Boxes, bombs and treasure

Just when I thought I had finished, three boxes came along and knocked all my plans down like skittles. I’ve been writing about Jack Catchpool, first secretary of the Youth Hostels Association, and his life of adventure and travel, for two and a half years.

A complete first draft was done. I had a bit more research to finish and a few references to chase down, when I heard some materials were up in Lancaster, in the university library. I had heard about this before but nothing ever came up in my searches. This time I had a bit more information and I picked up the phone.

Jack Catchpool in 1915


That phone call yielded more information. The library does hold three boxes of Catchpool papers. No one has opened them or looked inside since 1971 and, having found and opened the boxes, the kind librarian sent me a list of what she had found inside. The list told me the boxes were full of letters, photos and manuscripts, even old glass slides and diaries.

It was not what I wanted to hear. It felt a little like it must feel for anyone building a house who finds the foundations are sinking. The biography of Catchpool began sliding into the mud, perhaps never to be finished.

Excited and more than a little apprehensive, I took a sleepy morning rush-hour train, through Derby and Crewe to Lancaster, and a taxi to the university on the edge of town.

On a table in the library three plain cardboard boxes, with Catchpool’s name scrawled on their sides in black felt-tip pen, waited for me. I walked around them, looked them over, like you do anything suspicious that might be about to ruin your life, like dog poo or a bomb maybe.

What I found inside was beyond my expectation; folders of Catchpool’s letters, from 1914, when he and the young woman he would marry were just falling in love, all in his distinctive handwriting which I can by now easily recognise and read.

I spent the next two days sorting and listing the contents of each box. I learned that I hadn’t found a bomb. The boxes were more like treasure. They didn’t take away from what I knew but added to what I had already written.

I found a clutch of letters, from 1915 and 1916, when Jack faced all the dilemmas that war thrust upon him and other young men as conscientious objectors.

I read his description of the journey he and a small band of aid workers took to Russia in 1916. For two years his letters tell of refugees fleeing war and famine.

I learned that, caught up in the Russian civil war, he lost all contact home. He wrote letter after letter but he had no way of knowing if his letters were reaching anyone, never knowing if they were read. He passed through a long dark winter when things went from bad to worse and, though he grew depressed, he never gave up.

One of the photos that turned up in Lancaster, of Jack Catchpool (second from left, back row) at the opening of the youth hostel at Boggle Hole, North Yorkshire, in May 1951.

His feelings and motivations leap from those letters. They offer the kind of material I need to bring his story to life. I’d always felt a little dissatisfaction, as if I didn’t know enough about the man himself, beyond official writings and records.

More letters written during the second world war shed light on his influence on YHA at that important time in youth hostels. His manuscript of the first draft of his autobiography, plus many, many photos, are bound to tell me more.

Back home, I’ve begun rewriting sections and weaving the revelations, about the man and his life that have now emerged, into writing I’ve already done. It’s exciting even though it’ll mean another final effort to get the manuscript completed. I’m a little behind time and I won’t be finished as soon as I had hoped.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The material is too important to be ignored. I can only take the chance I have and make the most of it, confident that those three boxes, and their contents, will make the story I have to tell better than it could otherwise have been.

Those three boxes also teach me not to assume anything.

History and biography are always partial and never complete. I’ll finish this book realising that everything I write is only tentative, a gesture towards an admirable man and his influence on our lives, a nod towards ways we also might improve our lives and the lives of others.

Who knows what other boxes will always be missing?

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