Writing memoir

When my father was very ill, I gave him an empty journal, hoping he would record some of the things that had happened to him during his life.

After he died, I found the journal. It wasn’t empty, but all it held was a tick-list of when to take his medicines.

My dad had been a soldier in WW2, working in the signals, sending and receiving messages in morse code.

The only tale he ever told my brother and me was about when he was in the Far East, in the jungle. One night he’d walked away from the camp to relieve himself behind a tree. The jungle was so dense he said he didn’t know which way to go to get back out again. And then he saw two eyes shining in the moonlight. A wild animal was watching him.

The family would have loved to read more of his stories and thoughts.

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR YOUR FAMILY?

A brilliant idea! Make it fun. Make ’em laugh! Tell them stories. Get the grandchildren to do some illustrations.

Don’t insult  Auntie Winifred, but make sure you’re not coming across as some sort of saint either!

The important thing is, just do it!

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR OTHERS?

Yes, I do mean publishing it.

Here’s some great advice from Writer Marion Roach Smith. ‘Memoir is not about you, or me, it’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it..’

Author Maggie O’Farrell published her brilliant memoir in 2018. ‘I am, I am, I am’ is a riveting account of her life told in seventeen near-death experiences, and it reads like the best kind of novel. You get lost in the story, and that’s because there’s something in there that makes readers think about their own life experiences.

 

WRITING A MEMOIR FOR  YOURSELF?

This too can be a satisfying and useful experiment. One of my friends says he’s recording his story for himself, to think about how he grew as a person, how events and opportunities shaped him.

This kind of memoir has to be a celebration, not a means of dwelling on all the daft and/or mean things you ever did, nor all those lost opportunities.

Life’s too short for negative thinking.

Remember, a good story starts with a single word. Go for it!

Frog: (eagerly):

Out of the pond. A memoir from pond to garden in a series of leaps.

Plasticine

From Wikipedia: Model made by Polish animator Monika Kuczyniecka

The house we lived in at Breachwood Green had once been a pub called The Sugar Loaf. In those days it was a small, detached cottage, just like the houses my children used to draw, with a path leading up to a door in the middle and with a window each side. I can’t remember one of the front rooms at all, because no one ever went in there. My memory of the other room is very hazy. I know there was a cupboard and inside lived a greyish brown lump of plasticine. It had a peculiarly revolting smell, and I was afraid of it. My dad tried to encourage me to approach the cupboard, open the door, and horror of horrors, lift the wretched lump out. I probably did it, because not doing as you were told was not an option. Not for children in those days.

My dad used to make things with this ghastly misshapen ball. He showed me how to form a little pot, the circular base first and then the long worm that had to be rolled carefully and then fixed around the edge to build the side, growing higher and probably wonkier.

I went to pottery classes later in my life. I’ve kept got some of the pots I made, and not all of them are wonky. I’m still not keen on the smell of plasticine.

Fimo’s fun, and so is clay. But not plasticine. Definitely not!

Snapper-jaws

Breachwood Green was a quiet village in the years following the second world war.  We hardly ever saw a car. There was a bus to take us to Hitchin or Luton, the nearest towns. There was a post office, next to a pub, The Red Lion, and beside that the forge where my grandfather, William Tripp, used to have his blacksmith’s workshop.  I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born.

When I was old enough, I went to the Baptist Chapel on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t far from where we lived, and I walked there on my own. You could let five-year-olds do that in those days. I don’t remember the singing or the lessons, but I can remember very something I did one day. I brought home a hymn book. I don’t know why I did it. My mother was furious with me. I think she saw a life of criminality and theft ahead if it wasn’t stamped out there and then. She insisted that I went to the Sunday school teacher’s house, said sorry and gave the books back. She sent me off on my own, clutching the wretched book, a sense of terror rising with every step.

The Sunday school teacher lived at the end a very long drive, and she had a very snappy little Jack Russell dog, who guarded their property with something bordering on mania. I’d already had a bad experience with a dog, so I was filled with dread when I arrived at the gateway to find Snapper-jaws on duty. Tears slid down my cheeks. I wanted to run and run and run and never go back. However, I didn’t dare go home with the Sunday school book still in my hand. It was a no-win situation.

I’ll tell you what I did, and it was very naughty of me. I threw the book into a ditch underneath a sprawling hedge. There, that was the end of that!

