How to write your autobiography – Lesson 2 – “Nellie”
‘I didn’t know my own name ’til I were eleven,’ says Nellie.
I partly understand her. Her maiden name is sometimes Nellie Webb and sometimes Nellie Wright. Webb – she says – was her ‘real’ father, but Wright, her stepfather, was the one she loved. Except, she tells me on another occasion, her ‘real’ father was a man called Roper, the nephew of the manager of the Sun Mill who went down with his ship in 1916. Which leaves the mysterious Webb where exactly? In life, he fell off a ladder and died, and so exits this story having scarcely come into it except to lend an unwanted name.
‘My mother were called Marrow,’ Nellie volunteers. She doesn’t know the spelling. A whiff of uncertainty clings to it. ‘Her mum and dad kept a lodging house for prison officers in Knutsford. I think she had other children before she met Webb, but ’ – she adds – ‘ I don’t know who they were or what they were called.’ Or, indeed, if they ever existed.
My grandmother was evidently a sporting type, what with a family in Knutsford, the affair with Roper, the interlude with Webb and finally a marriage to Wright, who fathered my Uncles Fred and Joe. She took snuff and drank beer.
‘She was a fat, dirty, smelly old woman,’ my brother Denis says.
‘She were a alcoholic,’ says Nellie. ‘It were Wright who first learned her to drink. But she didn’t like pubs and used to take beer home in jugs.’
Grandma Wright experienced a late conversion.
‘One day she said “I’ve given up drinking”,’ Nellie explains. But, if so, it did her no good. Nellie shakes her head: “She died a fortnight later.’
I was four years old.
The problematic matter of names extended to Nellie’s children. I’m called ‘Jim’ not ‘James’. My sister is ‘Ann’ without the terminal ‘e’. One brother is ‘Denis’ (single ‘n’). The other is ‘Jack’ not ‘John’. None of us has a second name.
I can’t explain this meanness. I joke about it. ‘It was wartime rationing. You couldn’t get the coupons. Either I got a second name or my sister got a winter vest.’ However, I suspect one of the more subtle effects of poverty is that it extends into the imagination. I’m not sure my parents thought their children were entitled to bear a second name.
My grandmother cleaned houses.
‘You couldn’t meet a nicer woman when she weren’t in drink,’ Nellie remembers. As for her stepfather: ‘I loved him to death. He were lovely.’ Fred Wright was gassed in the Great War and invalided.
Nellie spent her childhood among poverty, disability and alcoholism. And love. She never felt her parents didn’t love her. But the poverty was hard. ‘At Christmas all we used to get was an orange,’ she tells me.
I can’t decide if Nellie is bright or not. She may be. The problem is that her horizons are deformed by poverty and, bright or not, she’s a silly woman. I can say this without shame because, unfortunately, I happen to be a silly man.
Whatever the case, Nellie won a place at grammar school. It was the greatest disappointment of her life. She shakes her head at the memory. ‘I were right pleased and ran home to tell my mum. And she went to see my teacher. When she came back she told me I couldn’t go.’
I’ve heard this story a hundred times and know how Nellie punctuates it. After a pause she says, ‘There were a uniform and she couldn’t afford to buy it.’
Nellie lost her education for the sake of a suit of clothes. Instead she left school at fourteen and worked in cotton mills around and about Oldham until sometime in the nineteen forties she met my father, Hughie Williams, The Last Cowboy in Wrexham.
The experience of an alcoholic mother gives Nellie a lifelong prejudice against drink. She rails against modern girls. ‘I used to go drinking only three times a week,’ she sniffs, ‘not like they do nowadays.’
I’m missing something. If three times a week is moderation, the boozing of contemporary women must be awesome.
As a result of her modest visits to the pub, Nellie met Hughie, who had three kids and a wife ‘no better than she should be’. Hughie’s wife had ‘fancy men’ and was in the habit of selling the furniture while Hughie was at work and spending the proceeds on immoral purposes. Years later I meet her at my brother Denis’s house when she’s in her late forties. She seems a pleasant though rather brassy woman. Her current ‘fancy man’ is a florid type with the air of a publican and they have a nice daughter who looks strikingly like my brother Jack. In some vague way she’s therefore a relative but I don’t recall her name, assuming I ever knew it.
‘And then I fell for you,’ Nellie says.
