Nearly all of us have family stories passed down to us through the generations but gradually some element of the story, if not all of it, becomes lost. Over the past twenty years or so our family have written down not only these tales but also a detailed account of our own lives to pass onto future generations. Whether, of course, they will be that interested who can tell but it is quite likely that someone one day will be.
When the family first began to write their life history it felt self-indulgent and embarrassing, and these emotions must be overcome if it is to be successful. Then, of course, there are decisions to be made as to what to include and what to leave out, after all, we all have moments in our lives that we’d rather forget. So, a decision needs to be made whether to go for the ‘warts and all’ approach or to be a little more restrictive in what you have to say. I think it’s important to be cautious, for no-one wants to intentionally hurt others through careless writing or cause a family rift – unless, of course, you seek revenge! If it is selective memories you decide to write about it is equally important to include the lows as well as the highs, otherwise the writing will not sound genuine. None of us, sadly, just sail through life, after all.
Your life hasn’t just been one of relationships with people. It has included the places where you have lived, where you studied, where you worked, where you holidayed. I was 37 when I first wrote my story, now aged 70 it’s time for an update. In that thirty-three-year gap I have moved westwards from the Chiltern Hills, where I had lived all my life, to the Cotswolds. I changed careers from the indoor world of retail fashion to my present one of designing and managing gardens. It also includes a two-year stint studying as a full-time student at horticultural college, a couple of years of being involved with the Chelsea Flower Show and working on one of the first garden makeover programmes, Garden Doctors, for Channel 4 television. You and I have lived through a Covid epidemic, witnessed the recent death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth, and part of Europe is at war – all proof that we don’t need to be in our dotage to write down our history. There is no shortage of things to write about!
It was my sister who first persuaded my mother and then me to write our life stories. Strangely, she was surprisingly reticent when it came to writing her own and took some persuading to take part! However, what we have now is a potted history not only of our lives, but also social conditions and changes that span well over one hundred years. An aunt and an older cousin have both added some of their memories too and now that some years have passed since their deaths, as well as my mother’s, these documents become more interesting and more precious with each passing year.
One of the stories that had been passed down from my paternal grandmother was the tale of the family’s friendship with a famous poet. The bulk of the story was lost, and we had always assumed that the connection must be with Shelley as the poet’s mother had lived in Marlow, where my grandparents also lived. It was only relatively recently, when researching the family history, that the connection became clear. My grandmother’s cousins had been a close friend of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Victorian Poet Laureate. I discovered through this research that our generations weren’t the only ones with lives documented for their friendship with Tennyson, as well as several letters between them, survived in the National Archives. Even better, a memoir had been written by the cousin, later published, which gave delightful insights into their lives: “…there was a constant coming and going between the children of each house, all being equally at home in the other…”
Regular readers of my blog will know that I spent a lot of my time as a very young man (and now as an old one!) on Exmoor staying and working on a remote hill farm. Although so very different to my own home background and upbringing, I loved the traditional, farming life despite it being such hard work, sometimes in very bleak weather. Now, much of that lifestyle has gone which makes a written record of it all the more valuable – and it is all included as part of my life story. I hadn’t anticipated discovering yet another ancestral cousin had written about his teenage life on Exmoor a hundred years earlier. I also discovered that his sister married and emigrated to New Mexico and published a memoir of her life there in 1898. It seems that writing life histories is a long-established tradition in our family after all! I hadn’t known of the New Mexico connection when I visited there in 1994 – visiting a cousin from another branch of the family who had also emigrated there – even more to go into my updated memoir.
So now that you’re going to write your own historical record what is the best way to preserve it for posterity? A blog, such as this one is a possibility, and it is an easy way to record events along with appropriate photographs. It may not survive long-term as it depends upon the blog hosting company continuing indefinitely to exist. The same applies to any form of digital storage: in my lifetime we’ve gone from reel-to-reel tape recording to cassette tape recording. Then we became computerised, and storage moved from floppy disk to cd-rom to memory stick. Now only the latter is in common use (how many younger people even know what a floppy disk is?) and that is almost certainly to change. I shall continue to type my memoir with photos attached although hand-written would be even better for it gives a deeper insight into someone’s character as well as looking nicer on the page. Part of the pleasure of reading my mother’s story is that it is in her own handwriting, and it is easier on the eye. We have digitally copied it which means that it can be shared easily amongst the family. Publishing it in book form, as my ancestral cousins did (for it was their only option) is a good way to preserve it. These days it is much harder to find a publisher that is interested although self-publishing could be an option. Lastly, a copy lodged with your local museum or County archive should ensure its survival and many are very interested in receiving a record of everyday life and lives. Go ahead and do it!