About a year ago now a smiling vanman delivered twenty-six heavy brown-papered packages from a trolley and stacked them along the side of the hall. I scrabbled one parcel open and there they were: the first copies, straight from their Yorkshire printer, of my memoir, Learning Things. I felt triumphant. The chaotic, sometimes threatening, jumble that had been the ingredients of my family’s lives and mine were now tamed into some sort of order – not just a pile of typed pages but a real book.
It is not very expensive to publish a book but why embark on the venture at all? Well, our histories and memories are the context of our children. To my children and grandchildren (three of them half- American) the there-and-then of my parents’ lives in India, at war, even my own experiences of boarding-school and as a terrified apprentice parachutist, seem almost unimaginably far away. My mother had died when I was 17 and my father, away for so long at war, had been a remote figure, so I too learned much about them as I explored the material I had.
Some memoir writers, I imagine, are confronted by chests of material, unsorted and revealing ‘family papers’, hauled from attics as treasure trove. I had no more than a small, threadbare attaché case where I’d always kept bundles of letters, pocket diaries and miniature accounts ledgers, together with half a dozen small photo albums with snapshots in black-and-white and sepia. But there can be much in little: their yield was a revelation. Some three dozen letters, addressed and dated, could be sequenced into a time-line with not so many gaps from my grandfather’s birth in 1869 until my own leave in Cyprus as I finished national service in 1954. There, at least, was the encouragement of a backbone for a narrative, a sort of sketch-map of the territory. At least I might be able to tell a story with other leading characters alongside me; the memoir could be something better than a self-congratulatory scrapbook. I could choose a few highlights and occasions to focus on rather than plod egocentrically (‘and then I . . . and then I . . .’) from year to year.
The few letters, sprinkled over eighty years, though, offered much more than a chain of events. They are the voices of the writers, voices in the tones of their times. I catch characteristically British reassurance in the nine words my officer father, lying wounded in a Khartoum hospital, cabled to my anxious mother: Sli
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