The expression ‘falling for’ a baby is conventional but captures the accidental nature of pregnancy in Nellie’s youth (though she’s twenty-nine when she ‘falls’). It also has echoes of ‘fallen women’. I can feel the lives of Nellie and Hughie teetering on the edge of chaos and disaster. Nellie is unmarried and ‘fallen’. Hughie is a country boy cut off from home, hard drinking, quick-tempered and out of his depth. Denis and Jack are shuttled among relatives. Ann is put in a children’s home. Hughie, Nellie and Little Jimmy take a mouse-infested room in Greenacres Road and try to build a life from scratch.
My parents ought to fail. I can’t really understand why they don’t except that there’s something fundamentally sound about them. Nellie is thrifty. Both are hard-working. Neither is vicious. They have good hearts and generous natures and I never doubt they love me. Still, I don’t like my father’s fiery temper and at the age of five think the man who sells shirts at Bradleys Gentleman’s Outfitters, Mumps, is nicer than my dad. (For information, Bradleys’ trademark is a Cheshire cat and the father of my friends John and David Parry works there.)
Nellie scrimps and saves and borrows fifty pounds from her brother Joe, and, when Little Jimmy is two, she and Hughie buy a house in Warwick Street for four hundred and fifty pounds. It has a dilapidated roof which, mortgage apart, is the source of a seventy-five pound bill to Machin the builder that will haunt her memory as the biggest debt of her life. Yet it proves a blessing. Her financial management impresses Hughie and he raises her ‘wage’ so she can pay off the debt and never afterwards reduces it. It marks a growing confidence between them that will outlive their blazing rows.
Despite poverty, money has no grip on Nellie beyond a practical thriftiness. Her lack of interest in material things is sublime. Fifteen years after she buys the house in Warwick Street, she sells it to my exotic Italian Auntie Anna (who married Uncle Bobby the communist) for scarcely more than she paid, and gives her free credit was well. The market price of the house doesn’t interest Nellie. She never liked the place and won’t take more than her own notion of what it’s worth. Similarly in old age she refuses the pension credit to which she’s entitled and gets annoyed when I press it on her. It isn’t a matter of pride.
‘I won’t have it,’ she says. ‘I don’t need it.’
And she’s right. She doesn’t need it. She’s given away anything superfluous and lives very simply in a house that smells of mothballs, the last that she and Hughie lived in together. She subscribes to the National Lottery but only with an eye to giving any prize to charity.
‘I won’t give to you,’ she says pointedly. She won’t give it to my children either. She explains: ‘I don’t hold with having a lot of money. It doesn’t do you any good.’
She saves out of her small pension then gives the savings away to charity or in small presents. ‘I do what I can,’ she says and shrugs. Her notions of money reflect the prices of thirty years ago and trivial sums seem large to her, but only as amounts to wonder at. Since she buys nothing, they have no real meaning.
All her measures are set by the smallness of her life. It colours even her notions of luxurious living, which are bizarre.
‘She bought a tea towel,’ she says of someone or other.’You know – the sort you can hang on the wall.’
Of someone else: ‘They have a bit of money behind them. They live in a bungalow.’
Nellie is uncertain how far her own experiences reflect the general world. Sometimes she assumes a false universality.
‘You can always buy sugar cheap at Dixons,’ she says to my Aunt Doll from Shrewsbury.
Dixons was the grocer at the corner of Warwick Street. In the days before supermarkets, it was one of a chain of half a dozen in the Oldham area. For Nellie, however, there are Dixons’ stores from Derby to Delhi.
In old age she tends to the other direction and expresses surprise if she encounters in Stockport something she knows of in Oldham. This can take bizarre forms.
‘Ee, there’s a chemist!’ she says in wonder (she refers to Boots the Chemist as ‘Bootsies’). Or it may be shoe shop. Or, sometimes, she asks what kind of shop she’s looking at, and, when I tell her it sells mobile ’phones, she shakes her head, marvelling that such places exist.
She has an addiction to laxatives and a store of folk wisdom.
‘Don’t go out with your hair wet!’ She tells me.
She repeats her good advice every time we meet. Spells always work better if they’re repeated.
‘You shouldn’t drive your car when it’s dark, Jimmy.’ She fixes me with a witch’s glare. ‘Now remember: you drive carefully.’
I’m fifty-odd years old and have been driving for more than thirty years. Still, you never know: those words ‘you drive carefully’ may work their magic.
