Sunday 18 September 2022

Death, death and more death - by Lu Hersey

 A psychiatrist friend once told me that writers are simply trying to cheat death. Leaving something of themselves behind, so they can live on, in some form, for eternity. (He obviously didn't know much about the shelf life of books, but I got the point).

The constant death and funeral news since the Queen died has made me really think more about it. Why do we write books? Was he correct? I can't help hoping the Queen kept a gossipy, salacious diary about what she really thought of people. As it is, there has been more written about her than any researcher could get through in a lifetime, and she certainly won't be lost to history anytime soon.

But what about the rest of us?

My old grandma would often exclaim, after regaling me with some story from a part of her incredibly long life, 'folk are always telling me I should write a book!' At the time, a surly teenager, I'd roll my eyes and yawn (behind her back - I wasn't that surly). Of course now I wish she had. But if you decide to write about your life, rather than fiction, where do you begin? 

Me, my mum and my grandma (who lived with us)

My great, great (possibly another great or two) grandfather on my father's side, fought in the Crimean War and took part in the charge of the Light Brigade.  He wrote a book about his experience afterwards, privately printed, and my father has the only surviving copy somewhere. There is much of interest in his account - but in the end I found it incredibly frustrating to read. He says a great deal about the appalling conditions, the general sickness, and the terrible death rate among both men and horses before they even went into battle. He details the layout of the land at Balaclava before the fighting began. But when it comes to the famous half a league, half a league, half a league onwards bit, he simply wrote: Of the Charge, so much has been written already, I shall say no more about it here...

WHAT??? You write a book about your experience in the Crimean War, you SURVIVE the Charge of the Light Brigade, riding into the valley of death where nearly everyone else died, AND YOU DON'T BLOOMING INCLUDE IT IN THE BOOK????? What an idiot!

My mother didn't have such a long life, but it was very eventful. When she knew she was dying, she started to write about it, intending it to be a legacy for her grandchildren. I recently discovered the pages she'd completed again, hidden away in a file, too painful to read at the time. It's in letter form, addressed to my two eldest daughters (she died the week before my son was born, so never met him or my youngest daughter). 

The saddest thing is she didn't get beyond page 5. She'd begun at the beginning, with her parents and what they did, and where they lived (at a public baths, surprisingly - my grandfather was the Baths superintendent) and about all the relatives that came to visit them from Yorkshire... but never got as far as what she went on to do herself. I only wish she'd had time to write more. 

Think about it. If you were to write your life story, what would you include and what would you leave out? When we write fiction, this isn't such a problem. We invent worlds, trying to express what we want to say in story form. Our books have a beginning, a middle and an end. Real life isn't usually such a tidy circle.

Your children, if you have them, might read your books, and they might not. Mine, (all adult now) are kind about my writing, but they're probably not that interested in what I'm trying to say about magic and life possibilities. At least two of them have asked why I don't write about the time I worked for a 2-tone ska band back in the early 80s, because that's the part of my life that counts as history and really interests them. And I've considered it - but only in cosy crime form, getting my revenge at last, killing off some incredibly vain, misogynistic pop star or one of their equally annoying entourage.

Why would I want to write about what actually happened in a time of decadence and excess? Sex and drugs and rock and roll? I don't think so. Of that, so much has been written already, I shall say no more about it here....

Lu Hersey


Anonymous said...

This is super interesting Lu! Love it. And amazing about your grandfather! 💖💖

Pippa Goodhart said...

So many stories in every family, if only we carry them on!
My mother, in her late '80s, wrote a biography of my father. Where to begin? She took it to an extreme, not to his birth in Bradford but to the geological make-up of the West Riding of Yorkshire which made the ground suitable for sheep which were farmed by forebears before his grandfather became a slaughterman, etc etc. She did finish the book, to her credit, and self-published.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lu, you clearly take after your grandfather!

Jenny Alexander said...

Fantastic post, Lu - made me think, made me smile. I've had that immortality discussion before so I know some authors do have that kind of motivation, though it surprises me - as you say, the shelf-life of most books is short and anyway reading tastes change. I would have assumed we write to create beauty, shaping our thoughts and experiences in ways that give us pleasure and might resonate with other people, contributing in positive ways to our collective consciousness, because that's the way I personally think about it.

LuWrites said...

Thanks Jenny, Sue and Pippa - and Andrew for including the lyrics of the Fun Boy Three song :)

catdownunder said...

I have something my mother wrote. We found it after she died. Three of the four of us children have read it but we have not passed it to the fourth. The reason? It is extraordinarily inaccurate. I don't know whether my mother believed what she wrote or whether she wanted other people to believe it.
Following that the family suggested I should write my life-story. It is not an easy thing to do, especially when you are talking about people who are still alive. Now that my father is no longer here I may review it and add to it. If I do I will try not to leave out the "important" bits!

Stella Man said...

Wise words. Look forward to your blog about 2 tone band work. That was my favourite music era...and reading your blog...your children have spoken and follow your own advice xxx

Anne Booth said...

I really enjoyed this, and the comments! I've always avoided writing about my own life incase I am inaccurate or unfair about difficult bits and the people in it, and I think I can best work through that pain through fiction, but having read your post, I do wish I knew more about my parent's every day life, and their parents' before them, and maybe I should find some way of documenting things for my children at least! Perhaps I should start a diary. I loved Francis Kilvert's diary, for example, though it is noticeable that his wife destroyed several volumes after his death.