“A MESSAGE TO THE CHILDREN” – A GUIDE TO WRITING AUTOBIOGRAPHY
SHINY JIM AND ADOLF HITLER
My grandfather and Adolf Hitler were members of the Wrexham St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.
There are three photographs of James Edward Williams. The first is a portrait. He wears the uniform of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and sports a large moustache of the kind common before the Great War: in fact he looks like Lord Kitchener. The second was taken in the early thirties. By then he was confined to a wheel chair by a mining accident. In the same picture are his second wife, Lucy and a little girl who, I learn much later, is Millie. The third photograph is of my grandfather and Hitler.
Millie’s experience was to give me a key to a man who in most respects is mysterious, though, I admit, I’ve made few enquiries into his history. Even his dates are uncertain. He died in about 1934 and I suspect he was born a few years either side of 1890: probably earlier rather than later. I’m told he was raised in an orphanage in South Wales.
Two facts come through convincingly. He was adored by his children and admired by everyone else. It was his neighbours in Ruabon who gave him the name ‘Shiny Jim’ from his spotless turnout. My father first told me so and then Millie confirmed it. She had returned to Ruabon in search of her roots fifty years or more after my grandfather died. Yet enquiring among the old people she found someone who’d known “Shiny Jim” and volunteered the name.
Foremost he was a soldier. He was a regular and subsequently a territorial and he fought on the Western Front. My father said he was mentioned twice in dispatches and won the Military Medal. I’ve no reason to disbelieve this. In the twenties he was a miner and he was disabled in one of the great pit disasters, which I presume led to his early death.
He married twice and had six children, one of whom, Stanley, drowned in his teens. I knew all the others. His first wife – my grandmother – died of breast cancer at the age of thirty-two. His second wife, Lucy, always had a bad reputation in the family as a difficult woman, but Millie’s story gave me reason to re-evaluate her role. My Auntie Blodwyn (alias “Billie”) also softened towards Lucy in old age and expressed sympathy for her.
Millie wasn’t a relative at all. She was a foundling: a child out of melodrama or a Catherine Cookson novel. No one ever mentioned her to me and it came as a surprise when she turned up in the early nineties in a polite letter that told me her story, which was this.
Some time in the late twenties (1927 is the nearest I can get), a woman was going from door to door around the village of Ruabon carrying a baby of three weeks and offering it to anyone who came to the doorstep. My grandfather had five children of his own, but was afraid the woman was about to drown the child if no one took it in. And so he did so. He took it without further enquiry and without any paperwork (as a result Millie never knew her own name or her birthday) and raised her for seven years. Millie confessed to me that she adored Shiny Jim: that he was the most wonderful father to her.
I think the reason I knew nothing of Millie was that she was so much younger than the other children and, in a sense, she stayed only briefly. Also, none of them ever spoke much about their own childhood to me. As for Millie, after Shiny Jim’s death her real mother turned up again and Lucy had to return her because there’d never been a formal adoption. Millie was spirited away to South Wales; then placed in a Catholic children’s home, which she hated. As I say, this is a story from a Catherine Cookson novel.
To return to Lucy. She was a nurse. She was a difficult woman. She had no children of her own and inherited five from Shiny Jim and one from God knows whom. Millie had a point when she said things weren’t easy for her – but, she said, Lucy loved my grandfather very much.
Those children who still remained at home left after Shiny Jim’s death. It was at about this time, I suspect, that Hughie, who’d be seventeen years old, quit the Wrexham area for Oldham, where he had relatives. Lucy (a hazy figure like the wicked stepmother from a fairy story) vanished from the picture. Yet, Millie told me that she – the mother who was no mother – followed the foundling child down to South Wales and, though she had no rights in the matter, did what she could for Millie as she went through her agony with the Catholic nuns. So, it seems, Lucy loved Millie as much as any mother could. Certainly Millie had no doubts about it. The two stayed in close contact until Lucy died in the mid sixties. In a confessional letter to me, my Aunt Billie admitted that Shiny Jim’s children were hard on Lucy. For all her faults (and Millie suggested she was a martinet), one can’t help feeling that there was a great deal to be said for her.
Among the memorabilia I inherited from Billie is the photograph of Shiny Jim and Adolf Hitler. The Führer is clear enough. He sits in the front row in an all black SS uniform among those in the gear of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. The doubt lies in the identification of Shiny Jim: someone has had to mark him out among all the other men.
Yet, despite the photograph, this story is nonsense. Isn’t it?
Maybe. Still there’s a persistent urban myth that Hitler worked in the twenties as a painter and decorator in Liverpool. And, if that’s true, why shouldn’t he have been a member of the Wrexham St. John’s Ambulance Brigade?
Now he’s part of a family myth of uncertain origin. Did I invent it in the early nineties after I received the box of bits from Billie, or was the photograph merely confirmatory evidence of an earlier story? The latter, I think, but I can’t be sure. And even if the story dates from before I acquired the photograph, it may still have its roots in the same source seen at an earlier date by someone else in the family. My memory tells me that Billie mentioned it.
In the end I know more about Adolf Hitler than I do about Shiny Jim. In many ways it’s appropriate that, in the photograph, it’s Hitler’s face that emerges clearly and my grandfather’s that struggles to be distinctive against the general mass of similar men. I don’t suppose I’ll ever learn enough about Shiny Jim to create a true portrait, though, from what I have learned, he seems to have been a good and admirable man, which ought to be enough.
