How to write your autobiography – Lesson 6 – Gents and Gypsies
GENTS AND GYPSIES
Uncle Joe Wright kept a seven feet high luminous Frankenstein in his kitchen. Uncle Joe Williams wore a flying helmet and drove a motorcycle and sidecar. Uncle Joe Burton looked like Goebbels.
Joe Wright was Nellie’s brother.
‘He had meningitis when he were a kiddie,’ she says, adding darkly, ‘and mastoids.’
Whatever the case, Uncle Joe was a strange, lonely man. But I don’t think he was unhappy. He could be seen about Oldham in his decorator’s white overalls, walking his long, loping stride, self-absorbed except to smile at anyone he knew and say, ‘How do, lad! How’re you getting on?’ He never said anything else much
Nellie says, ‘Tommy Jackson promised my mam he’d always give Joe a job, painting and decorating.’ And Tommy was as good as his word. The job suited Joe: to be left alone all day with an old radio and an endless supply of Park Drive cigarettes. His face was gaunt and lined; his hair was lank and thin; he was tall, hollow-chested and long-legged. Two of his fingers were deep brown with nicotine and he had a horny thumb nail protruding an inch or more, which he used to trim wallpaper.
After his mother died from giving up drink, Joe continued to live at her house in Pembroke Street. It was a dark, smelly place with two rooms on the ground floor and a tippler toilet in the yard. The front room was occupied by a shabby and sinister grey and yellow cockatoo, that swore, bit people and pulled out its own feathers. The back room was inhabited by Frankenstein.
The business of Frankenstein had its origins in a strange talent Joe had. He owned a rusty, pedal-operated fretwork machine and he used it to turn out objects made of plywood. He also had a talent for copying pictures, and he’d paint the wooden blanks using leftover materials from his jobs and give the result to his friends. His problem was a very limited imagination. If you knew Joe, then sooner or later you finished up with an immaculately painted four feet high Donald Duck ashtray in your front room.
Joe made the Frankenstein.
It seems to be the way with bachelors that they can carry on for only so long before suffering a collapse. After sixteen or seventeen years, Joe’s diet of beer, cigarettes and Holland’s Meat Pies ceased to work its magic. Hughie and Uncle Fred dug him out of the accumulated filth of the house and Nellie tended him until he recovered his health; and then she browbeat the pair of them – Hughie and Joe – until Joe agreed to stay in the spare room at our house. He came for a week and remained about fifteen years. Yet it was a satisfactory arrangement. Hughie was good-natured and Joe was quiet. Much of his spare time was spent in his room, listening to the radio and smoking. For the rest, he stalked from pub to pub saying, ‘How do, lad?’ to anyone who caught his attention.
On the evening before his sixty-second birthday, he went out boozing, had a pleasant skin full and died in his sleep.
I liked Uncle Joe Wright.
Uncle Fred was Nellie’s other brother and a year or two older than Joe. He was a plasterer and, after our move from Werneth to Hathershaw in the early sixties, we lived only a few streets from each other. He was a tall, handsome, cheerful man.
Fred’s wife was my Auntie Winnie; his children my cousins Harvey and Christine. The two families were close and went on holiday and spent Christmas together – at least until I was about eighteen when Something Happened on a holiday to Paignton. I wasn’t there and don’t know what the Something was except that the women fell out and Nellie nursed a grudge for more than twenty years until Winnie and Hughie were dead. After that, she and Fred and Fred’s bachelor son, Harvey, resumed going on holiday together.
Hughie was never a party to the quarrel and would always have a drink with Fred if he felt like it. He was incapable of bearing a grudge
Fred had two weaknesses: he liked his beer and he suffered from nightmares. During the War he’d been in London during the Blitz. Hughie couldn’t face Winnie when she was angry and so, on the odd occasion – usually around Christmas – when Fred was legless, Hughie would prop him up against the door of the house in Plymouth Street, give a knock, then run away like a naughty child.
‘You’re a rotten bugger,’ Auntie Winnie complained. ‘He was at it all night, screaming about the bombs!’
It was Shiny Jim’s children who divided into the Gents and the Gypsies. My Uncle Albert and my Auntie Dilys were the Gents: Hughie, Uncle Joe Williams and Blodwen-alias-Billie were the Gypsies.
The Gents were tall, fair and gifted with grave, polite manners.
The Gypsies were small, dark and looked canny with horses.
