents, but carrying the breath and pulse of human lives fully lived.
Why is spoken testimony so important to me in the celebration of our archives? Because I believe that archives speak. Their voices may be hidden in repositories, or muted by faded copperplate handwriting. Yet the tales they tell are alive and real – important and beautiful.
I’m an actor by trade. A common belief in my profession is that ‘everybody has a story to tell’. Yet archives are the documentary proof to this narrative proposition. The proof that everyone is a story. These stories are our collective history – and our history is priceless.
So join me for Tea and Testimony on 15 November. And let’s share our collective story.
Find out more and book your place: www.exploreyourarchive.org/explore-your-archive-tea-testimony