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Tessa Hadley Masterclass: One Matchbox, Twenty Writers, A Single Story

Tessa Hadley’s Word Factory masterclass was about putting life on the page. Push description in your notebook, she told the class, and pay attention to the pictures around the edges of your perception – the marginalia. As an exercise in observation, she passed around a single mysterious object and asked the writers to describe what they saw. Here’s the wonderful and surprising result:


It’s a box made of cardboard. It might have been a matchbox, or held soap; it’s worn, the images on it are faded, the colours are vintage colours, dusty. There’s a story on the back of it, a joke you don’t get for a moment because it’s so outdated, based on assumed gender roles: from The Reader’s Digest, sent in by Mrs. F Gissom, Midsomer Norton. It is a matchbox, the track through the middle of the strike-strip smoothed with sulphur, grubby and yellowed, some wear still left in it; looking at the label – England’s Glory, Bryant and May, a picture of a steamer – locates it in England’s past. 


Crushed, the box is bent, its rattle gentle as if there’s little room; whatever’s in it, there’s one that’s escaped and rattles more – and the left end’s more crushed than the right, as if someone always opens from the left. There’s resistance, it doesn’t fly open: then a papery brushing sound, like a tread in snow. Each side is bent in, it’s not a perfect rectangle; it’s like a picture frame, and inside the frame an assortment of buttons of various sizes, and a musty smell. The buttons are so smooth in comparison with the box softened by so much handling! It’s so full that if you’re not careful they’ll tip out, with a coin-like tinkle; the box feels too small for your hands and there’s a disconnect between the contents and the container – it’s as if the buttons have been orphaned and are clinging together.


The box is obdurate, you can’t help when you’re holding it getting a sense of history and memory – because in fact it is a literal container, it’s got literal memories inside it. It’s restless and crumpled and you’re wondering who made it, and if that person who could afford matches – was it a woman or a girl making them, in a factory or at home? England’s Glory: an image of empire and machinery, the strike-strip a thumb-grater; it’s weightless alone, you’d have to have millions of boxes to make them count; it’s so flimsy yet represents something so weighty. 


The box looks strange and out of place in your hands. Who kept it? Plasticky, clicking, dusty, dirty, broken, the buttons don’t seem important  – one’s so small that it slips through your fingers into a cup of water. They don’t look like spares, they look as if they’ve been used, mother-of-pearl luminescence next to matte black, a lot of history. They’re cold, considering how many have touched them; bits of paper and thread are sticking to them; they haven’t been carefully stored but ripped off and chucked in, some have come in a packet. You want to eat them, like little confections; there’s even a pink one nobody’s mentioned. It’s a lot of buttons to go into a little matchbox! And it’s making you think of your grandmother’s biscuit-smell, her button box, how she snipped the buttons off old clothes and kept them, just in case they ever came in useful. 

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