Why this should be so is a mystery, especially as far as the Gents are concerned. Albert, after all, was a coal miner like Hughie, but he carried himself with a certain grace: a pleasant, likeable man and a natural aristocrat. Sadly I met him only a few times and not before I was fifteen. I last saw him in 1988, when he called at our house and Shirley met him. The next year he died and Hughie, Denis and I went to his funeral in Wrexham. At the funeral, my cousin Irene, a trained nurse, took one look at my father and said, ‘Hughie, you’ve got jaundice!’ He had, and it was a symptom of cancer. By Christmas he was dead.
Every one agrees: Dilys looked like Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – though Dilys didn’t have the gambling habit. She married Billie Fisher, an ambulance man. They scrimped and saved and moved into a new-built house on Broadway, Chadderton, which was very respectable. After Billie’s sudden death she abandoned Oldham for Harrogate where she lived as genteely as a moderate income allowed.
Surprisingly, given their difference in outlook and manners, she and Nellie got on well together and, after Hughie’s death, Nellie often went to spend a few days with her sister-in-law. Equally unsurprisingly it all ended in a quarrel and an estrangement, but I hold no opinion as to where the fault lay.
Uncle Billie owned a Nazi dagger and a copy of Mein Kampf. I used to lust after them as Nellie and I sat drinking tea in the best room. It was served in china cups and saucers: something we never used at home.
Uncle Joe Williams lived in a hamlet near Shrewsbury, a place among the hills called Stiperstones, dominated by some rocks called ‘The Devil’s Chair’ as I recall. The houses had been built just before the War but they had no WC, not even the humble ‘tippler’. Instead, at the bottom of the garden, was an awesome thunderbox filled with ashes and newspapers, which was emptied once a week by the honeycart.
Earth closets appeal to every child’s spirit of adventure. There’s something heroic about using them when they’re close to full, smell appalling and attract flies. I enjoyed this one when I was seven years old.
A mist of vague rumours surrounds this second Uncle Joe. Even now in his eighties he gives an impression of being on the run from the police, and when he was younger he was raffishly attractive, while Hughie was debonair. I never dared to enquire and so collected only dark hints about difficulties in his teens under Lucy’s regime and mention of a sanatorium where he learned basket weaving.
Joe married my Auntie Doll, a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness and harmonium player – so Nellie tells it. Whatever the case, she was as lovely a woman as ever lived. Between them they raised a houseful of kids and then hordes of grandchildren, and they all lived merrily in a raggle-taggle band within a few streets of each other in Shrewsbury.
I stayed at their house briefly in the summer of 1968. I painted watercolours and accompanied my cousins Tony and Pepé when they went fishing, and joked with Barry and Sheila. Tony was full of tales of his precocious sexual exploits. My cousin Margaret – blonde, beautiful and with a sparkling personality – was single and pregnant with her first child.
Concerning the father: ‘He was a bus conductor,’ she told me in a voice with a Welsh lilt, and laughed. ‘He asked me, “How far do you want to go?” I said, “All the way.” So we did!’
I met Blodwen only three times in my life, but I loved her very much and she left me all her memorabilia. She was a nurse and married a licensed victualler, Uncle Joe Burton, and after a spell running a pub in Chapel en le Frith and the Swan With Two Necks in Stockport, they took the subsidy and emigrated to Australia when I was very small. They were ‘ten pound Poms’.
At first they did well in the catering trade. They returned to England for a holiday when I was five or six years old and annoyed Dilys with their evident prosperity. Later their good fortune ran out. Poor health and medical bills took away most of what they had and Joe Burton died relatively young, leaving Blodwen to face a long widowhood. Fortunately she had a wonderful way of making friends.
After thirty years I saw her again in 1983, and in similar circumstances in 1985. I was working as a commercial lawyer and had business in Sydney. I routed my return flight through Perth where she was living and we met at the airport. There was an immediate chemistry between us and in no time flat we were laughing and joking as if we’d known each other forever. During these trips she showed me the city and Fremantle and I met her friends and thoroughly enjoyed myself. After that second meeting we corresponded until her death. I still keep contact with some of her friends, to whom I’m grateful for the happiness they gave her.
It was Blodwen who had the generosity to recognise the difficulty under which Shiny Jim’s second wife, Lucy, laboured as mother to five truculent stepchildren and the foundling Millie.
Joe Burton appears in photographs. He has oiled hair, a double-breasted suit and a huge sickle-shaped smile like a ventriloquist’s dummy. He looks the epitome of a cheeky chappie music hall comedian of the nineteen forties – and by Blodwen’s account that’s pretty much what he was like.
