Salvaging Stories

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During a recent visit to Birmingham I went to the oldest working cinema in the UK—The Electric. It showed its first film in 1909 and although it’s had a chequered life, it’s now been restored and has a pleasing Art Deco façade and interior. The film was good, but the most exciting part of my visit came at the beginning when I was issued with a paper ticket. It read ‘Admit One’ and popped out of a metal slot in the counter. I’ve not seen one of these for years and it triggered a mixture of memories from childhood cinema visits—clouds of cigarette smoke, usherettes with torches, the interval between the B-movie and the main film, wobbly adverts for local restaurants, and standing while the National Anthem was played at the end.

What we take for granted, changes fast and seems quaint to younger generations. Petrol pump attendants are rare these days, and the lift attendants, station porters and telephone operators of my childhood are now long gone. I remembered recently how the television took time to warm up when you first switched it on, and how when I had chicken pox at the age of eight, my mother had to inform the library when she returned my books, so they could be fumigated.

station porter

Photo: Stanley Kubrick

Personal memories have been much on my mind recently. We had my father-in-law’s funeral last weekend with tributes from family around the world and since then, I’ve started typing up the memory tapes that he recorded twenty-five years ago. So far, the stories are quite mundane but that’s part of their charm. They highlight ways in which life was different, and reveal what mattered to him. He recounts at length, various stories about being left-handed. His parents forced him to write with his right hand, as many people did in those days, and he believed that this caused the stammer that was with him until he joined the Army. Nowadays, research suggests this cause is unlikely but his childhood stammer was clearly a formative experience.

The topic of life writing popped up again during a visit to an elderly friend whose memory is still razor sharp. Being an evacuee was a key experience for her and she often talks about it, but on this visit she told me about her grandfather. He lived on the other side of town from her parents and would sometimes wake up in the morning and decide to visit them for tea. As he had no phone, he would send a postcard telling them to expect him later that day. The card would arrive at its destination in the lunchtime post and his daughter would have his tea all ready and waiting when he arrived. My friend is full of stories and I was delighted to hear that she’s started to write some of them down.

typewriter

Writing things down is the first step in creating something that can endure. I’ve recently been reading about the first female university students in Jane Robinson’s book, Bluestockings. Much of her material about everyday life comes from old letters—a better resource than today’s ephemeral texts will be. I laughed when I read that many students sent their dirty washing home as the postal service was swift and cheap, and the local laundries were often expensive and unreliable. These days, fortunately for me, with a student daughter in London, it’s the postal service that’s expensive and unreliable.

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Unless salvaged, all of our unique stories will disappear when we do. Anyone can make their own book, or help older family and friends to do so. It doesn’t need to be great literature or professionally produced but we can hope it will sit on the bookshelves of future generations. Everyday experiences can be entertaining, and life stories can also provide insight—events that affect our parents and grandparents can impact on own lives. Fears and insecurities thread through the generations leaving their trail and changing as we each engage with them in our own ways.

But more than all of this, it’s something that older people can do when it’s often hard for them to feel useful any longer. I recently had a conversation with a friend about his father who is in his nineties. He’s a life-long Quaker and has started writing down his memories, beginning with the years 1939-1941 when he was a conscientious objector. Since going to live in a care home he has felt lost. This new life is unfamiliar to him but when his son took him back to his old house so he could look for relevant files and papers, he immediately knew what to do and how to be. I saw that with my father-in-law. There was so much change going on in his body, mind and environment that it was hard for him to keep up, and for him to know who he was. But when he talked about the past and relived experiences, he knew exactly who he was and had something of himself to hold onto. We all need that.

book cover

And while I’m on the subject of memories—over the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring personal stories by doing a chain interview project. Each person that I interview passes me on to someone who inspires them. It’s been a great way to meet interesting people and to mine unique stories. I’ve gone from an environmental artist to a cancer specialist nurse via an environmental campaigner, an immigration lawyer, a theatre director, an actor, and a drama teacher. Each interviewee has talked about experiences that have shaped them and I’ve heard some fascinating and sometimes funny stories. Many moving ones too, and none more so than the interview I did recently with Helen who told me about working in a Romanian orphanage shortly after the end of the Ceausescu regime.

