Wednesday, 20 July 2016

#15: Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill calls Alive, Alive Oh! ‘a report on what living for 97 years has taught one rather lucky old woman’. In fact, most of that ‘report’ appeared in her six previous memoirs, covering her childhood on a Norfolk estate and personal and professional life afterwards, when she was an editor at AndrĂ© Deutsch for 40 years. This volume contains some extra pieces – including chapters on having a miscarriage when she was 43, politics in the West Indies and life in a residential home.

Athill’s attitude to life is gently positive, and as a writer she is refreshingly unwilling to exaggerate the bad side of her own experiences for effect. This is perhaps linked with having to be the sensible bystander when, as an editor, she had to nurse writers through personal or professional crises (in her publishing memoir Stet she mentions not unsympathetically the poet Geoffrey Hill’s admission that he was hesitating to do something which might make him happy, because it would be bad for his poetry). Elsewhere she describes an ‘object lesson’ on ‘how not to think about getting old’, which she took from observing and helping the writer Jean Rhys through various crises:

‘…she expected old age to make her miserable, and it did, although once she was immersed in it she expressed her misery by complaining about other and lesser things, the big one itself being too much to contemplate – although she did once say that what kept panic at bay was her suicide kit. She had depended on sleeping pills for years and had saved up a substantial cache of them in the drawer of her bedside table, against the day when things got too bad. They did get very bad, but after her death I checked that drawer and the cache was intact.’ (Somewhere Towards the End p.555)

What a lot is in here – particularly that wry observation at the end. But dissect and explore it over several paragraphs, or a short story? No. Stet (‘let it stand’) indeed. 

So this latest memoir is no anguished coming-to-terms – it is quite as much about the outer world of travel, friends and rose bushes as it is about moments of sense-making – or rather, it is about both together. Here is where she starts to notice the poor living conditions of many black people in beautiful Tobago:

‘But it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little wormy dust. I met Europeans who had come to run businesses in Tobago who said of the people in the villages, ‘they never do more than they absolutely have to’ – and I heard black people say it, too: black people who had escaped. The closer you looked, the more you wondered that so many did escape, because simply becoming accustomed to a life so reduced, which a person naturally has to do if it’s the only life on offer, would shrink his mind and dry up his energy.’ (p.51)

But I did fear the autobiographical material would be stretched rather thinly by this time – already in her previous memoirs the same events are sometimes touched on more than once (and some are even within the pages of this one book).

So does she have anything new to say? Yes. ‘The Decision’ is about moving into a residential home – not so much a decision actually, but a gradual change in attitude helped by seeing one of her friends move there, another unwisely sticking in her own home, and the fact that she had people to support her and was able to consider the option slowly. ‘A Life of Luxuries’ covers trusty bespoke tweed suits, ball dresses and a misjudged choice of green tulle in which to be presented to Edward VIII. ‘Beloved Books’ is about the two writers she thinks about most often now – Boswell and Byron.

So – not spread too thin, but a little fragmentary. It is a short book, and half the chapters have been published elsewhere in some form. But I don't remember reading anywhere else a personal account of life in a residential home and can’t help thinking that books from the perspective of advanced age will become much more important as we all live longer (current average life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years, according to the Office Of National Statistics). Especially if they are written in such a wise, positive voice.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

#14: Our own personal archives

Guest blog post from writer Jane Moss.
We all have personal archives at home. We have books, ornaments, pictures, furniture and utensils, many of which remind us of the people who gave them to us, or how we came to have them. Some bear the poignant freight of memory; the inherited sewing machine, a father’s watch, a book from a friend, the rings a mother used to wear.

I volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care. We visit our clients in their own homes, where we sit surrounded by the objects on the mantelpiece and in the china cabinet. Sometimes I use these as a trigger for conversation; ‘So tell me about…’ or ‘what do you remember about this…’. A little vase, a framed photograph, or a collection of medals on display can be a gentle pathway into conversation about the person who has died.

Anyone who has had the task of sorting through someone’s effects after a death will know that the simplest item can raise a rush of memories and emotions, comforting or sad. Talking about it helps, but writing can also enable someone to reflect on their loss, and their altered situation after the death of someone close.

A few years ago I ran a writing group with the Macmillan team at Meadow House Hospice in the London Borough of Ealing. The people who attended our weekly two-hour writing sessions, had all lost someone within the past year, and were being supported by the bereavement team. The group enabled them to write about their lives and experiences, and their memories, with me as facilitator. Some chose to write about the person who had died, other wrote about other aspects of their lives. My role was to provide themes, prompts and triggers.  

We devised some simple ground rules: what we wrote and spoke about in the room would stay in the room (confidentiality), everyone would look after themselves, taking responsibility for their own feelings and putting the pen down if they did not want to write about something that felt too difficult or raw (safety), and we would not criticise the writing; neat handwriting and perfect sentences would not matter and we were not critiquing the writing for its quality, but listening to what people wanted to share and using it to compare experiences and support each other (non-judging).  

One evening I brought with me a random selection of small objects, which I set out on the table. They included a toy London bus, a wooden handled screwdriver, a postcard of Cambridge, and a snow globe.

As an example of how an object or personal possession can provide a way into writing about experiences, I read a short poem, Ruth Fainlight’s Handbag, to the group. The poem hints at her parents’ wartime experiences through the contents of her mother’s handbag, a richly sensory selection of face powder, mints, and the feel of the leather bag. Then I invited everyone to choose something on the table that appealed to them.

To break the silence on the page I offered some simple prompts to stimulate the writing:
I see…
I think about…
I remember…
I suggested ten minutes for the writing and gave a gentle time prompt when there were a few minutes left. The constraint of time, and the prompts, enabled people to focus and write swiftly and spontaneously.

When people shared what they had written, either by reading it out or talking about it, we heard stories about a first trip to London, memories of visiting Cambridge as a child, a snowy winter and a loving description of a father with his tools in the shed.  The writing gave rise to further reminiscence and connections being made among the group. The participants commented afterwards that they had enjoyed themselves, felt better and had benefited from the social interaction as well as the writing activity which they found soothing, interesting and satisfying.  

The following week, one of the group, Dave, a man whose wife Jenny had died, brought a poem which he had written. It was a light verse, humorous piece about his George Foreman grill. Here it is:

To Mr Foreman
Thank you, George, for inventing this.
It makes cooking almost seem like bliss.
Although it doesn’t give me the biggest thrill,
I really like my electric grill.
It frazzles my bacon, cremates my chop,
Scorches my steak, makes my sausages pop,
And just to make sure I come to no harm,
It even sets off my smoke alarm.
But sometimes I wonder why I’m so keen,
‘cause it’s really a b*@#&$ to keep it clean.

When Dave read this to us we laughed with him, but it led to a deeper conversation about how someone copes after a death, and ways in which we have to reinvent or learn simple everyday tasks. Dave told us that he and his sons, still living at home, were struggling to learn how to cook without Jenny. He had not spoken to anyone about this before now. The electric grill was more than a kitchen utensil; it was helping him find a way round a difficult and sad task; feeding his family. 

The personal archive we keep in kitchen cupboards, on our shelves, or hidden in the box under the bed is a powerful route into self expression. Try it: take something from your mantelpiece or wardrobe and write about it using those three prompts. Look after yourself as you do; this kind of writing can go deep. If necessary, talk to someone about it afterwards. The most everyday object has a story to tell you, if you ask it.

Jane Moss is a writer who uses the written word as part of health and wellbeing, especially in the field of bereavement support. Her book Writing in Bereavement, A Creative Handbook is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. More information at
She is also co-host of The Writing Retreat in Cornwall,