Also – it has to be said – he looked like Goebbels, always assuming the latter had taken up telling risqué jokes with some tap dance accompaniment. I saw the resemblance immediately and it was a little disconcerting to inherit his passport from 1938, which, for wholly unexplained reasons, contained a Nazi visa complete with eagle and swastika. The coincidence seemed too improbable? Was it possible…?
One hears of these things: of Nazi chieftains fleeing to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. An American reader (mad I hope) disliked my first novel, The Hitler Diaries, and told me she had it on authority that the Führer had escaped from Berlin dressed as a woman, and would shortly come and get me (which implied the flattering possibility that he read my books). The Reichspropagandaminister was a man of creative imagination and could certainly have escaped. It’s possible to imagine him decamping to Australia with a plump Welsh nurse, to spend the rest of his life in the innocent business of selling beer.
Frankenstein didn’t make it to our house at the time of Uncle Joe Wright’s collapse. It’s tempting to think that, like the original, he fled to the frozen wastes of the far North, where he spends his days saying, ‘How do, lad?’ to polar bears. However more likely is that Hughie and Uncle Fred dumped him on Oldham Council Tip. It seems a pity. He would have been a talking point in our front room, where – come to think of it – I now keep a six-foot statue of Humphrey Bogart bought for me by Shirley as a present on my fiftieth birthday.
Even so, Frankenstein didn’t vanish without a swan song – though to understand this you must know something of Joe’s sense of humour. Born of tongue-tied loneliness, it was unsophisticated and direct.
Joe had a habit of slipping gold fish into other men’s beer.
When one of his friends became impotent (and apparently advertised the fact), Joe sent him a plaster penis in a cardboard box.
Joe tells me the tale of Frankenstein like this. Though his face is normally lugubrious, his eyes light and he has a magical smile when something pleases him. He says:
‘Me and Tommy Jackson went out for a drink, you know? And at chucking-out time it were raining cats and dogs, and we got some bottles and went back to my house, see. So we drink the bottles and Tommy says he wants to pee. The toilet’s at the bottom of the yard; it’s pitch bloody dark; the grass is up to your knees; and it’s pissing down – but Tommy says he has to go.’
‘But what has this to do with…?’
‘Frankenstein were in t’yard,’ says Joe.
‘It were there – hiding in the grass – in the dark – rain streaming down it – and glowing! But I’d forgot to mention it to Tommy,’ he adds.
‘Any road, Tommy let’s out this yell. He let’s out this yell, and I asks, “What’s up, lad?” and he points to t’Frankenstein. “Oh, that,” I says and tells him what it is, which he’s seen before. “Oh, bloody hell, Joe!” says Tommy – and you have to laugh, eh? – he says, “Oh bloody hell, Joe – I’ve just shat myself because o’ thee!”’
NOTES ON ‘GENTS AND GYPSIES’
I enjoyed writing this essay because I was fond of my aunts and uncles. If you decide to write your own autobiography, enjoyment is an important consideration, especially at the beginning when you’re still wondering whether you’re up to the task. At this stage you should focus on subjects that give you pleasure – which, as it happens, are also the ones most likely to please your readers. Once you’re firmly committed to essay writing, the miserable subjects will come in their own time.
The topic of my relatives deviates a bit from the main thrust of describing my life. However, I’ve set the rules for this book, just as you’ll do for yours, and if I feel like writing about my various Uncle Joes or anything else, then so be it. For an autobiography that wanders all over the place, read Montaigne. In any case, there’s a certain relevance because we are in large measure a reflection of our families, though, if I were a different person, it might be a problem since, excepting the “Gents”, my relatives seem to be a vulgar lot – “dead common” as Nellie would say – but good hearted, I hope. Whatever the case, I’m happy to be numbered among them.
My main audience is my children. (As I write these notes, I’ve no idea if anyone else will be interested). I think it’s important that they should feel in some way grounded: placed in an understandable context, against a background that will help them grasp why their own lives and characters are as they are – which includes an understanding of why their embarrassing father is who he is. Despite the fact that, on any view, my family is a humble one, it isn’t without its heroes and its comics (Nellie to my mind is both), and by telling their stories (if only as brief sketches), I hope my children will have a sense of its human richness far beyond what can be gained through putting together a family tree only to discover the mundane fact that an ancestor in the eighteenth century was a grocer. I want my children to be glad to be members of this family.
If you want the same for your children, you should press on.
To repeat: I’m fond of my aunts and uncles; yet, as far as I know, none of them has left anything much in the way of autobiographical material except for my brother Denis. I’ve got little except a few photographs and letters from Blodwen, and, if I do nothing with them, they’ll disappear in a house clearance some time when her name has no meaning for anyone: a time which isn’t so far off. This seems to me a shame. So a part of my motivation is to give a voice to the voiceless and leave a little echo of their passing.
