Sunday, 6 June 2010

The M-Word Manifesto

I propose that writing one's life story in a thousand words is something that each of us might consider doing. I have just done so, and I want to say why I did it.

One reason was as an antidote to having to write one thousand words or a bit more about someone else, as part of the university course I am doing. This piece of writing has to follow the formal structure of entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, starting with details of when and where the subject was born and who his parents were, proceeding through his achievements and ending with a brief mention of his family, where he was buried and how much money he had left his heirs.

The formula varies little from that established for the first edition of the Dictionary, published over a number of years in the late nineteenth century. It reflects the outlook and attitudes of that time, one aspect of which had been memorably summed up by Byron earlier in that century when he wrote "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, 'Tis woman's whole existence".

This formula may seem, from one perspective, a reflection of Victorian male chauvinism, but from another it is eminently practical. It is (relatively) easy to dig up facts about a man's work: it is (exceedingly) hard to do the same about his relationships. Besides, it is easier to write about what someone did rather than how someone felt.

So it was that when I started writing an outline of my life story I found it very hard to write about my relationship with my two wives, particularly the first. I found it slightly easier to do so by writing about this by dropping the word 'I': omitting the personal pronoun enabled me to write much more dispassionately. Writing in staccato, disjointed phrases also helped. So it was that I ended up with something similar to that which used to appear at the start of chapters in many eighteenth and nineteenth century books, a series of phrases succinctly describing a topic or incident, separated by em dashes.

By the time I had finished I found that I had written just over a thousand words and had what might be called a Eureka moment. If I could edit it to make exactly one thousand words it could be the pattern for other people to write their own stories and we could be witnessing the genesis of a whole new genre. I have had many eureka moments in my life and most have turned out to be flashes in the pan than bull's eyes but, as I believe Cicero once wrote, "Dum spiro, spero": while I breathe, I hope.

In an earlier post to this blog I said why I wanted to do this: I felt that, because of the lack of opportunity for students on our course to get to know each other, I would write briefly about myself, let my fellow-students know I had done so and encourage them to do likewise. After writing it I found that the exercise was of far greater personal value. I found that I had written something that my grandchildren could read when they are older which would tell them about the life and times of their grandfather: I would that my grandfathers had done the same for me. I felt also that I had put, however faintly and however briefly, my footprint upon the sands of time.

This is why I am writing this manifesto with its alliterative title containing the Latin way of writing a thousand to reflect the length of my micro-autobiography and, perhaps, of other people, not just in the evening of their lives but also at their high noon.

It would be great fun for me to start another blog – say, – on which I could publish this and other life stories – like yours? C'mon, tell the world what you've done and how you've dealt with those two imposters, triumph and disaster: a thousand words is worth far more than a picture!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Thousand Words is Enough for a Life Story

1933: born into Quaker family, third and youngest of three children – seven years after last sibling – home suburban Woking.

Father passionate gardener – prizes galore for hybridising irises – day job in electricity supply – post-nationalisation Chairman of London Electricity Board.

Sent away to boarding school in deep country one month after Dunkirk – fulfilling hobby-oriented school days – at prep school stamp-collecting, which sparked an interest in what happened when and where – started A History of the British Empire, Told on Stamps – at Leighton Park public school bookbinding and printing – bought Adana platen printing press aetat 14 for £4.17.6 (first "business") – won Minor Scholarship (worth a munificent £30 p.a.) to Trinity College, Oxford (exam having been taken to shorten National Service).

1952: RAF conscript – at Aircrew Selection Centre when KGVI dies – flying training in England and Scotland – basic training on Tiger Moths and Chipmunks – Oxfords (twin-engined advanced trainer) – skiing in Cairngorms – “wings” – Pilot Officer Randall – Meteors and Vampires (jets) – grounded after Korean Armistice – brief spell with Education Branch in Germany.

1954: hitch-hiking round North America – NY > Connecticut > Florida > Oklahoma > Highway 66 > California > Canada – spent 21st birthday watching Bannister beat Landy in Vancouver – Dreaming Spires – won (unofficial) University Shove Ha'penny Championship in the White Horse – read Modern History, intermittently – special subject Clausewitz and "Great Britain in the Mediterranean, 1797-1802".

