Posts Tagged ‘Autobiography’

On leaving school, and adrift in the grown-up world, I had to find myself a job to earn money.
I had applied to be a printer, taken the exams, and passed them. It was only because friends were doing the same; I had no idea what it entailed, what I wanted to do, or what was out there.
Work was becoming tighter, even in those days. I was told it would take probably about 18 months to find me a printing post, so… ‘get something in the meantime.’

I had always a passing interest in the sciences (not that school encouraged it much) and got myself a job as trainee laboratory technician at Manchester University.
I had… a job! I was earning money! And let the printing go.

This job coincided with a period of student unrest: strikes and sit-ins. I was on the fringes, neither a student, nor not a part of their ‘scene’, and so gathered quite a sobering view of the dynamics of the heady student sit-ins.

I was working in the Department of Botany, at the university. I was on the periphery, for which I am thankful.

I came across the following blog, which covers most of the tutors and academics in the department at the time. Only a few of the people there I do not recognise:

https://ianpopay.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/victoria-university-of-manchester/

John Hartshorne, a rather quakerish-looking character, and an excellent and much respected teacher, took us for genetics,

Eric Simon, a shortish, bespectacled, rather intense and very good teacher took us for plant physiology, often in the Robinson lab, with its original drawing of the structure of IAA (indole acetic acid) on the wall.

Bob Pecket, Brian Truelove and Ron Butler also taught us plant physiology. Bob was a slighly rotund, always cheerful character who, Nigel tells me,  was knocked down by a car and never fully recovered. Brian was from Leeds – he went on to do very well at Alabama Uni. Ron Butler was a cheerful red-faced individual who, as he told me years later had done some of his national service in Kenya.

Prof John Colhoun, was head of cryptogamic botany and plant pathology, and a redoutable Orangeman.

The smooth and handsome, prematurely grey David Park also lectured in plant pathology. When he left his replacement was George Taylor.

John Tallis lectured in ecology, and his speciality was peat bogs, which included palynology, cooking up peat samples in hydrofluoric acid so that only pollen grains were left. Tallis was generaly regarded by students as rather odd and I remember we were shocked and surprised when we learned that he was to be married!

Peter Newton was a young, blond, very casual lecturer in horticulture. He was a terrible lecturer so far as we were concerned, once wrapping up a lecture, obviously ill-prepared, after only 20 minutes.

Elizabeth Cutter, a research student of Wardlaw at one stage, dealt with morphogenesis, how plants develop their structure and form. In appearance she was a characteristic female botanist, and later went on the do well at Davis, before returning to Manchester as professor.

David Smith was a briliantly clear teacher of palaeobotany. He always joked that while Clive Stace said Manchester was the furthest north he’d ever been, it was the furthest south that David had been!

Clive Stace, a very intense young man, taught taxonomy and was a very good field botanist. Dr Dormer always said the there were two kinds of taxonomists – the extensive, who covered a lot of ground, and the intensive who covered little ground but did it very thoroughly. Dormer classed himself as the former and Stace as the latter. Clive went on to become the great authority on the British flora.

Dr K J Dormer (Keith, I think, but I do not remember anyone actually being so bold!) was a good lecturer but,as I have said, a rather scary person at times. He had published papers on the control mechanisms governing the formation of spines on holly leaves by mathematical determiantions based on the numbers of spines on the two sides of the leaf,  Or something like that.

The one missing from that list was the department head, Professor David Valentine. He was a large bear of a man, but a gentle bear. He knew his importance, his status. He was guarded, yes that is precisely the term, by his secretary… whose name escapes me. She made it her mission to be fearsome and obstructive on every possible front and occasion, guarding her professor. Her reputation went before her.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_H._Valentine

But it is this last name on the blog list that I am remembering here:

Dr K J Dormer.
Kenneth, not Keith, apparently.

His position in the department was that of Reader, he had a Chair, but not the professorship. For years he languished in the shadow of that position, filled by Professor Valentine.

The unsurpassed handbook of botany, Lowson’s Botany, was a joint editing enterprise by Drs Simon, Hartshorne, and Dormer.
This was somewhat before my time, as were the publications that made Dr Dormer’s reputation:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/K-J-Dormer/e/B001KHXBH6/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

Dr Dormer’s arrogance was unparalleled; a very unlikeable man. I remember his office distinctly – strange how you remember more clearly the details you were most wary of.
And yet… there is always the And yet… I met him again about 20 years later, in an area I would never have expected.

