Remembering Lyn

This is a letter I received a year after making a bag for someone….

Remembering Lyn: A Ragsto Story by Lawrence Stewart Owens, Ph.D.
When Lyn Hollyer died, it was a black day. She was in the first class of students I ever taught, and was very kind to a nerve-wracked young lecturer. She quickly became an ally, colleague and friend. She was probably the toughest, most uncompromising, resilient, indomitable, adventurous and inspirational person I have ever met, and had spent most of her 75 years scandalising and shocking everyone, and bounding through life with an appetite and exultation that leaves me breathless with admiration even now.
But a memorial…what to do? Memorials are tricky. You have to take everything you know about a person, remember the experiences that you shared with them, remember their passions, their desires, their achievements, triumphs and tragedies…and then put their name on a metal plaque, on a bench. Or put up a marble tablet somewhere with some superficial homily, date of birth, date of death, some mundane declaration of eternal reminiscence. If you had a good innings, you will be lucky to get a word per year. In some respects the road to this best of intentions is a hellacious thing indeed, and Lyn – I know – would have sneered at something so desperately mundane.

So what did I do? Well…I made a bag.

Yes I know. “A bag?” I hear you sneer. But wait. It is not just any bag. Everything about it is purely her. When I was helping her beloved granddaughter clear out Lyn’s house, I gazed over the piles of trash and treasure that she had acquired over the past three-quarters of a century and tried to think of a way to bring together her cheerful chaos into something that would really evoke her, really get to terms with who she was. And I, myself, am a restless soul, so it would have to be something that would be able to travel with aplomb. Eclectic, amusing, diverse, tough, able…and this is what I came up with. I scooped up all her old digging clothes, an insanely colourful turtle-themed cushion cover from her living room, a pair of her jeans, a Navajo textile she picked up in the 1960s, a Peruvian cloth strap, a string of beads…and sent the whole lot off to the good people at ragsto ( They specialise in creating the new and the special from the old and treasured, and they didn’t bat an eyelid when I sent them a rambling and incoherent email about what I wanted. I told them the whole story, and said it had to encapsulate Lyn’s qualities: practical, pragmatic and sensible, yet also fanciful, imaginative and innovative, something that would perpetuate who she was in a way that wouldn’t cast you down but would lift you and make you smile whenever you see it. I dropped the materials in their laps, and let Neil (their resident genius) have at it.

And a couple of weeks later the bag arrived and it had Lyn written all over it. It even had her initial embossed into the flap. A practical, tough and waterproof exterior – rather like her own – gives way inside to a glorious panoply of colours, cheerfully ruled over by the Technicolor turtle. The Navajo textile has become a border; the Peruvian one has become the strap. The beads had become a charm, attached to an inside zip pull. The compass fits perfectly into a canvas pocket in what used to be her digging ‘waistcoat’. Her jeans pockets and assorted straps hold her trowels and dental tools, clips hold magnifying glasses and other paraphernalia…so now something of her can go back to Peru, can travel once again, can join us in spirit if not in body. Already people recognise it, laugh and remember her and raise a beer to her and don’t waste time in the tear-sodden lamentation with which Lyn would have had so little patience. I hope she would have approved. I can’t ask her now. But at the end of the day – and as Lyn herself once pointed out – death is easy enough to do, but much harder for everyone else. She was right, as usual. It is hard. And yet all one can do is take solace in the little things that light up our days. Lyn would have approved of that, I know.

Cheers Lyn. Here’s to you

Lawrence Stewart Owens, Ph.D.

Sessional Lecturer (B.A./B.Sc.)
Dept. of History, Classics & Archaeology
Birkbeck College, University of London