‘Every picture tells a story’

A move of house has pushed school photographs and conference mementoes to the forefront of Hilary Moriarty’s life – and staircase – but why do we keep them?

There are a lot of them. You could say they measure out my life. Maybe that’s why they are still with me, even though on a daily basis I could trip over some of them. Others are under beds, which is a good place for them, long and flat as they are. Stacked at the top of a staircase – not such a good idea.

‘Stacked’ is a euphemism for the higgledy piggledy collection nestling at the top of our new staircase. They are homeless (bless!) because it’s an ancient house with low walls, and even if I wanted to look at them daily, the walls do not accommodate them. A stranger might murmur, ‘why would you want them?’

Good question, why indeed? These are the photographic records, formally framed and glass fronted, of a particular lifetime in education. I feature in all of them – of course, vanity being what it is and few of us keeping pictures in which we do not feature –  but they are crowded pictures with serried ranks of professional people so in some of them I am quite hard to spot, as my grandchildren have complained. The older the picture, the harder to ‘spot Granny’.

Some are actually school photos, not from my student days but as a teacher. Line them up and you could see my career history – teacher, head of department, deputy head, head. But most of them are trophies from some of the many conferences I attended, in particular, latterly, as national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA). We ran three or four big annual conferences of our own and I was privileged to attend, ex officio, many of the events run by other associations such as HMC and GSA. Hence the photos.

The trouble is, every picture tells a story, and for me (oh vanity!) it matters that I can trace my progress through these photos, unlike conference trophies

To return to the problem, we have moved house – hence the arrival of these mementoes of a past life onto the staircase (“Well, do you want them up or down?” “I don’t know!” “Or out?” murmurs my husband, hopefully). And no doubt there will come a day when even I declare, “Enough, they have got to go!”

I have friends who have similar mementoes of happy conference gatherings lining the walls of the downstairs loo, or the bigger expanse of a study wall. It’s hard to imagine them anywhere else, and apart from my feeling slightly uncomfortable about such a public display, we live in decluttering times. Pale grey paint and bare, beautiful walls – ah! So restful on the eye. Large pictures of smart professionals on a jolly day off – on the loose from classrooms, enjoying a couple of days in a nice hotel – surely to goodness, they have to go? What have these mementoes to do with the retired me?

Ok, good question. The trouble is, every picture tells a story, and for me (oh vanity!) it matters that I can trace my progress through these photos, unlike conference trophies. But the conference trophies predominate.

My first appearance at a BSA conference for heads was at the end of the first week of my first headship. My newly departed predecessor had intended to attend, so the place was booked. In my first week in post, the deputy insisted my attendance was vital (“public face of the school, new face, make contacts, go, you’ll love it, we’ll be fine”).

The photo shows Princess Anne front and centre. I am perched, precariously, on the end of a line about six rows up, in Insignificant Land. But I am there! I have arrived! Look at the company I keep! In my absence, mayhem was actually breaking out at school, with accusations and counter-accusations that kept our legal advisers busy for some time afterwards. You could say I paid a high price for the glamour of the royal connection.

If I had kept all my annual group shots, you could have traced my progress from the outer, higher edges to ex officio front and middle seat, next to the guest of honour. Ta dah!

The final picture reminds me of this one great pleasure – it’s like being a kid again and wanting to show your mum how your career, whatever its twists and turns, came good in the end. After all, neither a village school nor a country grammar school would have predicted a career further than the local biscuit factory or, the posh option, the library.

Throw or keep?

So, what to do with them now? Possibly OK on a school corridor wall, these beasts are not made for domesticity. One can imagine a TV decluttering programme making a beeline for these easy targets. The expert would be firing them into the skips, the owner grabbing them in flight, muttering, “Do you remember this?” and “Why did I ever go to work dressed like that?”

The major trouble is their size, so it’s no wonder the photo companies moved to include dinky little prints of the big picture, for a desk, not a wall. Handy to lift and reminisce for a moment, easily swept into a drawer when the declutterer/estate agent comes to call.

I have a fondness for school photos, as opposed to conference trophies, because of six years in charge of the annual event as a deputy head. Classic school headshots of pupils, one for the file, one for the parents if they wished. It sounds simple enough but they were a trial to organise in the face of, “No, year 10 cannot be photographed at 9.30 on Thursday, it’s their French oral mock exam!” Organise their departure from vital lessons, get them in alphabetical ranks, take out earrings, remove make-up, tie hair back… what a jolly day.

I have been completely blown away by the school photos now being taken of my grandchildren (I know, I know, that ages me, but what can you do?) Home photos of the grandchildren’s generation had already gone professional – family to the studio, lots of props to keep them amused, lots of shots against great white expanses, very bright, very professional, very expensive – such a long way from, “Just sit on that gate while your dad takes a picture.”

Now transfer that approach to a school photo and slightly serious solo shots are supplemented with ‘my form’ or ‘my mates’ or ‘my footie team’ – bright, jolly, cheerful children against huge white backgrounds.

Maybe for teachers’ professional pictures these trends will appear and transform the current status quo. Friendship or year groups – “We’re the heads appointed in the year 2000!” More grins and poses, fewer of the serried ranks of serious people.

A year after leaving the BSA, I was invited back for an anniversary shot. No longer the national director, I was back at the outer edge of the photograph again.  

C’est la vie. 


Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of The Boarding Schools’ Association.