There is, near me, a very wealthy area, mostly a domicile town, but a haven for top football stars and TV personalities.

I was between jobs, so was picking up cash delivering leaflets door to door. I was covering parts of this town. It was earlyish still in the morning, when down the road as I went up came a slightly dishevelled figure: hanging raincoat, trousers a little too short. Coming up close… Dr Dormer!

Of course, I blurted it out, ‘Dr Dormer!’
He was a little taken aback, as I was. We chatted, then he told me his tale.
It was like an Ancient Mariner moment; maybe this was his counselling: tell the tale until it no longer has any meaning.

Dr Dormer’s Tale

As you may remember, we had yearly student field-trips to certain isolated, designated spots of open countryside. I had a hobby – landscape photography. Always took all my equipment on those trips.
The more remote the region the better. For specimens, you understand.

I had taken my camera, stand, lenses, out with me; end of the day; get some shots in.
In one field – it looked a likely spot. I heard a noise; turned around.
It was a bull, and running at me. I had no time to do anything, dropped everything, tried to grab its horns and… wrestle, somehow.
It just threw me down. So easily.

But instead of goring, it… knelt. On my chest. All its weight, on my ribs.
The pain was agonising; I heard ribs snapping. The pain; couldn’t breathe.
I must have passed out, fainted. When I came round, it had wandered away, no longer interested.
The pain; couldn’t breath, barely move.

Eventually after what seemed hours I heard someone in the next field. I had to try and attract their attention. That was so difficult.

I was in intensive care a long time. This is my weekly physiotherapy session; that’s where I am going now.

He seemed broken, somehow.
But still had some of the old Dormer about him, asking what I was doing, and the gleam in his eyes. Was it a sneer?

I had taken my BA (yup, Arts, not Sciences) by then, as a mature student. But he must have known many students like me: gained their degree, then….

You can read so many things into his tale: the landscape photography, for one, as an opener onto the private man.

Incidentally, the following incumbent of the professorship Chair was Dr Elizabeth Cutter, also a keen landscape photographer, and an angler.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cutter
And yet I find the bare bones of her story moving, very touching: there must have been times of joy. Wiki does not give those.
She co-wrote a history of the Botany department.
She battled the education cuts in the 1980’s to save the department, by amalgamating it with the Zoology department, and others, under the umbrella of Biological Sciences. Only to retire, to look after her ailing mother, live quiet and out of the way, with, Wiki says, ‘No known living relatives.’

The Life And Times Of Fishgate Billyboy, by Fishgate Billyboy. Published by arlecchino press, 2020. £12.00
Copies available from arlecchino press, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh EH3 6HN. Scotland, UK

A biography is as much an historical document as biographical. It need not be chronological; indeed some of the best ie most revealing of their time and subject, have been thematic. With a biography we get a slice of time, era, a contexualising that broadens as far as the subject’s interactions with events and peoples demands. 
To impose a narrative on events, for readability, say, is the easy way, of course.


What of autobiography? We have there the added psychological dimensions, in themselves a deepening of one’s interactions with one’s time, responses to events and people, beyond the scope of biography. We also have a narrowing down of viewpoint. What we can know of our moments of life, and how reflection views them, are two very different aspects, and often create tensions seeking resolution.

So, what of a fictionalised autobiography?
Fishgate, surprise-surprise, is a pseudonym. The writer has changed names, rearranged the course of events at times. The main substance is, we can assume, as it stood for the writer. In other words, other aesthetic and psychological factors have come into play in the structuring of the book.

The story begins for the writer in 1944. Other factors and events occurred to lead up to this, and have great impact on events.
How did young people cope with young families, having lost husbands in the War?

In the 1950s and 60s in the UK on the big stage, we saw the implementation of the national Welfare system, the creation of safety nets for inequality in the economic structures then in place. We saw the growth of the National Health Service, of the Social Security and Benefits systems.
There are always those who fall through the gaps, the sink holes, the blind-sides, of systems. Then, as now, they tend to be either the very young, the old, or those who struggle to understand what the majority take for granted.
Fishgate fell through the gaps early on in life.

It makes harrowing reading to witness someone so lost to the world we know. The writer makes no big rumpus about that period of his life; indeed it set the course for some of the more eventful later episodes. To have no home base, was also to be freed from the crippling static lives many were caught up at the time in 1950s, early 60s, UK.

