On Saturday I went up to the “New Voices” Writers’ Festival up at St Margaret’s Church in Eltham. Apparently it’s been running for a number of years but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it before- or perhaps I just didn’t notice.
I was attracted by the first two sessions in particular that focused on the memoir as a genre: Rodney Hall- twice Miles Franklin winner- speaking about his memoir Popeye never told you, followed by cultural historian David Walker conversing with the biographer and historian Jim Davidson about Walker’s own memoir/reflection Not Dark Yet: A Personal History.
Although distrustful of autobiography as a genre, Hall was spurred to write Popeye never told you mainly for his siblings. The book covers his childhood in wartime Britain from the ages of 5 to 9, and he intentionally adopted the voice of a child with short sentences, and a child’s eye perspective of size, relationships and causality. Hence, he chose episodes for their impact on him rather than their historic or narrative significance, and drawing on the rather linear and black-and white reasoning of a child, he limited his conjunctions to words like “and” “but” “so” etc. It’s a brave, and perhaps rather contrived narrative stroke, and one that could fail disastrously. However, this review suggests that Hall succeeded well.
The second speaker of the day, David Walker, also moved out of his accustomed genre in writing Not Dark Yet: a Personal History.
After a long career in academe, Walker’s eyesight deteriorated suddenly in 2004 as a result of macular degeneration. With the term “A personal history” as the rider to his title, this book is not just a memoir (or perhaps an ‘auto-ethnography’ as Walker himself has described it) but also a reflection on family history, history more generally, memory and storytelling. When he was (rather chummily) discussing the book with fellow-historian Jim Davidson, it brought to my mind Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eye, one of the most personally influential books I have ever read. In fact, it’s not going too far to say that you would not be reading this blog, at least in the guise it is, had I not read Tiger’s Eye. Historians, I think, approach memoir and autobiography with a particular wariness and cannot completely divorce their professional academic skills from the shaping of their own life-story, so I’m interested to read this book. Certainly Tom Griffiths’ review (another historian I deeply admire) suggests that it will be well worthwhile.
I’m not really a writers’ festival sort of person, which may surprise you, given that I love reading so much. I do, however, enjoy hearing non-fiction writers talking about grappling with a body of evidence in some form (lived experience, research, primary sources) and shaping it into an argument and narrative. There’s an independence of the material beyond the author, and a responsibility on the author’s part for some degree of fidelity.
However, I’m less drawn to hearing fiction writers speak about their craft. For me, it’s a bit like reading an artist’s or art critic’s statements about a work in a gallery: a self-consciousness and layering of meaning that seems sometimes contrived and retrospective. Listening to fiction authors talking about their work- a creation of their own making- is a discussion that really requires you to have read the book in question, in a way that is not necessarily true for a non-fiction book, and so after a rather good lunch, I left early in the afternoon.
As well as drawing on sponsorship from publishers and the local council, the day was conducted under the auspices of the Eltham Bookshop. I was saddened to read in the local paper that after 14 years this bookshop, like so many others, is really struggling. Its proprietor, Meera Govil, is a generous contributor to the cultural and literary life of Eltham and surrounding districts, and the leafy north would be the poorer for her shop’s demise. I shift a little uncomfortably in my chair as I write this: I rarely purchase books but instead borrow them from libraries or buy them second hand. I’ve bought from Amazon and Book Depository, and I am drawn by 10% loyalty schemes for the few books that I do buy. Although I’m still chafing at the e-reader experience, I know that I’ll succumb increasingly if the digital versions are priced attractively enough. At one stage I promised myself that I would buy one book a month, but that resolution has gone out the window. I look in despair at the deluge of new books that keep on tumbling into the market, and I am saddened to hear of such small print runs and the out-of-print status of so many precious works. Perhaps print-on-demand might be one form of salvation, but it’s such a bland and stripped down product in its present form. It’s all beyond me.