Revisiting the Visitors’ Book

A long time family friend sent me a photo of a page of her grandmother’s visitors book.  Or should I say, one of her grandmother’s visitors’ books.

I well remember her grandparents when I was young.  They lived near the church we attended and always had people over.  Always.

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And when you were leaving you had to sign the visitors’ book.  I am not sure how many of those books her grandparents would have had, but it was more than one or two.  I used to sit in their house skimming through them, looking for names I recognised, or surnames I recognised at least, trying to make the connections with those who shared that surname, a new generation or an offshoot perhaps.

So many of them were Baptist people from all around the state, testament to the small, almost cloistered circles of Western Australian Baptist circles, and how it really was like a family.  Western Australia’s country towns featured heavily; Pingelly, Busselton, Kojanup.  But plenty of local suburbs too.

And then there were overseas names, a reminder of far flung families and far flung Christian networks.  English place names mostly, but a smattering from the US and Europe.  Oh, and missionaries from exotic places I could only imagine.  My friend’s grandparents would host everyone and anyone when they turned up to church.

Of course, just like a photograph, we always looked for ourselves first. And there I am sixth line down on that page. And there’s that address that I couldn’t remember, or the street number at least that I’d forgotten.

The worst house in the best street of South Perth. It was a Fusion share house in which the live-in staff looked after three at-risk young people who were still at school. It was the year before I got married.

And see that Jill Jacobs just below my name?  That Jill’s got the same surname as me now. It was the first year of my theological training.  I was a slip of a lad in my 28th year about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime with the woman, who at this very moment is sitting smiling and gazing at our nine year old , his curly locks an echo of hers.

And then I notice my mum and two younger brothers as the top name on that page.  I recognise the house that they rented after coming back from eight years living in Northern Ireland, mum just a year or so older than I am now.  How did she do all of that moving and coping by herself?  Tough indeed.  Why did I not appreciate that more?

I see a few other recognisable names, and think, “Ah, that’s where they lived.” And I see the name of someone I know who has since died. And I wonder, who has a visitors book these days?

Of course nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but there was something of value in signing that visitors book that is lost in our instant and selfie era.  Something that, as we look at it, pulls us back to the past, instead of the infernal – and eternal now – that our hyper-reality culture engenders in us.  It’s like reading the genealogies in the Gospel accounts.  We skim over it because we don’t value the past upon which we are built, and assume that others must not either.

GK Chesterton said “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”  It’s no wonder that none of us either know what to fight for, or don’t care.

We’re ahistorical at best, anti-historical at worst. We have cut ourselves adrift from what is behind us, hence we are not being propelled forward, despite the strident assertions of progressives, but are doomed henceforth to float rootless and aimless in a world with no true memory.

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