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Friday, 14 December 2012

The horse that ate the trifle - and other gems.

Progress. I was worried that I wouldn’t get much done this week, what with trotting off to Leeds on Monday to be a grandfather and taking a trip to York to look at Mike Pannett’s childhood homes. However, in the time remaining to me I’ve managed to complete a tenth chapter of  More Jobs Than Birthdays. This one was giving me problems. Tuesday, for example, I struggled to get down 700 words. I had the raw material, but I couldn’t see where my ramblings were leading.

Yesterday it all came together. At least, I think it did. I put in a long, long day, from eight in the morning until eleven at night, cranked out 1700 words and brought it to what I think is a satisfying conclusion.

It’s one thing to decide you’re going to write a memoir. It’s quite another to impose a shape on it, and to make it more than a list of events. If you’re famous, yes, you can get away with a simple linear narrative of your life. People will buy it because of the name on the cover. I was born here, went to school there, did this and this and that…. and here I am. I do find most of them quite dull, once we’ve reached the point where the subject climbs his or her particular Everest, or achieves the sporting or artistic success which defines their life. In the case of someone like myself, who has nothing to offer but ‘an interesting life’, it’s a different sort of challenge altogether. Still, I think I’m getting there. In this most recent chapter I’ve made reference to the first book I was commissioned to write, back in 1993, the history of  a 140-year-old family firm in Yorkshire. Here’s an extract from the first draft I completed late last night.

All the experience I’d had at shop-floor level in factories, parks, railway messrooms and the like, made it easy for me to sit at the hearths of retired men and women in East Hull and get them to talk about the day-to-day realities of their years at shop-floor level for the firm of William Jackson & Son, grocers, tea merchants, bakers, purveyors of fresh and cooked meats, est. 1851. The simple fact is, I knew what questions to ask. My experiences furnished me with the conversational gambits I needed in order to get these old-timers to reveal the working practices of the 1940s, the `30s and - in the case of those whose mothers and fathers had worked for the firm - of the days that preceded the First World War. And so I was treated to reminiscences about drovers  bringing livestock from Hull to the slaughterhouse on the western edge of town who had to chase runaway pigs through people’s living-rooms (and, yes, a bull in a china-shop), about the dray-horse that dragged his wagon forward and helped himself to a huge trifle specially prepared for a reunion of the Fourth East Yorkshire regiment’s officers, about the time the bosses brought in their shotguns and slaughtered an entire population of rooks that had taken residence above the factory - and put the lot into a special baking of meat pies. Time and again, as I sat by the fire and accepted another cup of tea from a former employee’s wife, he would lean forward, tap me on the knee and say, ‘Now then, young fellow-me-lad, don’t be putting this in your book, but…’ and would then confess to a bit of sharp practice back in 1947 so amusing that I simply had to stick it in the book. As with the men, so with their wives (and vice versa), who’d frequently interrupt, just as I was getting ready to leave, and ask, ‘Has he told you about the time…?’ And after she’d waved away her husband’s protests that I couldn’t possibly be interested in that old story, out it would come - and down it would go, into my notebook and thence to the book. How many times was I asked, ‘Why have you come to talk to me? I only swept the floors.’ And how many times did those people give me a picture of working life so vivid that it illuminated an entire chapter? 

I have barely ever been happier than when writing those histories, rarely more gratified than when I received the letter telling me that my book had made a dying man happy - because I’d taken the trouble to interview him, to record his story, and celebrate it in print. Suddenly my past made sense to me. It was something to be valued, to be proud of. It was, simply, experience. And you can’t out a price on that.

What pleased me about all this, so far, is that I’ve found a way to connect my earlier stories - about my days working in factories, etc - with the impact that experience had on my work as a writer. You might say that those later researches gave a relevance to that past, vindicated it.