Monday, April 02, 2012

In 150 Years’ Time, Your Most Valued Writing Will Be...

150 years from now, what do you think people will most want to read from all our output?

My great grandfather was a printer, poet, theatre authority and writer, with his major work ‘The Folk Speech of South Lancashire’ (northern England) being published in 1901 – a very substantial glossary of old dialect words, local slang and sayings. But as much as this, his poems and other published works are all treasured possessions, I most value his diary of the week of his wedding in 1866 and a small 16 page book he wrote and printed (probably just for the family record) of ‘A Christmas Party at the Old Home at Cheadle’ – a reminiscence of a family gathering held on December 26th 1854. Family events and family trivia. But I wish he had provided a little more detail about some of the people he mentions. Who were ‘The Sutcliffes’ he went to visit the day after his wedding? Who were Mrs Shaw and Miss Kinsey who came to the Christmas party? Next door neighbours?

In the future, I’m sure our families will most want to know about the small things of our life, recollections of of our homes, happenings and anecdotes about the people with whom we interact.

A useful activity for all ages is to construct a ‘card’ or artists book to look like a building, then write something about the person who lives/lived there and attach it inside. In writing workshops I lead, I suggest people construct a ‘model house’ of one of their near or past neighbours and write about a humorous incident in which they have been involved. This not only starts building the family record, it can also help in developing characters for a story being written, or a future one, and it can also help break ‘writer’s block’. Most people find writing about their neighbours is easy, and having started, the words can often flow more freely in other projects.

At the end, we line up the houses to make a streetscape, and people are encouraged to share the anecdotes they have written.

‘Fred and Gwen lived next door to us for over 30 years. All the other houses down the street just had numbers, but theirs had only a name – ‘Hale End’. Each Christmas we received a card from them signed 'The Wing Commander and Mrs. Toone' (even though he had retired from the Air Force years before moving there) - just to remind us that we were 'inferior beings'. Their house and garden were immaculate. She sifted the soil to make it appear better than anyone else’s, fresh flowers were kept in the windows, and Gwen, who we called Mrs. Red Legs because of the stockings she wore, even swept the road outside each day to make it clean and tidy. And each day, heavily made-up and wearing an enormous hat fit for race-day, she would cycle into town on her ancient 'sit up and beg' bicycle.

'Mrs. Red Legs loved her home, but also going to town to escape her husband's formality and miserly scrutiny. She smiled at each person she passed and gave them a 'Royal' wave. Wing Commander Toone hid in the house. He had risen through the ranks from being a boy-entrant, and learned, in the main, to maintain a demeanor of superiority - but Mrs. Red Legs couldn't keep it up for long. For hours on end she gossiped with all her shop owner mates and swore and cursed with the market-stall holders. Though she would initially greet us with her 'posh voice', within five minutes would always revert to her ‘agricultural' voice. She pushed her face within millimeters of the person she was speaking to, and it was hard not to laugh at the way she had applied her make-up, her eye-lids being splattered with huge boulders of mascara, and eyeliner was always applied everywhere it shouldn't be.

'We also found it difficult not to laugh when she misused words. Forty years later, I still haven’t worked out what she intended to say when the said the local vicar was a ‘fornicating man’. At least, I don’t think he was that way inclined!

Sometimes, for no reason we ever discovered, she'd give us the 'cold treatment' for weeks on end. Glares designed to pierce armoured vehicles from 1000 metres away. Then, when we were least expecting her, she'd come round to visit us every few hours, bringing gifts – but we were always instructed, "Don't tell Fred!"

'But his reclusive nature didn't stop The Wing-Commander from borrowing things, particularly tools from my father - and Fred was really really chatty and friendly when he needed something. As soon as the job was finished, however, he ignored us - or at least, tried to. When he was in the garden and obviously knew that my father was standing less than 8 metres away, my father would say, “Good morning Mr. Toone!”, and if he didn’t reply, my father would call louder and louder until he did.’

Peter Taylor

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