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.
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.
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.
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.
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.