Oldham, in Nellie’s opinion, is a place of fantastic danger, especially as she grows older. Pensioners are habitually murdered in their beds and nary a one ever gets home with her pension.
‘It’s bad round here,’ she says, then contradicts herself, ‘I wouldn’t want to move. I’ve a lot of good neighbours.’
Apparently it’s far more dangerous for me. If I drive to Oldham at night, I’ll be dragged out of my car, beaten up and left for dead with my hair wet.
Nellie’s sense of danger comes from the natural timidity of the old but also from her reading of the local paper. She’s can’t put a context to the stories of mayhem she devours every day. She assumes the extraordinary reflects the habitual, and has no idea of how things may be elsewhere than in her hometown.
‘You drive home carefully,’ she says.
‘Mum, I’m only going ten miles to Stockport. Next week I’ll be in Bombay.’
Her eyes glaze over. ‘Hmm…But you drive home careful.’ She pokes my chest. ‘And don’t stop for no one. It’s bad round here.’
Nellie’s world has no history except the personal. Broader history isn’t real. She’s vaguely aware of it, but the facts mentioned in the romances she reads are confined within the covers, simply parts of the plot. The reign of Charles the Second and the Regency Period are just settings. Nellie can’t tell you how far apart from each other they are or which came first. No analogies can be drawn between past and present because the past has no structure. Its incidents are specific and contain no lessons.
Who is ‘the Old King’? No one except Nellie ever uses the term to me, though she says it as if it’s a title known to everyone.
‘That were in the time of the Old King,’ she says in order to place some incident. If I’m explaining something to her, she’ll ask: ‘Were that in the time of the Old King?’
Logic suggests there’s a ‘New King’, but Nellie never refers to him or indicates she’s aware of any kings other than ‘the Old King.’
Who is he, then? George the Fifth, I think, who died in 1936 when Nellie was eighteen. I tell her, but to no purpose. It means nothing. She gives no sign of having heard of a King George, whether the Fifth or otherwise. Indeed she can’t carry the name from one occasion to another so I have to tell her again. It isn’t that she’s forgetful. It’s just that the subject is of no interest.
For years Nellie worked in the cotton mills. The National Trust has a preserved cotton mill at Styal a museum to the industry, covering all aspects, not just the spinning and weaving of cloth. Shirley and I took Nellie round it. This was a few years ago when she was in her seventies.
‘Eee, look at that!’ she says.
In one of the long spinning rooms she sees a machine and her eyes light up with familiar memory.
‘I used to work on one o’ them.’
What was it for?
She doesn’t know.
Where does it fit in the process of cotton manufacture?
She doesn’t know. All she could do was operate it.
Much of her life is spent in this way, without any context except the immediate. It doesn’t bother her, no more than money does.
It’s good to ‘have a bit of money behind you’.
But only for reasons of security.
Security, not wealth, is the most important value in Nellie’s scheme of life. It’s understandable. Wealth is abstract: she’s never been rich and doesn’t know any rich people. But insecurity she knows first hand from the poverty of her childhood and her ‘fallen’ condition with Little Jimmy to care for when she was uncertain of her hold on Hughie.
Nellie’s desire for security expresses itself as ‘settling down’.To be settled down means to achieve a sort of inertness that will go on for ever. It consists of a job, a spouse and a house, none of which will ever change. At times it seems like something that occurs after life in the conventional sense has been lived: a form of un-dead existence in which nothing very much happens except for occasional redecorating or the purchase of a new washing machine: vampirism at a domestic level
One of the things that women do for men is to settle them down. As Nellie says of my sister-in-law: ‘Margie were the best thing that ever happened to Denis. She settled him down.’ And of my father, ‘Once he’d settled down he were a smashing chap.’
Nellie believes all endeavours should be directed to ‘settling down’ at the earliest possible opportunity. She liked my girlfriend, Kathy Redfern, and would have been perfectly happy if I’d got engaged at the age of seventeen. I’d have “got over” the uncertainty surrounding sex and girls. She’d have liked me to be a teacher. It is a nice steady job for life.
Nellie’s moralising has an effect. Taken as a whole, I’ve lived quietly and not been especially concerned about money or high position. I have loyal friends, a fine family and a good and loving marriage. I’ve taken my disappointments easily: not expecting very much and accepting the outcome as the proper reward for getting above myself. I don’t put forward ‘settling down’ as a general recommendation to others, but it’s suited me and made me happy.
But, to return to where I came in…
‘I didn’t know my own name ‘til I were eleven,’ says Nellie.
