Never throw away anything you write, however banal it seems – you never know how it may come in useful, as author Tony Bayliss discovered when he came to write the first instalment of his autobiography The Cuckoo.
One of my all-time favourite books isThe Diary of a Farmer’s Wife – 1796 -1797. It was written by Anne Hughes, a woman whose existence would be unknown to us had her diary not been found under floorboards over a hundred and fifty years later.
It’s an account of how Anne lived in a small English village at the end of the eighteenth century. She makes no mention at all of the wider world, perhaps because communications were so poor in those days that she felt remote from it all; indeed, the village WAS her world. Had the title not already been used, I suppose ‘Diary of a Nobody’ would seem appropriate, except that none of us is a nobody: we each have a story to tell.
Most of us think that our lives are not worth writing about – who would be interested? Anne Hughes certainly thought that, and was writing to herself, as do most diarists, but every page is filled with fascinating information and insights into the life she lived.
It’s more than fifty years since I wrote my first diary and, like Anne Hughes, I wrote it to myself, having no idea that the passing years might make it interesting to readers from the future. I was ten-year-old boy, coping with the break-up of my parents’ marriage, my emerging sexuality, and feeling at odds with my dysfunctional family. I was the proverbial cuckoo in the nest, hence the title I have given to the memoir.I poured out the observations and feelings which preoccupied me, not just about family strife, but also about my friends, the school bully, the teachers who never spared the rod, the austerity of post-war Britain, about events going on in the world at the time, and about my dreams and hopes and fears. At the end of the year, I stopped writing, but recall promising myself that one day, I would write a ‘proper’ book, despite the odds being stacked against me, given that my father regarded all books as highly suspicious and a waste of time.
For 25 years the diary was forgotten, and remained unopened, but when I was 35, I read it, and decided to write a diary again. It turned out to be the year my own marriage failed, so I found myself watching the faces of my children for signs of the anxieties I had suffered 25 years earlier.
So, having written diaries for two years of my life with a 25 year gap in between, I resolved that I would do the same again after another 25, so at the age of sixty, I wrote the third instalment. If I make it to 85, the fourth instalment will be written in 2032, and my quartet of books will be complete. I will probably call it ‘Generation Gap’.
Let the authenticity shine through
I decided to publish the first instalment, The Cuckoo, a year ago, and it is selling well. Other than tidying up the spelling and some of the sentence construction, I refrained from heavy editing, so as to preserve its freshness and authenticity. Children think and write in their own unique way, and I’ve yet to see an adult version of children’s writing which is convincing.
Children tell it how it is: not for them the crafty arts of irony, cynicism, or satire. Jargon doesn’t appear because it isn’t known to a ten year old. Children don’t have to worry about over-use of adverbs and adjectives, or of telling rather than doing because most of the things they describe are new experiences, and it is their perceptions of those which makes their writing so engaging.
I was a lonely boy who wrote a diary instead of just talking to myself, but I was tough, and my voice speaks strongly down the years. I couldn’t wait to grow up, to be free of my father’s tyranny, and to be able to do all the things that adults do, and yet despite the inevitable rose-tinted specs I now wear when reading the words of my younger self, I can’t help but admire and even envy that little kid.