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Friday, 31 August 2012

Fifty Jobs in Fifty Years: Making a Start on the Memoir

It's been a short week, and a quiet one after the Bank Holiday on Monday. Being between major projects at the moment, I’ve been free to put in some time on the memoir Work As Playtime.  I've been concentrating on two jobs I had, in the late 1970s and early `80s, that will add a lot of colour to add to the narrative. The first - and in effect it comprises three different jobs - was my time on the railways, first as a station shunter at York, then as a freight train guard, finally as a signalman out in rural Lincolnshire.

What makes these experiences different from most of my earlier jobs is that I was actually writing, after a fashion, while I was doing them. I started keeping a kind of diary in the late 1970s - or perhaps I should say notebooks. I was entertaining serious writerly ambitions by that time. I started jotting down conversations I had with my drivers, older men who had grown up with steam trains, or worked on farms before migrating to town in search of something a bit better paid. They told me stories about wartime working. Like the great ‘Baedeker’ raid on York (29th April 1943, I think it was) that wrought terrible damage on the station and engine sheds. They pointed out to me the spot where a porter had sought shelter, a metal box on platform 8. The poor bugger was incinerated. One of my drivers had been a POW in Poland and remembered being shown a faked photograph of York Minster in flames.

Towards the end of my time on the railways I was able to put together 111 pieces of writing, some as short as a paragraph or two, others running to several pages. I went up in the attic yesterday and fished them out. They were written on ordinary writing paper, with the Olivetti portable that was - by request - my eighteenth birthday present. Single spaced, with absolutely no margins.

When I’m writing about the past I find I have to penetrate it, re-live it, re-envisage it; and that can be emotionally tiring. In amongst my accounts of freight train trips on rainy November afternoons, in amongst the descriptions of the landscapes I passed through, the messrooms where I drank tea and ate my sandwiches, the three a.m. domino games, the long conversations with drivers old enough to be my father as we waited in goods loops outside Durham or Rotherham or Scunthorpe… in amongst all that detail I find references to what was going on in my head - and my heart - thirty and thirty-five years ago, and occasionally squirm with discomfort. It is convenient to forget certain facts about the past, about oneself; but there’s a lot there in those long-ago jottings to unsettle a person.

The other job I’m writing about is the two years I spent as a rural rat-catcher over in Lincolnshire. That material promises to give me a bit of comic relief. The job was  a delight, and the guy who taught me was a larger-than-life character. We had a few adventures together when we were meant to be working. He’s still alive, aged eighty, and I visited him only last year. To tell the truth, there’s a lot of him - including his name - in the character Walter who pops up in the Mike Pannett books.

If I keep going at this for another week or two I ought to have five or six 6,000-word chapters close to completion, which is very nearly half a book. For the first time since I started to writing the thing, in earnest, I now find myself worrying that I may not fit all the stories in; and that’s a good place to be.

Tomorrow, Saturday, I’m off to York to watch City play Oxford United. Tough opponents who’ve started the season in great style, winning three on the bounce. Time they were de-railed. After the game I’m away to Chainsaw Phil’s place to work for him for a couple of days. It’s the least I can do after all the time he put into helping me get my two e-books launched. Look out for an update Monday night or early Tuesday.