‘No. You see, I thowt I were called “Nellie”. Everyone called me “Nellie”. My Mam and Dad called me “Nellie”.’ (I assume that “Dad” was Fred Wright, but there are at least two other candidates.)
‘I see,’ I say. But I don’t. My father called her “Nellie” until the day he died. No one has ever called her anything else. So her real name is…?
‘Helen!’ she says with a smile. ‘I were eleven years old when I learned I were called “Helen”.’
Helen – yes, of course, though she was still known as Nellie.
Today we’re in a residential home in Royton – Nellie, Shirley and I. Opposite us sit a young social worker, who speaks with a strong Oldham accent, and a fat trainee, who beams pleasantly and says nothing. They remind me of the stock duo of my teenage years: the pretty one and the fat friend, who seem to haunt every church hall dance I ever go to. What will this one think if she realises I’ve only half an ear to the conversation while the other half is listening to Johnny Dean and the Graduates rip off Beatles’ numbers in Hill Stores Co-op ballroom?
We’re here to decide if, after a trial period, Mum is willing to stay on in the home. Is she happy with the place? With the food? With the staff? Today she’s in a cheerful mood and answers lucidly – so lucidly you may think she’s perfectly capable of managing her own affairs.
‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ she says. ‘The staff are nice. The food’s good. I’ve made some friends.’ She searches out Shirley and beams at her as if seeing the joke. ‘Where am I again?’ she asks.
‘In a residential home,’ says Shirley.
‘That’s right,’ says Nellie without pausing. ‘In Royton? Carol put me here.’
Carol is my age, a wonderful, selfless friend to my mother. Carol didn’t put Nellie in a home. I did.
The interview continues and Nellie is blithe throughout. Several times she asks where she is. It’s characteristic that many of her memories aren’t altogether lost but exist in an intermediate state where they no longer come spontaneously to mind but can be prompted by the right cue. Once she’s told she’s in a home, she recalls immediately that it’s in Royton and that Carol put her there.
But no matter how many times she is reminded, she can’t hold the notion that I was the one responsible.
‘I don’t have a memory,’ our old friend Monty once said.‘I have a forgettery.’
Nellie has a “forgettery”. ‘My memory’s something shocking,’ she says, and sighs and shrugs. ‘Where am I again?’
The young social worker is satisfied. Her client is clearly incapable of managing on her own and has settled well in her current placement. She smiles.
‘So you’ll stay here then, will you, Nellie’
Mum doesn’t answer, but she grins mischievously.
‘Excuse me,’ she says pleasantly but with characteristic emphasis. ‘My name isn’t Nellie.’
‘No,’ says Mum. She is triumphant. ‘It’s Helen!’
And so it is. The staff of the home have never met Nellie and know only Helen. At the age of eighty-six she has defined her own name and forced its acceptance on the world.
NOTES ON “NELLIE”
Most people can’t write a book. The problem isn’t that they write badly – they may or may not do – but good and bad writing determine only whether a book is enjoyable, not whether it’s written at all. Most people can’t write even a bad book. What defeats them is psychology.
A novel of ordinary length typically takes a year or two’s work, and demands a major commitment in a life busy with other things. Importantly the act of writing means sitting down, facing and overcoming the obstacles to putting pen to paper not once but maybe hundreds of times. All writers are familiar with the displacement activities they engage in so as to avoid that moment of truth. In fact one joke has it that an experienced author, on being asked by a novice how to write, said, ‘First clean your fridge.’ A single failure to meet the challenge of the blank page may doom the whole enterprise. Repeated failure will almost certainly do so.
The fundamental problem with writing novels is that the task is lengthy and, what’s worse, a waste of time if the book never gets finished. So it isn’t an accident that few people write novels (even if it’s too many for the comfort of publishers and critics). In contrast, however, most of us have probably turned out a verse or two in our time because verse is generally short and so easier to complete. And the same is true of essays such as we wrote at school.
That last comment is a clue. An exercise in writing is more likely to succeed if it’s short and results in a satisfactory completed product. Or, to put it another way, writing your autobiography will be easier to the extent you can organise it so that it’s more like writing verse or an essay than like writing a novel.
