When it comes to doing family history I prefer the thrill of the chase.
I am not good at getting round to collating and filing bits of information, especially if they come in various formats such as computer files, photos, certificates, notes and thoughts on the backs of envelopes. Paper can be tucked into a file (if big enough) but how to integrate this with what’s on the computer? Scan all the paper and concentrate on identifying and bringing together all this electronic mass (and buy a big screen on which to view it)? Or, print out all the stuff on the computer and commandeer the sitting room floor? But even this is a way of avoiding getting down to making sense of the material and thinking about what might be missing, about the things unsaid, unrecorded.
For the past few months I’ve been attending a writing workshop entitled ‘Blood Lines: Creative Memoir’. It’s been an experience I have approached with caution. Having poor recall of past events I am keen to hang on to what I do have and am reluctant to create false memories. Dredging our memories for matter to write about is also a trifle unsettling for all participants in that it stirs up feelings, not all, indeed it would appear very few, happy.
One of the premises of the course is that ‘each family has its fund of tales’ which further implies that these are passed on, often by grandparents, and that the recipients listen. Would this were so.
I have no memory of one grandmother who lived in another part of the country and who died when I was six. Fortunately the grandfather on that side was part of a female-dominated line who hung on to scraps of paper which enable some reconstruction of the family’s history. He was also interested in family trees. My mother, moreover, did a sterling job, collecting information and writing about her relations once she realised that not only were there years of family life and background of which her own children were ignorant but that her younger sisters were also strangers to much of it. Among the things she discovered was that one of her grandfathers had abandoned his children after the death of his wife and later died in a poorhouse. The children were rescued from threat of the orphanage by an uncle, brother of the absconding parent, who took them in. Mother had not known any of this before the researcher located death and census records; her own mother had never mentioned it. Nor were the younger sisters happy that my mother made public family information.
The other, Irish, side of my ancestry, is The Challenge. My father’s knowledge of his ancestors seemed to stop
with his grandparents, and of them he chiefly recounted that his grandfather, Zeno Sloan, had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland and that his grandmother ran a school and continued to do so with the assistance of her daughters until retirement age. Father and all his brothers bar one moved away from Ireland, seas and oceans then separating us grandchildren from grandparents who might have told us that fund of tales. Our visits were brief and not occasions for bonding or story-telling. I have spent the last couple of years trying to track down members of the family to see if I could get further back but even our combined memories and delvings into archives have not got very far, or gone very far… Photos and emails on the computer. Letters and photocopies in a file. Maps? Clippings? Must make a start on bringing some of it together.
This is not a new thought.Once of the reasons I signed up to the Creative Blood Lines course was to force myself to write regularly. Write what? Well anything, at least anything readable. Same reason I started these blogs and it is evident from how few I have published that solo creation is not one of my strengths.
Also in the pursuit of, or let’s face it as a diversion from, my first novel I have put in time reading lists of tips provided by various authors. This was not the result of googling ‘top tips’. I do google the names of authors whose work I enjoy. Sneaking up on Rose Tremain online produced the first of these lists.
I have also been reading my way through Muriel Spark, first her short stories and then the novels, most recently The Abbess of Crewe, in the hope that some of her vivid style will rub off on me. And because her books are a joy to read as she is a brilliantly inventive writer with a lashing acerbic wit.
One of these lists produced from Muriel Spark the following advice:
“For concentration you need a cat…And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give you back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence is enough.”
I have made a start on improving my concentration. He looks like this (but if he steps across in front of me, where his eyes are pointing, he becomes a writer’s block):