“I am sorry at times I seem to have gone ahead of my story. I done my best for being cemetery side of 83 years.” (p.39)
Fred Baxter’s memoir, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 Years by Fred Baxter: The Life Story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, follows the story of a working-class man throughout his life in 20th century Britain. Fred described his life as “full and varied”, as he incorporates details of childhood, to war, to marriage and family, in his personal life account.
Fred Baxter was born on 2nd May 1908 in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. His mother was named Lily Baxter and the identity of Fred’s biological father remains unknown to him throughout the entirety of his life, because his mother “unfortunately got herself into trouble with a man whose family would not allow marriage” (p. 1). This resulted in Fred being unclear about his real parentage throughout childhood: “I grew up thinking my grandmother was my mother and my aunt my sister” (p.1)
One prominent theme in Fred’s memoir is childhood. Fred portrays a joyful childhood, but still reaffirms his working-class status within this: “in those days, people being poor, everything was sixpennyworth of this and that” (p.3). This small amount of money reflects how little people had. Fred attended St. Mary’s Infant School during his early years before moving to the Guildhall Feoffment, located on Bridewell Lane. As Fred delves into his past, he reveals how discipline was carried out within schools. Fred includes details like him “getting the cane” (p.3) if he “did anything wrong” (p.3), and reveals how one of his peers “was quickly hit with a lump of Plasticine” after misbehaving (p.3). As he writes about these instances of discipline, his tone is nostalgic and at times humorous. Despite the strict nature of schools, pupils still displayed great respect for teachers: “But even so we still showed respect to our headmaster and teachers in touching our caps when we saw them out of school” (p.3).
Although Fred worked at places such as the Buttermarket during his education, he officially left school aged 13. Fred then embarked through life weaving in and out of different jobs in multiple towns, referring to himself as being a “Jack-of-all-Trades” (p.39). Fred continuously became “unemployed once more” (p.15) throughout his life. He also notes how after World War Two “the unemployed had a club in the building where Saxon Radio is now. Things were so bad the men played cards with match sticks” (p. 45). Fred changed job frequently but he always made sure he found employment, revealing his strong work ethic. He includes the hardships of some lines of work he endeavoured: “The ice cream job was 7 days a week and late night. The wage was commission only and not much of a married life for my wife and family” (p.29).
The title of the memoir holds greats significance in conveying Fred’s personality to the reader. He light-heartedly jokes about his old age, stating he is on the “cemetery side” of his life. This tone continues throughout the entirety of the memoir, making it pleasurable to read. In his memoir, Fred covers the whole of his life, although a larger emphasis is based on his adulthood. One quality of this memoir which I enjoy is the conversational style of Fred’s writing. At times he jumps from one anecdote to another quickly and apologises for skipping ahead of his story. This makes his writing engaging and genuine.
Baxter, Fred, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 years; the life story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, Booklet. 43pp. 1993, Burnett Collection of Working-Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library.
Image 1- Map of Bury St. Edmunds in 1908. Retrieved from: http://www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/mapshome.htm
Image 2- The Buttermarket in 1950. Retrieved from: https://www.francisfrith.com/bury-st-edmunds/bury-st-edmunds-buttermarket-c1950_b258006