I don’t know what I said to my mother when I got home. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the truth. Sometimes when you’re grown up you have to forgive yourself for something you’re sorry about, something you may have done years ago. I’m sorry I threw the book under a bush. I’m sorry I told my mother a lie. Without Snapper-jaws on sentry duty, I might not have remembered this story so clearly.

I’m sure all my mother wanted was to teach me a lesson – that if you’ve done something bad, it’s right to be sorry. You should own up and apologise, and then you’ll have every chance of being forgiven. I know now that God is the greatest forgiver of all, which is a very good thing.

Anyway, whatever happens, you can always learn something from it.

Frog: (Nervously) Give me a statue any day.

 

Riding my bike

Breachwood Green, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Where I lived until I was seven in 1951. Today I’m stepping back in time and remembering what it was like in the nineteen forties.

The cottage looked as if it had been brought to life out of a picture book. It had a front door in the middle, and one sash window each side. There were three sash windows upstairs. Come inside with me and have a look round.

There was a narrow passage that led past a room on our left and a room on our right. There were two doors at the end of the passage. If you opened one, you’d be faced with the stairs. I expect it was there because the cottage had once been a small pub, and you wouldn’t want the visitors to wandering about in the bedrooms, would you? The second door led to the kitchen, which I remember best.

What I’m going to tell you next will come as a great surprise. We didn’t have any taps inside the cottage. There was one just outside the house next door, and my mum or dad had to go and fetch all our water in metal pails. Of course, there was no toilet indoors either. Outside in the back garden, there was what was called a privy. It was a sort of shed, but the sort where you keep garden forks and spades and rakes. If you peeped inside you would see something like a long wooden box, fixed against the wall, with a smooth plank on the top. There were two holes in the plank, one for grown up bottoms and one for a child’s bottom. No flush of any kind. I expect a lot of readers are now feeling rather nauseous. If yes, skip the next bit.

Every so often my dad had to dig out the, erm, stuff in the box part, and cart it up the garden and bury it in a hole, I suppose. It must have been rather pongy I think, especially in a hot summer.

Anyway, let’s turn to something a bit less disgusting!

Not only was there no running water, there was definitely no central heating. My mum had to light the range in the kitchen every day, and make sure she had enough wood to get the fire going in the morning. There was a big woodstore next to the house, and sometimes I’d watch my mum chopping the wood. I’ve never liked axes, and I think Mum may have warned me never to touch hers or even come close while she was chopping.

It must have been a hard life in many ways, but for a little girl of four, five or six, it was wonderful. In spring the countryside was full of birdsong, and I remember running along the lane to peep into a robin’s nest in the bank. My mum had shown it to me. You can guess how sad we were to find, one day, that it had been destroyed. Mum said that boys sometimes did that sort of thing. They’d probably taken the eggs for their collections.

When I was about six or seven, my mum and dad bought me a bike, second hand I expect. You have to understand that there wasn’t much traffic in those days, someone on a bicycle perhaps, the odd tractor. Mum took me out on fine days, and this is how she taught me to ride. She had one hand under my saddle to stop me falling off, and the other hand steadying my little brother, who was about two or three. I wobbled a lot at first, but my mum’s hand under the saddle held me firmly upright. One day I rode along, chatting away to my mum, yak, yak, yak. Then I asked her a question. Why didn’t she answer? I looked back and nearly fell into the road. She was a long way behind, seeing to my brother who had fallen over and hurt himself. I was riding my bike all by myself!

This is post office (left) and The Red Lion in Breachwood Green in1946, when I was two.

Madeleine La Croix

 

Madeleine La Croix could have reached up and put the ball into the goal mouth with very little effort.

Fortunately for me, a would-be ace shooter, she detested netball.

In assembly she bumped up and down, lifting her heels and replacing them without a sound. Don’t ask me why. She could see over all our heads. Poor girl was a prime target for Miss Ling, searching out misdemeanours—coughing un-necessarily, sneezing above a certain number of decibels, that kind of thing.

The day after I came back to school after the flu, I looked among the rows of neat girls, affirming my place among them. Madeleine wasn’t there.

‘Oh, she’s dead,’ my friend said in a matter-of-fact voice.

‘Dead? She was perfectly alright a week ago.’

‘Pneumonia. Didn’t you know? Oh, of course, you’ve been away.’

I thought of Madeleine’s big square face, her dark eyes, her hair, long and brown carefully tied back. The dark mole near her lip.

I didn’t know her very well, but I missed her.

Apparently she had been an only child.