To put it bluntly, I couldn’t pass the chance of telling the tale of Uncle Joe Wright and his Frankenstein. Who could?
You may want to reflect on the following technical points for what help they give. None of them are original, but they’re characteristic of my approach to this book.
- The first sentence (“Uncle Joe Wright kept a seven feet high luminous Frankenstein in his kitchen”) is known in the business as “an arresting opening”. Its object is to grab the reader’s attention, and it does so by provoking shock or mystification or some other strong emotional reaction. In this case, I’ve tried to strengthen the effect by repetition in each of the first three sentences. I’ve relied on the incongruity of the images to draw the reader into seeking an explanation.
An arresting opening doesn’t require its impact to be in the first sentence. It can be effective to deceive the reader with an apparently nondescript introduction leaving the killer blow to the end of the paragraph or section. Neither is it compulsory. A reader may be seduced imperceptibly into a book by artful blandness – but, frankly, unless you’re a good writer, this is a difficult trick to pull off. In most cases I’ve gone for a direct and fairly brash opening, which I also think appropriate to my material and general treatment. In contrast, if my inheritance had been, say, a faded noble family in a decaying ancestral home – Brideshead perhaps? – or if I had a less acute sense of my own foolishness, the tone of this memoir might have been lyrical. Certainly it would have been different.
- I’ve tried to use loaded images and descriptions. By that I mean they have a richer sense than appears on the surface: usually in the way of an implicit emotional or social reference. If you return to the first paragraph of the essay, you’ll see that the images included in the thumbnail sketches of my gaggle of Uncles Joe go beyond simple description to give a clue to their characters, which are then elaborated in the longer sections. In the passage concerning my Auntie Dilys, I mention that she served tea in china cups: a custom that is suggestive of her genteel aspirations. I might equally have said that there was a red carpet on the floor; but, though true as a matter of simple description, its lack of strong social significance would have left it meaningless as a clue to her character. The use of loaded description (tea cups rather than carpets in this instance) allows the writing to be economical with words yet rich in meaning. It shouldn’t be confused with a desire to be clever or especially subtle. In fact, in the matter of the china teacups, I drive my point home by explicitly contrasting their use by Dilys with the custom at home where, at this date in the 1950s, Nellie was still drinking from a chipped enamel mug. I might have gambled on the reader interpreting the meaning without further help, but I confess I wasn’t sure that after the lapse of so many years the significance of china cups would be evident.
In writing you’ll often have to make this kind of decision – and sometimes you’ll be wrong. Don’t agonize over the problem, particularly in the first instance. When you come to editing your essay, you can review whether a more telling image is available. You can also cut out the parts that don’t earn their keep by contributing something of substance – the red carpets for example.
- The essay is organized around individual character sketches, loosely grouped according to the two sides of my family. There’s little attention to dates and the chronological structure is ill defined and subordinated to the theme. In each sketch I’ve combined general material as to history and character with an anecdote that illustrates the keynote of the sketch. Again I’ve used a story – in this case Uncle Joe Wright and Frankenstein – to frame the entire essay. Knowing in advance that I intended to close in this way helped prevent me from digressing too far from my theme.
- As with my grandfather, Shiny Jim, the portrait of Uncle Joe Burton is largely drawn from photographs. In fact, without them I’d have had almost nothing to say. It seems to be a quality of photographs that they provide a record of people on the edge of our awareness, who function like film-extras in our lives, as no doubt we do in theirs. Yet such people do have importance in adding to the density of experience (imagine a film without the “extras” – the strange emptiness), and, once we’ve recalled who they are, we can usually find a little to say about them which will add life to a scene that would otherwise be flat.
The use of photographs in this essay develops a point I made earlier: that they provide an alternative route into your autobiography, one that can be used with or instead of essays. I’ve called this a “scrapbook” approach without meaning in the least to denigrate it, and it can be taken further by blending other kinds of ephemera into the text. By way of illustration, do you remember my mentioning Joe Burton’s passport with its Nazi visa (which I still have)? I could have begun my narrative with that as a starting point and pasted it – the original or a photocopy – into my book.
The scrapbook approach has a lot to recommend if you want to construct a family rather than a personal history: in particular it allows children to participate and the effect will be to hear several voices instead of one. If you go down this road while your children are small, I guarantee you’ll value the result. I’ve got more to say about this in relation to the essay My Holidays.