Dancing the Shadowy Line Between Memoir and Fiction
I don’t know whether it’s the Lockdown or the enclosed life of being a carer -- (the latter being a version of Lockdown, I suppose) - but the notion of memoir is very much on my mind these days.
In my rare moments of literary reflection I am working on a collection of short stories emerging from the lives of seven siblings in the nexus of 1922. This collection will be entitled SIBLINGS.
be to have tea and cakes with readers and writers and share a conversation about living a writer’s life and the instinctual function of memory in my novels and stories. See them HERE
I have just posted about my ideas about all this HERE on my blog.
In thinking about this theme of the shadowy line between fiction an memoir I will certainly touch on my current writing project Siblings, a collection of seven individual stories called told by the eleven year old middle Sibling, Ayla, set primarily in the year 1922.
Although the seven siblings from whom the stories spring are genetically connected to each other and in the subsequent generations genetically connected to me, these stories will essentially be pure fiction, just as my numerous published novels and short stories are pure fiction, although – as I will explain - they are shot through with fragments of true memory - my own and others’. These seven stories told from the point of view of the this middle child are entirely separate, each Sibling existing in their own universe,
In my own substantial writing life I’ve come to realise that literary expression and story-making are not the purview of the privileged literary middle classes. My own life experience informs me that depth and quality of literary expression is embedded the conscious experience of every family where literate reflection and story-telling is an ongoing aspect of that family environment, whatever their cultural location in our multi-layered society.
Holding this view I now take note of a new awareness of this in the welcome flowering of attention from publishers, agents and reviewers of writing emerging from previously marginalised social and racial groups in our society. I welcome this with a full heart. It is overdue.
I have observed that in my own marginalised group at the bottom of the class structure in English society, that the custom of intricate in intergenerational storytelling has served as the key to our literary existence and educational success. This view is informed by the fact that my own family emerges from the so-called “disadvantaged” working class, being “Northern”, working class and originally in manual jobs if working at all.
I am very much aware of the convenient category of so called Working Class Writing and Kitchen Sink Drama that emerged in the twentieth Century English Canon. And I do admire the work of people like Sid Chaplin, Jack Common, James Kelman and William McIlvanney. However I worry that the working class works can be prone to sentimental memorialising which can serve to prevent proper insight into the rich complexities of working class family life located as it is at the margins of English society. Often it seems to me that little of this output been properly recognised as literature rather than occasionally entertaining illustrations of an alien life form.
Of course you will tell me that the books are there. A valuable Guardian piece from 2018 lists books in which ‘working class’ heroes are defined by courage and fortitude and political significance. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/06/top-10-working-class-heroes-in-books Perhaps it is of interest that all of these referred books, except one, feature men and subjects and male preoccupation in the fields of war, politics, protest and urban survival. There is praise for their talents in overcoming the early disadvantage of working class environment and origins.
Fair enough! There are some honourable mainstream works here.
However in my view the key to the best of literature is the positive and intricate aspects of the story of lives lived which can create and inform heroism in all its aspects, domestic or otherwise.
So, you may say, what about you Wendy?
I suppose my own writing is speckled with the benefits of being born into what some would call this disadvantaged life. One of my earliest memories is sitting under the table in a cluttered somewhat neglected room, listening to my mother and her sisters telling and repeating stories emerging from their own lives , from their mother and father’s lives and their grandparents lives going back more than two generations. The stories had been shared, modified and developed time and time again through the decades, through the century.
“Er… don’t you remember? That’s wrong. The truth is, she …”
Within this family details of memory have been worked over again and again like the fine stitches finishing off an elaborate piece of embroidery. And in the retelling of the stories, each story-teller would incorporate elements of her own life experience to embellish, deepen and contextualise the meaning of the story.
More recently I have been thinking that there is possibly a genetic instinctual element to my own story which informs my own lifelong storytelling instinct and continues to have an impact the children and grandchildren of the seven siblings who are the leading characters in my new collection.
In my own family’s case this custom, practice, and focus of encoding family life into stories has proved itself in various ways facilitating a deeper understanding of the literature and various other texts that we read – a world away from the cluttered working class house. This custom somehow engendered the passing of exams, the apprehending of stories in other languages, through to the taking up of professions involving teaching, high class journalism, even the creative problem-solving in the world of scientific research. As well as this, building, making, writing, painting and other creative preoccupations have evolved into a generation which is manifestly successful in the complex modern world. I am now thinking that such progress is achieved, not despite the disadvantaged working class family origins but because of the unique nature of that family’s history grounded as it is in intricate and deeply observed family experience.
