family history

F is for family history

It was my Nana that instilled a sense of my family’s history in me. When I was about twelve my grandad gave me photocopies of his parents’ marriage and death certificates which helped me get started on proper family history research later, but I don’t remember him or my grandma talking about their childhoods. Nana, on the other hand… When I was little we were inseparable and she was a chatterbox. I spent my pre-school days and then my weekends, evenings and school holidays with her and assorted friends and relations of her generation. Man, could they talk. Sometimes they’d natter away and forget I was there, and I absorbed favourite reminiscences and old gossip. Often though, they’d deliberately tell stories to the wide-eyed child who hadn’t heard them a hundred times before.

Now and then they’d tell me what they remembered, or had been told, about older generations, in fact I mentioned a few years ago some of the family tales and phrases that had been passed down that way. Thus Nana’s cousin Jo Jo described the goalkeeping skills of my great-grandad for the Atherton Codders in the 1920s, eyes shining like he could still see the pitch in front of him. I heard about Nana and Jo Jo being taken on a seaside holiday by their grandparents, and about my great-grandad’s budgies in a walk-in cage in the back garden. Usually they related funny or memorable events from their own youth. Nana’s lifelong friend Alice in particular told hilarious tales absolutely deadpan and was a master of pacing and scene-setting. I can still picture her landing at the feet of a surprised old couple in 1930s Derbyshire when her husband applied the brakes too hard on the tandem after a handlebar mishap.

It had been long enough since the war (forty years or more) that I got the amusing anecdotes about misadventure and misunderstanding: “Bombing at random again?” said my great-grandma, listening to the radio. “There’ll be nobody left there. Where is Random, anyway?”. My Nana’s youngest sister using gravy browning and an eyebrow pencil to mock up seamed stockings on her bare legs. Filling the butter dish with lard to teach a small child not to filch rationed butter from the sideboard. My Royal Marine grandad getting drunk, losing his ship and having to hitch a lift on another one. Nobody talked about the sick fear, the disruption and hardship. What’s the use of dragging all that up again? And yet, even though I was a child I didn’t only get the polite or sugar-coated version of history. Nana was completely open with me about her brother having a different dad who her mum hadn’t been allowed to marry. And about the suicide of her great-grandad about a decade before she was born.

I took these facts as they were given, crucial pieces of the story that I wouldn’t find written down anywhere, but nothing shocking. It’s only looking back now I’m older that I’m amazed, thinking about how in the 1980s we still referred to children ‘born out of wedlock’, and how much stigma is even now attached to suicide which was – lest we forget – illegal until the 1960s. Not only did my Nana happily pass this information on to me when I was still at primary school, but she knew it in the first place! Her mum got married during the first world war and openly brought with her the son she’d had with a previous boyfriend in another village. No passing him off as her little brother or an orphaned nephew, or leaving him to be brought up by someone else while she got on with her new life as many others did. And as for the story about Nana’s great-grandad, she got that from her grandma Emily whose father it was.

Nana with her grandma Emily in 1920

It was passed to me as I imagine it was passed to Nana, with sadness but no shame or condemnation. Emily found her father’s body and understood what had driven him to desperation. Perhaps the village doctor understood too, because the death certificate uses fancy medical terms for ‘died of old age’ whereas it must have been obvious what had happened. Emily clearly loved him and didn’t want the truth to be forgotten. Thus, even though Emily died nearly forty years before I was born I feel a connection with her, and thanks to the passed-down story I know that her dad had his troubles but did his best. Which I’m sure she would appreciate.

F could also have been for Ford Fiesta, fireworks, fish and chips, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton
Advertisement

Creative non-fiction: letting go of accuracy

Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.

My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.

I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.

What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).

Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.

If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Family (hi)story

My enthusiasm for undiscovered truths (or speculative assumptions, whichever appeals most to my romantic imagination at the time) led me a few years ago into family history. Gather up a list of names, dates and occupations, add some knowledge of the area, and the traits they passed down to you, shake it all up with a dash of imagination, and hey presto, your very own War and Peace.

I’ll never know for certain how my ancestors spoke, what they wore or ate, how they felt about each other (or about the wider world) or whether I’d have liked them (probably not, for the most part), but fleshing out their lives provides me with some entertainment and mental exercise. It’s a study of characters and their motives; if I write a character and I need him to end up in Paris, I have to ask why he would go there and in what circumstances. The same applies when you try to decide why Great Uncle Herbert moved 200 miles and became a miner instead of a watchmaker – there’s no right answer, but there might be a satisfactory one. I don’t actually have a Great Uncle Herbert, by the way, though I do have plenty of miners and a couple of epic moves, despite OneMonkey’s firm belief that my entire family came from one village and are as inbred as you can get.

Of course, there’s a danger of letting your imagination run away with you, of reading motives where there are none, and applying modern reasoning to an eighteenth century situation, but since no lives or fortunes rest on my research, it doesn’t really matter. I often wonder about the difference between my interpretation of the evidence, and the actual truth as it happened, and I wonder if my ancestors would be shocked, amused or annoyed if they knew what conclusions I’d drawn.

This idea of logical but wildly incorrect conclusions from historical evidence gave me some story ideas, none of which have been developed very far yet, but mainly play on the reader knowing more about the past than the central character doing the research, so they can see the way that character reads their own personality and desires into the evidence and misinterprets it. It’s not exactly the most original theme (and I probably got it from Possession by AS Byatt, which uses a similar idea in the context of academic research in English Literature), but I was still put out when I started to read The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier. I won’t spoil it for anyone but it plays on the idea of a modern-day researcher delving into her family history, and interweaves the story of her sixteenth-century ancestors, showing the patterns and repetitions in history.  It’s simultaneously encouraging and disappointing, to find that an idea similar to my own has been used in a popular novel, but I suspect it was published because Tracy Chevalier was already well-established, and not because it struck anyone as a great idea.