This is a book about the growth into self; about the uncovering of one’s own identity amidst the burgeoning cultures, influences and pressures of one’s time. It is a document of the gay experience. Really? No, it is a document of one man’s growth into his gay self.
This needs noting because the writer takes nothing for granted from the reader; his coming to realise and then acceptance of his nature are played out, not glossed over with cliche.
‘Identity’, also, would seem to suggest an element of choice.
And with this he developed a keen political sense. The political challenges of the 1970s and 80s were sufficiently forceful to create and engage people from all backgrounds.

It is also a chronicle of the growth and development of a writer.

That last point is very important. This book cracks on at a great pace; the writer has honed his skills, and learned techniques, to create a great read. He does not dwell – that is to say, he does not interrupt his book’s pace and become trapped in the emotional landscape he takes us through. He is unsentimental towards his own failings – and maybe a little too humble over his successes.

And there are many successes.
Academically, he grew into himself as an educated person, taking his BA as a mature student at the justly famous Newbattle Abbey Academy, Dalkieth, Edinburgh. The MSc, well, those who know will certainly empathise here. What is an education, unless it has application? So once again he side-stepped the obstacle (– like Peer Gynt with the formless dark on the mountain road – ) and went into the new growth field of EFL teaching.
There begins another huge period of travelling, adventures, friendships.

All this while he was also establishing a position within the writing networks, with readings and publications. Later was to come his wonderful Chanticleer – Ole Chanty – poetry and writing magazine.

If you are at all curious how other people live through their time, then this book could hold you, and leave its mark.

If you enjoyed this book, you may also like:
Incidents in a Crowded Life, by John Howard

https://www.amazon.co.uk/INCIDENTS-CROWDED-LIFE-John-Howard/dp/1910406724/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=jon+howard%2C+incidents&qid=1583065797&s=books&sr=1-1-spell

Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner. Published  2018, Impress Books/4th Estate.

This, the most recent book by Alan Garner, writer of novels, and gatherer and refashioner of tales, is a collection of autobiographical writings.

They chart his life in the tiny village of Alderley Edge, outside Manchester, from his earliest memories, up to the end of World War 2, when his life changed forever.
He had passed his 11 Plus exam and was to leave the small village environs that marked his world, and go out into the bigger world of higher education. Not only that, but instead of going to the local grammar school, he had gained scholarship funding, and was to attend the greatly more prestigious innercity Manchester Grammar School.
My conveyor belt, he wrote, ‘took me to Oxford.’

Alan Garner was born in 1934. His young life was greatly taken up by the War years, its privations, and mysterious otherworld-like qualities of night raids, disrupted daytimes. One of the memoir here is of children, Vaccies, taken out of dangerous environments, cities, places likely to be bombed in air raids. He encountered several groups of these from very different areas of the country at his local school. The most surprising Vaccies, and the ones who made a big impression were from the Channel Islands, Guernsey in particular.

The collection of memoir also backlights Alan Garner’s great concern with the dichotomy between reality and imagination, the roles they play in a person’s life. This was a source of escalating tension in his first five books, climaxing in 1972’s Red Shift. The dichotomy fissured his sensibilities; he could not easily give each its due, but one had to take precedence. In consequence the other had to be relegated; the tension was unresolved, and so continued.

In this new book we see it in the almost iconic images of those earlier books; we see them here as everyday objects. In Elidor the cottage porch became the doorway to another world. In Red Shift, the bunty, the budgerigar Jan valued – both are revealed here to be his own tiny home cottage porchway, and Bunty, the name of his own pet bird, he had to leave unattended through an air raid, and was found dead afterwards.

The cottage is still there in Alderley Edge.
Alderley Edge itself became a dormitory town for wealthy Manchester businesspeople. In consequence the cottage, now no longer squalid, has become a Grade II listed building, and worth nearly £400,000. Such are the ways of Estate Agents/Real Estate.

https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/7000532/1019742648/document-0.pdf

We also see, in The Stone Book, one of his middle novels, the weather-vane cockerel in real life, much smaller than imagined once brought down from the church to be re-coated. It is the young Alan Garner sits astride it, and whilst on the ground – not the Mary of the story, nor on the church steeple.
I have argued elsewhere that this particular book is written in perfect chiasmic form, and is also literally a cock-and-bull story, as each image in turn plays a major part in the depth reading of the storyline in each half of the chiasmic form of the story.
In reality the icons from the books are less impressive, but solid, durable in their own right.

