A distant lens brings the past up close and clear…

I NEVER met Joseph Cole but that is hardly surprising. Solid and perhaps a little short, he sports an impressive beard, I seem to recall, although the old photograph is no longer to hand. Here’s something else about Joseph: he played the tuba and that would have been a good fit between body and instrument.

If I have this right, Joseph was my father’s grandfather, not that they ever met. My father never knew any of his grandparents, something I didn’t realise until now, although his mother was 40 when he was born, I think, and people died younger then, so this is not that surprising.

There was a small lunchtime party on Sunday at my father’s house in Manchester, where various strands of family overlapped. My two brothers were there, my father and his wife, my wife and two of our three grown-up children, my cousin and her husband, and two of my father’s friends.

Various people were absent; either they couldn’t make it on the day or were separated by time, although those long gone were there in a sense, as my cousin brought along a collection of old photographs which her mother had rescued from our grandmother’s house after she died.

My aunt had been worried that the photographs could be lost, so she grabbed them and now, many years later, here they were.

There is something moving about such old photographs, all those distant people who lived so long before you did, and on whose existence you depend. Many of these photographs were sepia-toned and very old, yet pin-sharp too, and remarkably undimmed by time.

A fair few showed Bill and Eunice Cole, parents to my father and his two sisters, one no longer with us and the other now 94. My dad is the baby of the group, a shiny-faced lad, and even he is now 83. His parents look young, everyone looks young, and yet only two of the five people in that family are still alive.

One remarkable photograph shows Bill and Eunice at what appears to be a family wedding. There is no date on the back, but my grandparents can be seen at the back, looking impossibly young. Bill survived the Somme as a stretcher-bearer (he wouldn’t carry arms); maybe this photograph is from before the war, although it is hard to say. Some fearsome old ladies in the family group appear to have stepped from the pages of a Dickens story.

Another picture, a family snap, shows my grandparents as I remember them. They are outside their house and Bill seems to have been gardening; he is wearing a sleeveless jumper, shirt and tie – a tie for the garden! – and both are smiling. They are quite old by then, or maybe they are not much older than I am now, as time is a tricky lens sometimes.

When we were young the cousins were a big part of life, and one picture shows a group of us gathered for some occasion or other. Two of the Cole boys are in the photograph, the youngest is missing; perhaps he hadn’t arrived yet or maybe it was his christening. I am the oldest and can remember him being born at home in Bristol, where we lived until I was about eight.

My cousin had copied one old photograph on her phone, an up-to-the-minute colour snap from her wedding in 1973, showing the three of us. I am 17, the others two and five years younger. For some reason I am grinning like a happy idiot beneath a mop of mad dark curls, while my two blond brothers with their long Mary Hopkins hair are striking a serious pose.

All of this is why people become interested in their roots and map out their family trees – not pictures from the 1970s, necessarily, but those remarkable old photographs, like the one showing Joseph Cole. He is standing in a group before what looks like a grand house in the country; not his house, for sure, as he seems to be dressed like a workman or builder, and there is scaffolding round the house, which is perhaps being built or restored.

And there he stands, long gone but as sold and reassuring, I like to suppose, as the day he paused from his labours and had his photograph taken.

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