Remembrance of things past

Personal memoirs have featured quite a lot among my immediate antecedents. My maternal grandfather wrote a short book about his early life as a rubber planter in Malaya; my aunt wrote a memoir of her parents, Figures in a Landscape, and my own father wrote a brief account of his youth and his farming career just before and during the Second World War. My Dad’s memoir, printed privately, proved quite a success - even for people outside his family. He knew what he wanted to achieve: to describe a social order and a world of agriculture that has completely disappeared, and which his generation was the last to experience. Dad recalled employing a local man to plough up a field with a shire horse in the late 30s, milking cows by hand, and bringing wild chalk downland back into cultivation using a very early tractor. He did a pretty good job with his book. Some memoirs fail abysmally however because the authors - bless ‘em - have no idea what will engage the reader. They don’t realise that it’s the little details of life that posterity will find interesting: what did you eat, who were your friends, how did you spend your evenings? And many of the pre-Facebook generation shy away from what their readers would just sometimes like them to reveal: ‘how did you feel?’ or ‘what did you think?’ My rubber-planting grandfather, who I know had an extremely successful and interesting life, somehow fails to bring it all into focus for anyone reading his book 60 years later. It’s so sad. So much interest, adventure and knowledge and yet we get no whiff of his daily routine on the plantations in the early 1900s, no description of members of the workforce, and no invitation into his social life. His rather formal style of writing conceals rather than reveals grandfather’s true character and, in the end, achieves only broad brush strokes on the canvas. My grandfather definitely needed an amanuensis to draw out the riches within - but he was probably happy with his memoir as it was. I do hope so.

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