‘The Years That Are Gone’ is a 750 page, eight volume, memoir, which explores the history of the Oates family through the life experiences of Guy Oates. Written during his retirement, Guy concludes his eighth and final volume with a touching note which he affectionately named ‘What a Grandpa will do for his Grandsons,’ (pg.72) dated 11th September 1981, just six years before his death.
Our decision to write about Guy’s life was straightforward, especially after learning about the difficulties he faced throughout his childhood, his family’s riches to rags tale, and his interesting career within the Poor Law Institution. As we got to know Guy, we realised that he was a caring and sweet natured man, and we felt compelled to tell his story.
Introducing Guy: (By Tasha Silo)
‘There is little left now to which I can look forward, and with seventy years gone, I am inclined to look back’ (Vol. 1, pg. 64)
Guy Oates born Knaresborough 30th March 1905 – died in Aylesbury 28th January 1987. Grandson of the wealthy (and eccentric) corn and linen mill owner, Frederick Oates ESQ (21st May 1816 – 18th September 1872), who owned quite a lot of land in and around Harrogate, known as ‘Oatland’. His father, Russell Oates, (1st June 1851 – 20th February 1909), a wealthy tannery owner, and his mother Phoebe Trafford, were parents to ‘Marion, Bernard Trafford, Aubrey, Russell, Phyllis, Jane and Doris (twins), Septimus, Guy and Madge’ (1:99).
Guy’s memoir begins at the age of 5 in ‘Castle Yard School’ (1910), a place where he struggled to settle, and eventually left at the age of 8 (1914). Guy identifies that the death of his father, when he was just 3, meant that he lacked male authority throughout his childhood, which led to his undesirable behaviour and involvement with a gang. His first realisation of this was when he encountered male authority, in the form of a police constable, during which Guy states ‘for the first time I was scared. For the first time I had a man deal with me, more the pity it hadent been sooner’ (1:103). The members of the gang were all boys, aged 5-13, who spent their time roaming the streets of Knaresborough ‘during the hours of darkness’ (1:102). The memoir describes a number of these dangerous and terrifying encounters, which led to multiple suspenseful chases. His actions resulted in him being labelled as the ‘black sheep of the family’ (1:102), but despite this, his mother ‘never laid a hand’ (1:102) on him. Still, his continuous truancy and involvement in fighting led to him being placed in the charitable ‘Yorkshire Society School’ (1914 – 1916) at the age of 9. Unable to read and write, Guy writes of the hardships of boarding school and the reality of being the smallest boy there. Guy’s experience of school was once again not a happy one and was short lived since he only attended for 2 years (1914 – 1916). The third and final school the Oates boys attended was called ‘Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School’ in York (1916 – 1921). The conditions at this school proved to be somewhat better than the last. However, as he had a difficult relationship with the headmaster, once again, Guy had to deal with many unpleasant situations. The final nail in the coffin, was the headmaster’s ‘last and final attempt to break’ (2:69) Guy, by using an assembly to announce devastating and
Once out of school, Guy described feeling restless at home, and when a classmate’s family offered him a job on a farm, he happily accepted the offer, despite seeing him as an acquaintance rather than a friend. This period of Guy’s life will be explored in more detail in another blog post, alongside his career progress, which led to employment within the Poor Law Institution. This segment of the memoir provides a unique insight into the workhouse, right through to the NHS. Over a period of almost 40 years, Guy worked hard and eventually obtained a high-ranking position within this institution. His experiences therefore provide a real account of how the poor were cared for in the 19th and early 20th century. Witnessing poverty and human suffering among the sick, aged and infirm, and the pressures of World War Two, Guy details how the Poor Law was finally abolished on the 1st July 1948. With the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) and the new child protection laws, Guy, his wife Doris, and many of the staff within the outdated institutions began to feel ‘sidelined’ (7:1) and underappreciated.
Guy and his wife Doris went on to live in Aylesbury when their daughter married in 1962. The couple spent their retirement years here and during this time Guy decided to write his memoir.
Memoir Form: (By Sarah Pass)
‘If my spelling, punctuation, and phraseology are poor, and you can make allowances, then read on’ (Vol 1, pg. 65).
Guy’s lack of confidence in his own ability to write well is something which he comments on throughout his memoir. In volume one, he explains how he asked his friends if their son, Mr E.D Mackerness, a professor of English at Sheffield University, could read over the first volume of his memoir and ‘tell me if [it was] any good’ (1:60). In his feedback, Mr Mackerness confirms Guy’s fears by highlighting some of the flaws in his writing and techniques.
Some of Mr Mackerness’ points:
• To recast what you have here as your memoirs- in which case the whole would have to be re-written and to some (limited) extent proportioned (for example, there are some repetitions, and a few passages would seem to be rather long-drawn-out in proportion to their actual interest).
• However you arrange things, some attention will obviously have to be given to style. We are all guilty of errors in grammar and punctuation – but we can’t write exactly as we speak – we want to do better than that.
• Two features of your style which I found disconcerting were: (a) your tendency to use two and three sentence paragraphs, and (b) your fondness for the ‘catalogue’ type of paragraph.
• In all extended writing, there is a danger that one will go over one’s tracks more than once – this gets in the way of an evolution of a theme.
• You must not dwell too long on matters which don’t relate too closely to the central issue. For example, the passage about how gas lamps are lit.
Unfortunately, despite Mr Mackerness’ good intentions, his feedback only manages reinforces Guy’s self-doubt and create a ‘lack of courage and shame’ (1:59).
Seeing Past the Flaws:
While it is true that the memoir contains errors in spelling and grammar, and can be repetitive or deviate away from traditional forms at times, the assumption that they detract from the appeal of Guy’s writing is misconstrued. In his book, Memoir: An Introduction (2012), G. Thomas Couser discusses how the unique form of a memoir acts as a vital insight into the author’s story, and suggests that memoirs are most impactful when they are understood in terms of their genre, form and content, and states:
We can’t fully understand what a particular author or story is doing without some sense of operative conventions, which are a function of its genre. Especially in life writing, then,
In ‘The Years That are Gone,’ Guy manages to tell his story through a combination of confessional, personal, and professional styles of autobiographical writing, rather than confining himself to just one (which did nothing to impress Mr Mackerness). Guy also manages to incorporate other materials such as poetry, photographs, newspaper articles, and even family tales/ legends. In addition to this, readers are also given examples of the wonderful letters written by Guy’s mother Phoebe, some of Guy’s own research around his genealogy,
The first-person narrative is told in a mostly chronological form, although at times Guy likes to return to earlier moments in his life, despite having already dedicated a section of the memoir to that period. Usually, these moments are
Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 4
G. Thomas, Couser. Memoir: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
Crowther, M.A., ‘From Workhouse to NHS Hospital in Britain 1929-48.’ Liverpool Medical History Society (1999): 38-49
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Maidment, Brian. The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain. Manchester: Carcanet, 1987.
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Tebbutt, Melanie. Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Inter-War Years Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247