This short essay is not about who my grandfather was, but about what he meant.
NOTES ON “SHINY JIM AND ADOLF HITLER”
If by now you’re thinking of trying your hand at writing your own essays, you may be wondering what to take as your first subject. You have a choice because the essay form allows you to take topics in any order you like. In contrast a simple chronology naturally draws you to dealing with events in the order they arise. I suspect though that even now you may find the prospect of actual writing to be rather more than you can face.
The shape of this latest essay was determined by three photographs, which are all I have by way of memorabilia relating to my grandfather. You probably have something similar: a box of old photographs kept somewhere-or-other and recording half-forgotten events. As a limbering up exercise you should turn them out and see what can be made of them.
My suggestion is this: begin your first effort by taking photographs as your subject matter. Family shots – wedding pictures – holiday snaps: each one is worth a paragraph at least. When was the photograph taken? Where is it set? What was the weather like? Who are the people and how do you feel about them? Were you happy or sad on that day?
Photographs are pregnant with memories of things that can’t be filmed: scents and sounds, music, laughter, taste, the intangible quality of relationships with others – though these may be slyly hinted at by the cut of clothes or the glance of an eye. Beginning with the most basic information, you can go on to expand in the way that I’ve done in this essay. So the photograph of Shiny Jim and Adolf Hitler led me to mention my Auntie Billie who gave it to me; and the one of my grandfather in a wheelchair made me write about Lucy and Millie.
The character of your essay will be decided by the way you arrange your photographs. For example, if you put together a number of pictures taken on several holidays the effect will be different than if you take the same number but from a single holiday, because, in the first case, you’ll be naturally drawn into making comparisons, but in the second you’ll probably discuss the experience of the particular holiday in more depth. To take another example, photographs of several weddings may lead to a discussion of fashions and marriage ceremonies and how they’ve changed over time; but, in contrast, pictures of a single wedding make one think of the couple: was the marriage a success or a failure? With that in mind, you may want to try several layouts before deciding on one that suits you.
An autobiography driven by photographs will tend to be something of a scrapbook, especially if you exhibit the pictures (later on you’ll find some of mine). But that’s fine. You’re doing it for your enjoyment and that of your family (or their edification, puzzlement or whatever), and there are no rules except what works.
My general point is that photographs without explanation are dumb. Why don’t you make a start with just a few of yours and get them to speak to you again? Then turn to fully-fledged essays when you’ve built up your confidence – or maybe the mixture of text and images will appeal to you and you’ll stay with it.
In most families memories and clear traditions go back only as far as grandparents. It’s unusual to have known your great-grandparents and anything in the way of stories, documents or mementoes from their time will be sparse. Yet your grandparents are the great-grandparents of your children. And for your children’s children they’ll scarcely exist at all and everything you know about them will most likely be lost. One reason for including Shiny Jim within the scope of this book is that otherwise even the little that’s known will fade from the recollection of my family. Most people don’t consider this, and so history is lost by neglect rather than intention.
Among the motives for writing an autobiography (when you wonder why you’re bothering) it’s worth bearing in mind that the readership for your book may be your grandchildren and even later generations: those who’ve never known you; who’ll hear no voice unless you make yours sound. If they aren’t interested – well, that’s their problem. But don’t underestimate your importance to others. The effort people put into tracing their ancestors – often to arrive at nothing more than a name – suggests your descendants will be very much interested in what you have to say and how the world looked to you. And if your style is ham-fisted, they’ll forgive you.
It should be obvious that even an amateur genealogist could discover more about Shiny Jim than I have so far: for example his exact dates of birth and death and something of his military record; and it may be I’ll put in the effort one day. However, while the addition of a few hard facts may add to the conviction of my grandfather’s reality, I doubt they’re going to flesh out the portrait of him. Essentially that relies upon the memory of individuals who knew him, not the paper records held in government offices.
I’ve got nothing against genealogical research, but it seems to me that it’s a bit like train spotting. Gathering engine-numbers will never make you a train driver. Genealogy has a place, but only a limited one, and shouldn’t be allowed to become a displacement activity that distracts you from setting down and making sense of the information and memories that are already to hand.
When it comes down to it, we’re not in pursuit of facts. We’re looking for meaning.
In this essay I’ve confessed the limitations of my picture of Shiny Jim and simply set down what I have. Read the final sentence again. My grandfather’s “real” history and character are probably lost beyond recovery, leaving only a general picture of a good and brave man. All I can hope to convey is what he means for me.
The uncertain information underlying this essay brings me to a general issue, which is the nature of the “truth” you’re searching for and trying to describe when you set about writing your autobiography (I’m using “you” deliberately, in the hope you’ve decided to join me). I’m not asking a philosophical question, but a practical one. The answer will determine such matters as what information you need before you’re confident to proceed; whether you feel able to set down conversations in direct speech, when the exact words are forgotten; how far you’re willing to speculate or commit to an interpretation of your material.
For my part – as should be clear from this essay – I’m more concerned to explore the meaning of events than to get the particulars correct in every respect. If you think again about what I’ve written earlier, you’ll recognise that this is a point of view consistent with the notion of autobiography as a poetic rather than an historical exercise. But, in the remote event that someone else wants to treat my life like a railway timetable, they’re welcome to. My approach isn’t binding on you or, indeed, anybody.
The tale of Shiny Jim and Adolf Hitler is a legend in my family. You may have myths and legends of your own. Why not add them to your topic list for the purpose of your essays?