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I had the privilege of reading Marion Hughes’ memoir of her life as a Barnardo’s child (Not Written Off, Backworth Publishing,2017) before it was published.

Born in 1947, one of the ten children of a widowed Northumbrian miner, Marion, along with four of her siblings, was sent into an orphanage at Hexham, where she remained, more or less continuously until she was eighteen. It is a remarkable account of 1950s life, not least because it is told, seemingly without the intention to do anything more than recall what was an enjoyed childhood and adolescence.

I got no sense of any wish to expose or whitewash the practices of the time, but merely to tell of them. Perhaps this is why what is exposed seems all the more shocking. We all know that old adage of L.P.Hartley’s that ‘the past is a foreign country’. Well, here is an account of that country from one who lived there, an insider’s account, apparently unconscious of what its norms, and peculiarities will look like to us outsiders.

Three little examples picked at not quite random might give a clue. Early on in life, playing with friends at the nearby infants’ school, the subject of ‘mums and dads’ comes up:

‘What’s a Mam and Dad? And why haven’t I got them?’

And following an accident with a knitting needle, illicitly carried in the pocket:

‘I started to cry, not because my leg was hurting but for fear of what might happen to me for disobeying that rule.’

            Perhaps most shocking of all though, in this post Saville world, was when the children were encouraged to write to ‘pen pals’ and Marion Hughes received a letter from a sixty year old bachelor who was a friend of the Superintendant.

‘…saying he wanted to befriend me and that I could call him Uncle Mac.’

This relationship, always uncomfortable, was continued throughout her life at the home, and involved presents, trips away and holidays. She was always accompanied by a chaperone it must be stressed, but even so, to contemporary eyes it seems extraordinary.

The memoir is frank and affectionate. Marion Hughes enjoyed her childhood, and was grateful for it, grateful in fact for elements within it that might now make us shudder. The story is told with clarity and simplicity, and, where even she was conscious of something not quite right, with surprise rather than bitterness. It shows a world where ‘right’ was striven for, but seemingly without any affection or real human contact.

Having worked for thirty years in Child Care, she says things are different now, and of that we should be glad. She says too, that she survived ‘unscathed’.

[this review first appeared on the Good Reads web platform – should that be decking?]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been reading Adrian Bell’s memoir of a year on a Suffolk farm (Corduroy, first published in 1930, but set in 1920/21). You don’t have to be interested in farming, nor indeed in Suffolk, to enjoy it. A liking for how stories unfold, and how the English language might be used will suffice.

Bell’s agricultural apprenticeship took place in the rural England that A.E.Coppard often wrote about, and it was instantly recognisable. In particular there was a paraghraph or two devoted to a description of ‘the higgler,’ both as an individual and a type. The only other place I’ve come across this character, except in an old dictionary, was as the eponymous hero of Coppard’s most famous tale. The descriptions of other labourers recall stories such as The Old Venerable and The Poor Man, and of course, the VC winning itinerant labourer of Weep Not My Wanton.  The story of Coppard’s renting of his cottage in the woods is borne out here too, in the prices quoted for such lettings.  [you can read more of Coppard and his tales here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/English-Responses-Tales-E-Coppard-ebook/dp/B00UEONRV6 ] English of the English

The writing style is clear and simple, yet rising from time to time, as in a later section telling of the barley harvest being taken in, to the level of lyric poetry.  What struck me most in retrospect though, was the way a turning point in English social history was caught. Here horse drawn carts and muscle power co-exist with motor cars and both steam and petrol powered machinery. Bell’s host farm looks to the future, but that of the farmer’s father-in-law clings to the past, making do and mending, and codging up ancient machinery with bits and pieces bought at local auctions.  In fact, as the wartime HMSO publication about ‘the land at war’ makes clear, after a bright false start following World War One, with a strong ‘back to the land’ movement, British agricultural nosedived into one of its darkest decades in the nineteen thirties, so that on the eve of World War Two a crisis of food supply, in the face of submarine warfare, would have been imminent without the various government ‘dig for victory’ campaigns and the almost immediate introduction of rationing.

And what came upon me after the recognition of this unique moment of past turning into future, was that a memoir of any period, and of any place, might also catch such a momentary, and unique turning point. For as time rolls on, only change is constant, and as writers this should reassure as much as daunt us. We do not have to wait for a significant moment in history to arrive, so that we might observe and record it, for all the moments through which we live have their significances. And, even if we are not aware of them, to observe and record what passes before us, will be to preserve such moments for those who come later, fully equipped with the twenty-twenty hindsights that will make those significances plain.