Enough’s Enough

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I’ve had to talk firmly to myself over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, there are plenty of momentous distractions in the UK right now so I’m not concentrating terribly hard on what I’ve got to say. But I must find a way to listen. It’s important.

My problem is that I’ve unwittingly hopped onto a treadmill. And now that I’ve realised my mistake I need to figure out how to get off—it’s exhausting and can only end in tears.

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Since publishing my book, 31 Treats And A Marriage, it’s been gratifying to get positive feedback. Some people seem to have genuinely enjoyed it and I got a lovely write-up on the BBC Arts website.  At one point I was squeezed there between Benedict Cumberbatch and Kazuo Ishiguro—a pretty good place to be.

The trouble is that whilst that’s more than I could have hoped for, it’s a hungry beast to feed. The other day I spotted a good review on Amazon—the pleasure was momentary—then it was straight onto hoping for the next one. A book group told me that they were planning to read 31 Treats—and then there was another—it was all very pleasing but I couldn’t help wondering about the next one.

The drive to keep achieving more is one of the reasons we’re such a successful species. Monkeys don’t push themselves like this. But whilst it’s got plenty of benefits, it’s also a curse. Is the really successful person the one who ticks all the boxes and immediately creates a new set of goals? Or is it the one who finds every bit of success exciting and takes a lasting pleasure in each one for its own sake?

monkey

Shall I find a way to be happy that I’ve met one of my biggest ambitions by writing a book? Or shall I be dissatisfied because I’m never going to win the Pulitzer Prize? And even if I did win it, then the next wish would throw itself into the fray. I’d long for comparisons to Shakespeare—with him coming off worst, of course. A hedonistic treadmill, indeed.

And if I was to reach the absolute pinnacle of my ambitions? Where next?

I could slither down or jump off.

shakespeare

I did an interview recently with a young actor named Susan Wokoma and we talked about some of the problems of being creative. One, is that it’s hard to know when you’re a success. Out of a hundred people, ninety-five might like your work and five might hate it. But Susan has a calm confidence and talked about realising that her rewards don’t come from impressing people or showing off. What’s important is the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that she loves.

My chat with her came at just the right time, when I was tussling with my treadmill. It made me realise that I, too, am doing something that I love. Sentences go round in my head all the time and elbow their way out—sometimes at the most inconvenient times. If I stopped writing then I wonder where these sentences would go. I imagine them rioting through the streets or worst of all, lying defeated and lifeless in the gutter before they’ve had the chance to draw breath. I couldn’t let that happen and so would have to write even if I had no audience whatsoever.

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I’m working on my second book now and am becoming intimately acquainted with twelve great English cities. I’m finding out such a lot of interesting things. In Worcester I learned about secret industrial recipes; in Manchester I got to grips with some powerful political history, and far-flung Hull was saturated by the elements and its history of whaling and fishing. All of this was interlaced with the poetry of Philip Larkin. And most recently, in Leicester I set foot tentatively inside a huge white Hindu temple where I was welcomed and allowed to sit quietly and absorb the atmosphere. Every city has many sons of which it is proud, but I am focusing on just one daughter for each; twelve women who have challenged the prevailing constraints of their time. Who knows what might happen with all of this—and does it matter anyway? I need to step off the treadmill and just enjoy the process. After all, I’m busy saving those little sentences from an early demise in the gutter—I’m doing what I love.

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One thing I’m particularly enjoying at the moment is the Chain Interview Project. I’m meeting fascinating people and mining all kinds of stories that I would never find otherwise. I recently interviewed Susan, a young actor. She told me about her work and what’s important to her. It’s an exciting time for her: she’s just started filming a big TV series and at the end of our interview she passed me on to someone who’s played a very important part in her life.