My own family heritage is significantly Celtic – part Scottish, part Welsh with a smidgen of Irish. And now I am thinking of the Celtic custom of relating ancient tribal history and politics through storytelling. I note that this cultural identity is reflected in many of my own longer novels and particularly explicitly in my novel set in post-Roman Britain called The Pathfinder. And now I can trace this instinct in all of my novels, whether they are set in Nineteenth Century County Durham, in 1938 Spain, in 1941 Singapore or in mid-20th century France.
You can read it HERE.
1922 January 22 British Troops roll over Dublin’s Cobbled streets
and take up positions on the docks and market areas
So. There is this man in our Front Room. Our Dee whispers in my ear that he’s this big man from the pit. He’s sitting on the horsehair sofa talking to our Mam, his flowing tweed coat unbuttoned and his white silk muffler tight around his neck.
Our Mam is sitting on the music stool in front of the harmonium on which she plays each night after we’ve gone to bed. She practices for the Sunday services. She plays at Sunday services on Sunday mornings at our own chapel and at the Welsh chapel at Chilton at the evening service. She makes us go to the services at our own chapel but we don’t have to bother with the Welsh chapel, where the words are all jumbled up. It’s not jumbled for Mam, of course – her being proper Welsh. Our Eirwen does go there, as she always clings to Mam and is a bit daft that way. But at least she gets to speak a bit of Welsh so that’s probably a good thing.
Anyway, here now in our Front Room is this this big man in the big coat. We’re all here, even though we’re never normally allowed in the Front Room. Mostly we’re just in the kitchen and the scullery. The Front Room is for best.
But now, here we are - me, Eirwen and our Dee (whose Scottish name is Deoiridh), our Aderyn (whose Welsh name means bird but round here they call her Ada which means nothing). We are all sitting on the chairs lined up against the back wall, Breedlen (whose Welsh name means helper but round here they call her Bree) and our young Evan, are sitting cross-legged in front of the fire.
‘Well, Mrs Angus...’ The man’s voice sounds like a kind of whispery roar. ‘We know your lad Bram is a good scholar. Your Jimmy’s friends tell us that.’
Mam nods, her eyes wary at the mention of our Da’s name. She sits up straighter on the stool. ‘Our Bram passed the School Leaving Certificate when he was 12 and they let him leave school then.’ She speaks in English but her words swim up and down in that Welsh way.
The big man crosses his legs and leans back on the horsehair sofa, which creaks. ‘Like I say, a clever lad. They tell me that he’s working in that tailor shop on the High Street?’ He raises his eyebrows.
Mam nods. She's proud of our Bram. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘He’s apprenticed to the clerk there. Only got the job, look you, because he's a good scholar.
‘Mmm,’ He grunts. ‘No pay, like?’
‘He’ll start on a wage on Boxing Day.’ Mam’s lips close tight together. Tight.
He strokes his bristly chin. ‘That’s as mebbe, Mrs Angus.’ He pauses. The ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece is very loud. Then he coughs. ‘Your Jimmy did all right down the pit didn’t he? Got to be deb’ty when he was not much more than a lad. That was before he volunteered, like, in fourteen.’ He pauses. Then he looks around at us one by one. I shrink back. ‘And left you with seven bairns to keep.’
Her eyes, cold as ice now, look him up and down. He glances around our Front Room with the clock on the mantelpiece and the bulky harmonium bought second-hand for her by my Granda so she would play in the services in his Welsh chapel. After my Da died in the war he sent us a bag of boots leftover his spare time job as a cobbler. All boys’ boots of course. Me, I refused to wear them, although our Dee loves hers and wears them when she goes out to play chasey and football with the lads.
Now here in the Front Room the big man coughs and nods his head. ‘Well, like, I have instructions from Mr Stevenson to talk to you about all this.’
Bree’s voice tickles my ear. ‘Mr Stevenson’s his big boss at the pit.’
The man’s thick fingers stroke his bristly chin again. ‘Well, Mrs Angus, it’s three years now, isn’t it, since we lost Jimmy and all our other lads? And we see even now that Jimmy’s a big miss to you as well as the pit.’ He pauses and examines his fingernails.’ But in these years since the war, haven’t you had this colliery house in this fine row?’ He looks again around the bright Front Room ‘And of course the coal for your fire.’
A dark cloud settles now around us.
He coughs. ‘Well, Mrs Angus, it boils down to this. Mr Stevenson says I should explain that there’s talk of new men coming up from Cornwall to fill the gaps left in the workforce by the war. And the houses – only granted to working miners - are needed for their families.’
Mam sighs very loudly and I want to cry. Then she puts her hands together as though she’s praying and looks around the room. ‘You want us out, then?’
The big man coughs yet again. ‘Mebbe that won’t quite be necessary, Mrs Angus.’ He surveys us, one by one. ‘How old is your oldest again? The one that works at the tailor’s?’
‘Our Bram’ll be fourteen next Monday.’