1957: joined Shell on marketing side – fell in love before departing for year in Argentina – then Kano (edge of the Sahara in Nigeria) – visit by fiancée – jilted – sent roses and wrote sonnet – re-wooing unfortunately successful – married – Port Harcourt – six months later deserts – quit job – divorce proceedings start.

1961: Insead (business school in Fontainebleau, France) – jobs in consultancy in the UK (Sales Audits and Glacier Metal) – meet a better Julia in the Alps.

1965: at Jordans Quaker Meeting House (where Penn, founder of colony where Julia spent the war, buried) – "Friends, I take this my Friend Julia to be my wife, promising through divine assistance to be unto her a loyal and loving husband until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us" – started first company, Trenchermans (mail order delicatessen) – two daughters born – company highly seasonal and ultimately unprofitable – joined Rentokil to start French branch – during UK training successful in selling their new washroom hygiene service – French offer revoked – resigned, to start Waterloo Services Company – "where there's muck, there's brass" – third daughter born – moved from flat in Richmond to big house on the hill – seven years surveying washrooms in City offices – tedium relieved by starting Richmond in Europe Association – goal to twin Richmond with Fontainebleau – success after four years – followed by only foray into politics: chairing trans-party campaign in referendum to keep UK in EU – Richmond has highest percentage "Yes" vote in London boroughs.

1977: read about phototypesetting and prospects for small companies in The Economist – exploratory trip to USA – buy first Compugraphic machine and start Randall Typographic – over-trade – during civil servants' strike use tax money to keep going – Nemesis – but clever accountant ensures that key equipment saved from clutches of Inland Revenue bailiffs – all RT's trade creditors eventually paid in full – Waterloo Services continues as reliable cash cow – typesetting continues as Electronic Village Limited – with beginnings of personal computing and word processing, endeavours to find ways of turning authors' keystrokes into type without rekeying in composing room – ASPIC (Authors Standard Prepress Interfacing Codes) devised and promoted as The Way Ahead – unsuccessful with publishers, but principles adapted to dealing with tabular matter in tour operators' brochures and stockbrokers' publications, at time that modems were first being used for data transmission – highly profitable contracts with Thomson Holidays and Quilter Goodison.

1970s and 80s: family holidays either on narrow boats or camping in France, usually Britanny – Mirror dinghy on top of Danbury – then Volvo and trailer for Avon inflatables and outboard – one great trip aqua-camping down Dordogne, crew in one Avon, camping gear in other one, lashed alongside – three more going daily from campsite on Côte de Granit Rose to uninhabited offshore Ile Moléne. Not all sunshine and laughter, though – business downturn resulted in being unable to pay school fees – pain – periods of Julia's illnesses – general family grief – six month rift in marriage and separation healed by Relate.

1990s: business decline and fall – arrival of the laser printer and desk top publishing undermines phototypesetting companies, just as they had undermined hot metal ones fifteen years earlier – attempts to carry on single-handed in our empty-nester house, on the edge of Richmond Park – found keyboarding company in New Delhi to key manuscripts with ASPIC codes inserted – delays in freighting papers out and disks back made turn-round unacceptably slow for book publishers – abandonment, and start of frustrating attempts to develop electronic flashcards for foreign vocabulary learning in collaboration successively with Hungarian count, blind physicist and Greek Etonian – sold Waterloo Services to Rentokil – take in students at local English school to plug income/expenditure gap.

On holidays used to go as the cicerone, cavaliere serviente and chef for Julia and painting class ladies who took villas in Britanny, Andalucia, Tuscany and Provence – marketed and cooked while they painted –sat silently at dinner listening to their talk – what not known about stretch-marks scarcely worth knowing

2000s: Calliope CALL software developed with Muscovite company – but "with so much language learning stuff freely available on the internet, why should we buy yours?" – final throw of the dice with attempt to get EU funding for improved version fails at final hurdle –

2007: sell Richmond house to meet pension inadequacy – "More bricks for the buck in Buckingham" – develop web sites gratis for local organisations – take over cooking, to compensate for reluctance to do any of the cleaning of new house (had done enough cleaning to last a lifetime while running Waterloo Services).

Now: MA in Biography course at University of Buckingham – genesis of concept of From Clay Tablet to iTablet – "Death closes all: but … something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods" (Tennyson's Ulysses) – excelsior!