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from the Guardian 31 January 2002

Is wanting a relic from Ground Zero morbid

Charlotte Moore

Charlotte MooreThe New York authorities have been besieged with requests for material salvaged from Ground Zero. Museums, scholars and sculptors are clamouring for what the New York Post has called "sacred relics". There are ruptured statues, bicycles chained to their racks, atrophied sandwiches of crushed furniture, as well as the little things - scraps of handwriting, calendar pages.

Is it ghoulish to want to possess these things? I don't think so. New York archivists are selecting bits of debris to create a memorial, "to tell the story for generations to come". Concrete reminders can be more provocative and poignant than words. The quotidian detail at Pompeii - the "cave canem" mosaic, pots and plates, carbonised bread - make us believe in the ancient world. The bodies overtaken by the eruption do appeal to the ghoul in us, but the hands raised to shield their faces also kindle in us the emotions of pity and terror. We need to be made to feel these emotions if we are to understand human history.

I possess a black tin trunk. It belonged to my great uncle, Gillachrist Moore, known as Gilla or The Gilla, who was killed at Ypres in November 1914. It holds his effects; it has never been unpacked. Gilla's name is on the Menin Gate memorial. His body was never found.

There is a leather belt, a pair of grey woollen gloves, and the August telegram ordering him to mobilise. There are three tiny books - Condensed Musketry Essentials, Baden Powell's Aids to Scouting, and a collection of devotions called The Flowers of Nazareth. There is a much used pipe - and a pipe that was never used - in a box labelled "Merry Christmas". With the pipe are two unbroached blocks of tobacco in a handsome tin, and a card offering "Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year, from The Princess Mary and Friends at Home". Gilla was killed before Christmas, but the gifts arrived anyway.

There are pens and sealing wax, and ribbon-bound letters from a local girl called Mary, who might have become my great aunt if it hadn't been for that sniper's bullet. There is a lilac dance card from a summer ball - he has politely danced with a couple of other girls, but I'm glad that he had managed to nab Mary for the Lancers, Two-Step, Sir Roger de Coverley, and the "Valse". There is a falcon hood - the brown leather dome, crowned with a tuft of feathers, is brittle like a little skull - and an envelope contains a watch. On it his father had written: "The Gilla's watch. God bless him."

Gilla's last letter home from the front is there, closely written on the thinnest possible paper: "You can't think how one longs to be home." And there is the letter his father wrote him, in ignorance, on the day of his death. "We have had a quiet Sunday... you have I suppose been very noisy." It was returned, marked "Killed In Action".

The time has long passed when one could have unpacked this trunk. Two world wars, the dawn of another century and three new generations of family have indeed turned these things into "sacred relics". They give me a sense of the great uncle no living member of my family ever met; the gentle younger son who loved birds and couldn't spell very well. And because I have this sense, I understand that the Great War was something that happened to real people and had ineradicable effects on their families and the nations to which they belonged.

History is personal. Nothing is trivial. Peter Touche, whose wife Laura died due to the negligence of the Portland Hospital, described how for three years he had been unable to look into her overnight bag. After the court case he opened it; it held the summary of a bright, beloved, comfortable, late-20th century woman - her night clothes, Bridget Jones' Diary, a list of names for their unborn twins. I hope that Touche will not unpack the case. One day it will give his sons a glimpse of the mother they never knew, and help them to understand that she and they are part of a story that never ends.

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