In The Voice That Thunders, 1997, his earlier collection of essays, he relates how the many periods of early childhood illness allowed him both to read voraciously outside the narrow school curriculum, but also to compensate for being confined to bed for long periods, by travelling and adventuring imaginatively, dreaming vividly. Awareness of the discrepancy between what was immediately outside his window, and inside his imagination, was exercised and elaborated upon.

There have been several stylistic changes in his writing, throughout his writing career. The first two books are more full of their own juiciness, so much so sometimes the style nearly swamps the storytelling. The Moon of Gomrath, 1963, evinces a greater, stricter stylistic control. The language is sparer, the images sharper. We feel less manipulated into psychological events: the tunnel escape from the Edge mines enacting primal birthing experiences etc.

Elidor, 1965 – I feel it wobbles a little: The Lay of the Starved Minstrel? Even I found that a bit too contrived. It gains by its setting. The novel sets out the battle ground for the war between imagination and reality that has dogged the writer so long.

The Owl Service is just great, the writing taut and spare, nothing is wasted.
Red Shift takes this even further. It ends in a kind of defeat: seek help, psychological help, Jan says to Tom. The time fissures become unbridgeable chasms, like a mind disintegrating. The copper mines beneath Alderley Edge that played such a large part in the first book, imaged the psychic fissures.

Then the language simplified, the images cleared of unwanted baggage. The Stone Book Quartet was four short books based firmly on fact and known family memories. They carried identifiable and accessible images.

The later books from Strandloper, 1996, onwards, increasingly explore the same psychic fissures as the first books, but more and more in psychological terms. The latest book, Boneland, 2012, depends almost wholly on psychology to unravel the ascendance at the end of The Moon of Gomrath.  The language of these books is difficult, employing greater amounts of colloquialism, and, especially in Strandloper, subjective monologue unanchored to easily identifiable events.
There is a lot of astronomical calculation in Boneland; I was lost there.

The Wiki page on him
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Garner

describes his genre as ‘low fantasy’ – this is to contrast with high fantasy, which is whole-world-building fantasy. This is important. His nearest to world building was in Elidor, but he firmly shut that door. His strength was not in world-building; he recognised this in time.
In The Voice That Thunders he writes how he chose real life over the fantasy realms. And so he later launched into craft and skills-heavy terminology, astronomical calculations; to archeological graft and careful uncovering, over discovering.
I sometimes wonder if, when one manipulates reality for one’s own ends, does that not weigh on a person, and cumulatively?

The memoirs do show how much interpretation and bias has gone into presentation of material, fact, however.
I remember a public talk he gave as he geared up for the writing of Thursbitch. Not is all as he made out. The mundane becomes totemic.

Throughout the present book he is careful to present himself as a weak child, prone to many illnesses that we assume his peers were not. He enumerates the times he was frequently reduced to tears.
In his younger years he became a prodigious runner, running great distances over hill and moor. It was on one of these runs he discovered his great grandfather’s roadside stone carving that forms part of the kernal of Thursbitch. I have also seen this stone and it is a great many miles out and off any main route.
Running: was he punishing his body for having been weak, whilst ensuring it would not let him down again? Such distance running not only builds body strength, stamina, but also develops will-power and concentration.
I once worked with a man who, once his MS had subsided, also took to such distance running feats, the greater the challenge the better. He’d work laying roads by day, and run in the evenings.

And so, there is clearly some strategy at work in his choice of depiction. Is it just to foist on us the dialect speech: ‘Mardy arse.’?

What did his friends wear, besides clogs for school? What were their meals (beside the odd slug, and drain mould – then he wondered why he was sickly!)? What was breakfast, and how important was it deemed to be? What were their general thoughts, concerns, hopes, worries?
The language of the book is direct, and without depth-charges. He takes pains to be authentic: he mentions Lyle’s syrup, then launches into a lengthy description of the tin and its From strength came forth sweetness, marketing slogan. There are many such examples. His authenticising runs to depcting the narrow , shallow, states of mind of children of the age he was. The big concerns puzzle; his own worries are inexpressible.

 

His conveyor belt took him to Oxford, and the prestigious Grammar School experience and the Oxford mentality, have stayed with him ever after: the commanding manner, cultured voice, and expectation, that demands and receives of others in return.
But he did leave Oxford before taking his Finals; he did return to the small local world, a life and house without sanitation and modern conveniences.
Then he could begin.

He was to learn from scratch how to walk the line between parochial and provincial, to use P J Kavannagh’s terms.

See also:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/3744