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The Lives of Strangers

by Jess Brown

I have read and learned a great deal more in my working life about the lives of strangers than I have ever learned about the lives of the people who were the closest to me.

I started reading my grandfather’s memoirs – Looking Back – in January, the night before his funeral, poised behind the sometimes rose-tinted but more often murky lense of his Manchester wartime childhood. His voice is just as I remember it: humble, pensive, eloquent, and gently, nostalgically northern: gin is ‘3 shillings a tot’, bikers are ‘harum-scarum’, kissing a girl is a ‘skirmish’. He sets the scene thus:

Chestnut St was a small, cramped, cold and draughty place with no garden, no trees or greenery around it, nothing but great dirty brick tenements blocking out the view at the back and shabby weak reflections of itself across the street at the front.

Post-war, he holds my hand as his crumbling family move to the only-slightly-nicer Alms Hill Road, through the desertion and death of his father, his mother’s breakdown, hard labour on a farm, the slog through National Service, running away to London, to Birmingham, back to Manchester. The golden ticket – a sweet, almost mythological shot of redemption – comes right at the end, as though 50 years on my Dandi, (as baby-me christened him), is still rubbing his eyes at the opportunity: he gets in, on a whim, to Oxford. He lets go of my hand and wraps me in a huge embrace as the taut, meticulous prose of his painful adolescence melts into the golden summers and autumns of his university days. The memoirs trail off after this. Latterly, he became an English professor at Middlesex University. Some of my favorite passages include his description of Oxford in the ‘60s:

That first summer in Oxford (1962)… was idyllic (as it is for most freshers). I discovered the joys of punting, of picnics by the river, of long warm nights’ drinking… Port Meadow may not be particularly beautiful (it is an ancient bit of Thames flood pasture) but it spoke volumes to me of England as a land of quiet places that had been old before Shakespeare or even Chaucer was born.

How poignant that Dandi felt he ‘read and learned a great deal more… about the lives of strangers’ in novels than he did about ‘the lives of people who were the closest to me.’ It was a great refuge for him to be able to ‘discover the power of escape into other worlds, other lives.’ But one crucial element of his character is revealed that I was too young, or too self-involved to grasp when I knew him: how ashamed he felt about the most meager comforts, even the reading that shaped and transformed his life. The self-flagellation often comes after a tantalising description:

What I loved doing was taking a simple, everyday scene such as coming home from school at tea-time in winter and describing it in terms which conveyed the pleasure of the warmth of the welcoming fire, the succulence of the hot-buttered toast, the hot sweet tea, the richly inviting fruit cake, etc. etc. In other words I was good at indulging myself in wish-fulfillment… And once I had learned the trick of indulging my wish fulfillment, I became addicted to it.

Recalling Penelope Lively’s Making It Up made me wonder if it was my grandfather’s Catholic strain alone that provoked a feeling of inadequacy in his writing. Making It Up is a novel autobiography: it is literally part fiction, a hybrid of memory and imagination, taking all the crucial turning points in Lively’s life and piecing together what might have happened:

When I was very young I made up stories – the refuge of an isolated and frequently bored child. These were fables that I told to myself – long satisfying narratives that passed the time and spiced up otherwise uneventful days… my idea of a spot of drama came from my reading...[with] myself – out there in the thick of it, with a starring role.

There is, it seems, a sense of obligation for a memoirist, a diarist, or an autobiographer, to apologise for writing themselves as ‘the starring role,’ rather than constructing ‘the lives of strangers’. My grandfather’s memoirs seep admonishments to a former self that no longer existed at the time of writing, let alone at the time of my reading. Lively externalises this, recognising the writing process as a way of imposing control and a system of morals on a story that generally never really has either – that of one’s own life. One chapter is the story of a child she never had at 18. She flips the egocentricity of a memoir by burying herself among people around her whom she barely knew, or barely remembered, or who barely even existed, and as I notice how convincing these tales seem as pseudo-memories, I find myself wondering how much my own grandfather’s memoirs offer an altered reality. He described the memoirs as ‘something of a surrogate’ for the book he’d always wanted to write.

Processing Looking Back, I thought of another book: I’d learnt so much about my mother’s family from Dandi’s memoirs that I asked my paternal grandmother about ‘The Wheatley Diary’. It’s about 200 pages, interspersed with sketches and watercolors, vividly detailing a poor young officer’s experiences in the Waterloo Campaign under Wellington, starting in 1813 and ending in 1815. The officer, Edmund Wheatley, was my five times great grandfather. He wrote the distinctive, often even clumsy prose for Eliza Brookes, a woman he desperately and defiantly wanted to marry against her parents’ will. It reads almost like a spin-off-cum-prequel to an Austen novel – something Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth might have compiled for Anne Elliot when courting her. He uses the swashbuckling language of an adventure novel, “the men were ordered to carry their muskets horizontally to prevent the gleaming of the bayonets from betraying our approach.” For me, there was the added element, as my father put it, of ‘really rooting for’ Wheatley – to survive his horrifying experiences as a soldier and then a prisoner of war, but also the psychological trauma. He writes, after his first battle:

I was delighted at first, but… a violent reaching and giddiness was the punishment for enjoying the horrid spectacle of human butchery with indifference.

It is my own existence that is at stake. He ends the diary, ‘Good bye, dear. God bless you my Dear, Dear Eliza. Remember, I swear to be yours only, only Eliza’s. Never think I have forgotten you,’ convinced that her parents would never approve the marriage.

I exhaled when I read the editor’s note at the end of The Wheatley Diary: “Eliza succumbed to his entreaties and married him” – I am their direct descendent. Day to day, we rarely stop to think about the alternative realities that might have materialized had what happened not happened – or if we do, we go no further than “imagine if my parents never met”. But the voices from the modest documents of my more distant ancestors are a tangible manifestation of literature’s power to present alternatives that never materialized. Memoirs and diaries are the points at which literature and history intersect. Take Wheatley’s recount of the famous campaign at Waterloo, reported in chilling understatement:

I look’d up and found myself, bareheaded, in a clay-ditch with a violent head-ache. Close by me lay Colonel Ompteda on his back, his head stretched back with his mouth open, and a hole in his throat.

[The battalion had been cut to pieces by the cavalry].

How close our pasts are to the conditionals that still govern our futures. My grandfather knew it, writing, ‘for my grandchildren, children and any other member of the family who might find them interesting.’ His writing was raw, fuller than a novelist’s – more like the voice one hears in one’s own head. Life-writing makes us feel like we are tracking and processing our life into our own, acceptable language. But recording a life does not mean we will understand its influence. Edmund Wheatley named his daughter Jessie in 1824, and had no idea of a granddaughter generations away called Jess. My 20-year-old grandfather rented a flat in Belsize Park, without any inkling that I would walk past it daily decades later. Even Penelope Lively, it turns out, went to my college. Perhaps I write this sitting where she once sat. ‘If a place is haunted,’ writes Lively, ‘it is perhaps with the ghosts of ourselves, both past and future.’

JESS BROWN reads English at St Anne’s. Having retired as an ORB Editor at the ripe old age of 19, she is using her newfound free time to nurture her pot plants, do crosswords, and finally start work for a degree.

Image courtesy of Roland Goslett


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