But isn’t life – the subject of an autobiography – in truth a novel? It’s tempting to think so if we look at it in chronological terms, as a story that just happens to be real. The plot of a novel – of a conventional novel at any rate – moves from event A to event B over a span of time; and life – though at a slower pace and less artistically organised – moves in a similar linear fashion from birth to death. So it isn’t surprising that biography frequently resembles a novel in using this chronological structure, which is also the ordinary form for historical narrative.
However there are important differences. In particular, novels usually have a plot, which determines the beginning and ending and sets the pace of the story.Indeed it’s the failure to resolve the plot that makes a novel unsatisfactory and largely valueless if it’s left unfinished. We want to know how everything turned out: and, if we aren’t told, we feel cheated.
Now, I can’t speak for your life, but mine doesn’t have a plot: rather, as I’ve already said, it feels like a pile of stuff that just happened; and today (a Monday in May when Shirley and I have just returned from holiday to find our local burglar is treating the garage as a DIY supermarket and our old cat, Oscar, has vomited on the rug) doesn’t represent an artistic climax to anything. Unless I suddenly become a genius, no account by me of my life is going to lead in a dramatically satisfactory way to the events of today – which isn’t to say that these events have no meaning or interest. But I have to figure out some other way of dealing with them.
To generalise like a barbarian:
- a) novels are organised chronologically and have a plot – and those that aren’t are often tedious;
- b) poetry and essays are organised around motifs and perceptions – and when structured like a novel, are as likely as not dull.
And if this isn’t so for every case, it’s still true enough for the purpose of illustration.
In my notes to A Dream of Red Tulips, I introduced the notion of stories such as Ben Ley and the ‘carafe’ as self-contained chunks of narrative, tied only loosely to any larger structure such as a plot, and more or less indifferent to exact historical details such as dates and place. This kind of story is commonly called an anecdote, and by some experts a “pericope”. You can identify a pericope by the fact that the link of cause and effect between what goes before and comes afterwards is negligible.Think about it. Did you predict that the story of my childhood dream would be followed by a sketch of my mother drawn mainly from her old age? There’s a connection, but it isn’t causal in the rigid sense.
My point about these first two essays is that they’re each complete in themselves; and they’re intended to be because I don’t know how many I’m going to write and I want to be in a position to break off at any time, yet feel the business has been worthwhile. In other words this task is as long or as short as I feel like making it, and at any point it’s in some sense finished and satisfactory.
This approach to writing autobiography by means of a series of essays is my basic proposal for overcoming the psychological difficulties that a long piece of writing poses for most of us. It’s a technique I’ve recommended to others on intuitive grounds, and now I’m going to see whether it works for me. I don’t suggest this approach is original: only that it should work; and the fact that others have used it is good evidence.
If you care to, you may want to break off here and read Montaigne’s Essays or Alan Bennett’s Writing Home. Montaigne is interesting because, on the face of them, his Essays cover a wide range of subjects having no apparent connection with his life. Yet he makes it clear to the reader that they’re largely an exercise in self-exploratio. It really doesn’t matter in which order you read the Essays, and you’ll get something out of them if you read only a couple. Montaigne uses the themes of his writings (cannibalism for example) as a focus for his personal insights. It’s in this way that they resemble poetry.
If you look again at Nellie, you’ll see the essay is framed by the story of how she discovered her “real” name. It forms the structure on which I’ve hung the other details, all of which tend towards uncovering my mother’s identity rather than her history (though there’s a fair amount of the latter).
Dramatically, the incident functions rather as a plot might do in a novel. There’s an element of suspense: the outcome is left uncertain – the reader doesn’t know what Nellie’s real name is or how she finds out, and so is compelled to go on until the mystery is resolved. If you decide to read the other essays, you’ll find this technique repeated, and you should ask yourself if it’s effective and whether you can make it work for you. I find it helps me to shape my material: the use of a framing incident sets limits the way that a conventional beginning and end do.
Nellie’s “real” name is the motif of this second essay as the red tulips were the motif of the first. Either might have formed a subject for a short poem, which is why I think poetry rather than novels or history offers useful insights into how to write autobiographical essays. However, you shouldn’t think this use of motifs is artificial, even though it’s clearly in part an artistic device. Behind my present use of these incidents lie real memories. I still remember my dream of red tulips more than fifty years ago. I still recall my shock when Nellie told me she didn’t know her name until she was eleven.
An intriguing question is why do I remember these particular details of my life? And the answer lies within the essays.
One of the benefits of autobiography is that it helps us understand why we remember what we remember.
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How to write your autobiography – Lesson 2 – “Nellie”