Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Finding the Forgotten Stories by Claire Fayers

At the bottom of my street there is a cemetery. I walk through it as a short-cut to my coffee shop writing sessions at least twice a week. I like watching the squirrels, and this time of year it's a welcome break from seagull attacks. For some reason, seagulls avoid the cemetery. Maybe they can see dead people.

I've rarely stopped to wonder about the people buried in the cemetery, so when my friend and fellow writer, Stephen Burgess, told me about a guided evening of stories among the gravestones, I had to go. Stephen belongs to a theatre group that meets in the graveyard chapel every week, and he'd written two of the pieces for the evening.  They were performed by the A48 Theatre Company.

On a cold and damp June evening (remember those?), we gathered.

The stories we heard were tragic, uplifting, sometimes comic and always fascinating. We listened to George Arthur Clare, aged nineteen, speak about the shipping accident that claimed his life and the lives of most of the crew. A French naval captain spoke of his battle with depression following World War 1, leading to his suicide one Christmas. Three watchmakers mused philosophically on the passage of time.

We learned about people whose legacies have outlived our memories of them. Frances Batty Shand was the daughter of a Scottish plantation owner. Born in Jamaica, she was sent to Scotland to live with an aunt and later moved to Cardiff where she founded the Cardiff Institute for the Blind. Shand House has recently been converted into student flats, but its name remains. Then there was Dr Henry James Paine who established a free hospital on a ship in Cardiff Bay, and whose work on sanitation saved some 15,000 people from diseases such as smallpox and cholera.

It's ironic that the most memorable character of the evening was a forgotten woman. Minnie McGuire, who gained temporary fame as the most arrested woman in Cardiff before dying at the age of fifty-eight and being buried in a mass grave. She doesn't even have a headstone, but for one evening she came to life and we relived her story with her.

I was struck, as I watched people's lives unfold, how many stories lie forgotten. And I realised this has been a theme of my writing for a long time. It's in my very first book:

The people who’d lived, the stories they’d created with their lives, the way they’d shaped the world, they all mattered. (Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North)

Whenever I'm wondering why I'm still trying to write (it happens to us all), I come back to this simple thought. I write because stories matter. They matter because people matter.

My friend Stephen summed it up far better than I can:

Graveyard Voices is about bringing life back to the stories of some of those buried in Cathays Cemetery. Turning real lives into drama is both a privilege and a responsibility. I tried to always imagine the ghosts of those I wrote about at my elbow as I wrote, tried always to be fair, both for them and for their descendants. The project connected me to Cardiff in many new ways, hearing stories that I was astounded I had never heard before, despite their traces being present across the city, especially in the names of buildings, pubs, parks and roads.

We might not all have cemeteries on our doorsteps, but we all have pubs, parks and roads. How many of their names have stories behind them, I wonder: stories that have been largely forgotten? I'm going to make more of an effort to seek out the forgotten stories around me. Let's keep those memories alive.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. Website www.clairefayers.com Twitter @clairefayers


Rowena House said...

What a wonderful experience, and a generous, imaginative way to touch the past. I'd love to be part of something like this. Thank you for sharing.

Kathy Thomas said...

Why not come along to our Summer Social at Cathays Chapel on Tuesday July 23rd from 7.00 - 9.00 pm and meet some of us? Find out more on https://a48theatrecompany.com/living-lines/
Kathy Thomas

Penny Dolan said...

I was busy yesterday so didn't pick up this post until today, Claire.

What an inspiring project to read about - and certainly an event to bring words and imaginations to life, in the performers and watchers and writers. Good wishes to the group and to you.