Adrian Bell went on to publish, among other titles, two more in this rural trilogy: Silver Ley (Penguin no.278) and The Cherry Tree (Penguin no.264). Corduroy was published as Penguin no.247. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corduroy-rural-trilogy-Adrian-Bell/dp/0571240836  Seven of Coppard’s stories, including the little gem that is Weep Not My Wanton, were recently re-issued by Turnpike Books.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E.Lawrence (Cape, 1935)  T.E.Lawrence remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Lawrence’s most famous work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule during the First World War, and I recently found myself reading it once again. I have been clearing out thousands of unsold books, the residue of a quarter of a century of bookselling. Among them is a copy of the Seven Pillars as heavy and large as an old family bible. In my opinion it is the only edition to read – though there are others, and even an abridged version, entitled Revolt in the Desert. A part of the appeal of this book, perhaps the major part, must lie in its differences from what I have experienced, living in a temperate landscape and under a western, liberal-democratic ideology. Arabia was a foreign country too, to borrow an aphorism, and they did things differently there. This book goes a long way towards explaining how, and why, or at least giving one thoughtful and observant outsider’s view on that. Stick with the massive 1935 edition, the first unabridged text to be prepared for general publication. It is not an uncommon book. There was a time (and it still may be the case) when it was harder to find a second-hand bookshop without a copy of this edition for sale than one with it, and harder to find a book auction catalogue without one recorded! The copy I’m reading from has its caramel brown cloth binding stained with a soft white mould, but the crossed sabres, and the text between them, still glitter with gilding, which is a form of gold. The paper is thick, and slightly glossy. The foredges are rough cut. Holding the pages to the light though, we see no chain marks, suggesting that it has been factory, rather than hand made. The maps fold out, are in fact what booksellers call ‘thrown out’, with a sheet of plain paper between them and the binding, so you can have the map on display while you read on beyond it in the text. Reading from such a book, because of its size, because of its weight, is an awkward business, and not to be taken lightly. The tome must be laid upon a table, or better still, a lectern, or you must bear the weight of it upon your lap, and be reminded that you are not dealing here with some lightweight piece of indulgent fluff. I had not intended to read it again. There are unpleasantnesses in it that are worth knowing about, but unnecessary to re-visit for their own sakes, yet. Yet, it is a book of great beauty. I want to say, immense beauty: the beauty of the desert, and of Lawrence’s appreciation of it; the beauty of his feasts (ever since reading it my desire has been to serve a whole roast sheep, on a bed of rice, in a tin bath – how could we eat it any other way, without recognising our own unimportance?); the beauty of his portrayal of the semitic peoples among which he lived and fought; the beauty, when all is said and done, of his prose. It is a reasonably long work, stretching to some 350,000 words over many ‘books’ each of several short chapters. It is a work to take a few chapters at a time, perhaps even one at a time, despite their brevity, for they are dense with his understanding and his observation. Each sentence is to be weighed and considered, to be mulled over and reflected upon. One could argue that the trend of modern politics, the so-called war on terror and the Arab spring, make this a timely read, and that may be so, but Seven Pillars of Wisdom needs no such impetus to prompt a reading. The desert, I suspect, has not changed in the eighty years since Lawrence wrote it, though its skylines may have, nor will it have, I guess, eighty years hence, and what Lawrence has to say about it, and about its profound effects upon the thoughts, and behaviours of those who venture out upon it, will be as powerful and as resonant then as it is now, and has always been. Here’s Lawrence arriving in Jidda at the beginning of ch.VIII: ‘We had the accustomed calm run to Jidda, in the delightful Red Sea climate, never too hot while the ship was moving. By day we lay in shadow; and for great part of the glorious nights we would tramp up and down the wet decks under the stars in the steaming breath of the southern wind. But when at last we anchored in the outer harbour, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. It was midday; and the noon sun in the East, like moonlight, put to sleep the colours. There were only lights and shadows, the white houses and black gaps of streets: in front, the pallid lustre of the haze shimmering upon the inner harbour: behind, the dazzle of league after league of featureless sand, running up to an edge of low hills, faintly suggested in the far away mist of heat.’ If you have seen the movie version with Peter O’Toole and his sparkling blue eyes and flaring nostrils, don’t be put off – that epic draws on Lawrence’s account, but as if with the sound turned down and the colour switched off. The visual is a pale echo of the written story, and in the written story Lawrence is not the hero. Neither, for that matter, are the countless Arabs, leaders and fighters, along with their European collaborators, who are mentioned by name. The true hero of the book is the desert in all its ethereal beauty, and it was for this, certainly, that I was prepared to endure again the ugliness of the human story with which the author presents us. Lawrence’s description of the desert, of its dawns and dusks, its jebels and wadis, its arid landscapes of sand and stone, and its star filled skies, as much as the way the nomadic tribesmen have adapted their ways of life to its necessities, is the presence that draws me back to this haunting memoir.