‘Well then! There’s a solution to your problem. The lad’s fit enough to work in the pit isn’t he? Then he’ll be your working miner. So you can keep your house and your coal. And, being a clever lad, he won’t start at the very bottom.’ The big man stands up, re-buttons his topcoat and reties his muffler. ‘So you’ll think about this Mrs Angus?
She hauls herself to her feet and turns towards the front door. Like the Front Room, it’s rarely used. The last time it was used was when an officer in DLI uniform brought the letter from the army to say how brave our Da had been and how the King was proud of him. I was only seven then but I remember it like it was yesterday.
Now the big man shakes Mam’s hand and looks her in the eye. ‘Come Monday I’ll get Tab Smith, who worked marras with your Jimmy, to call here for your lad at half five sharp. Tab’ll take it him in-bye and make sure he gets to know the ropes from the start.’
Mam tries to pull her hand away, but he clutches it more closely. ‘It’s the only way, Mrs Angus. It’s for the best, you know it and I know it.
She slams the door behind him and stands with her back to it. Her eyes glittering and her teeth clenched.
We know that look. We begin to melt away through the middle door and make our way through the kitchen, through the scullery and down the backyard. We race out onto the Green behind the houses where Bree has a store of clay which we can make into beads and buttons to bake them on a tray in the oven.
At 8 o’clock my brother Bram marches down the yard in his shiny black shoes and leaps straight upstairs to hang up his white shirt his jacket in his black trousers. He comes down in bare feet wearing an old shirt and sits at the kitchen table now spread by Mam with a white cloth, on the end of which Mam has spread a white cloth. Bram sits down and bends his long gangly body over the table, his mop of black hair falling over his eyes. (The rest of them have shiny black hair like Mam’s. All except me, that is. My hair is rusty red like my Da’s. My Mam told me once not to worry about that, as the Queen of the Icenae had red hair and she was a brave woman.)
Bram grins across at Ada and me, his white teeth flashing. In front of him on the table is his meat and potato pie. It was made by Ada, who is now Mam’s right-hand-woman in the house. She gets to stay off school on Monday to help Mam with the washing, and on Wednesdays for the ironing and baking.
Bram spears his fork into the crisp golden pastry. Mam stands watching him, her back to the roaring fire, her arms folded. The rest of us – all six of us – are scattered around the room in our nightclothes. Bree is sitting on a wooden cracket, her hands busy with her knitting needles. Deirdre is leaning on the windowsill humming a tune. Evan is leaning the fireguard at Mam’s knees. And our Eirwen is staring dreamily out of the window.
Bram grins across at Mam. ‘Real good, these taties, Ma. Has Uncle Davey been over?’ He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. At last he notices the silence in the room turns to cast his eye over each of us. Eventually he looks at Mam and smiles his sweet smile. ‘Now, Mam, I was wondering what you’re gunna give us for me birthday. Is it a secret?’
She shakes her head, her eyes cold. ‘The pit, Bram. Your birthday present is the pit.’
On the Monday all of us except Dee are watching for Bram to come home from the pit. Dee is off with some lads down in the woods because her mate Bobby Vann says he’s seen them dancing down there. The rest of us hear the sneck on the back gate click and we watch as Bram comes down the yard. His brow and his chin of his face are as black as his hair. His jacket and shirt are grey with coal dust. When he sees us his white teeth gleam in his face.
We are prepared; Bree has hauled in the tin bath from the yard. Bree has filled it with hot water using the long handled ladle to dip into the boiler beside the fire. Mam has set the big clotheshorse around the bath and draped sheets over it. For Bram’s modesty, like. Evan’s job is to be at the ready to scrub his brother’s back with soap and the rough flannel. We can hear the boys laughing and talking behind the makeshift screen. Then we watch as Bram’s clean shirt and trousers vanish from the clothes-horse. And so, before our eyes, he emerges from his tent, his face shining and clean except for the glamorous black lines around his eyes.
He sits down at the table opposite Mam, who is ladling rabbit stew onto a plate for him. She nods at him her face bland. ‘Well son’ she says, 'How was the pit then?’
So there you are. Our Bram worked down the pit from when he was fourteen until he was sixty two years old. In that time he made good progress up the complicated professional pit ladder. Like our Da Jimmy he became a Deputy at a young age. And in the following years he became a great expert on the intricacy of the seams of coal and the mines that crisscrossed the underworld of County Durham. Interestingly some of them have women’s names such as Beamish Mary, Ravensworth Betty and Emma. Others have historic names like Ladysmith. Others are named for places like Newton Cap, Princes Street Drift, Throstle Gill and Hole in the Wall.
It all remained poetry to him. The world underground the green surface of our county was his universe. All his life he was driven to talk about this world to whoever would listen. Our Bram truly was a good scholar and his university was the pit.
1922. February 16. Unemployment now over one million
including 348,000 ex-servicemen,