Fred Baxter’s memoir, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 Years: The Life Story of a Bury St. Edmunds man’, was written in September 1991 and published in 1993, six years before his death in 1997. Although Fred never explicitly states the purpose for writing his memoir, many other working-class auto-biographers “unanimously state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic: to record lost experiences for future generations; to raise money; to warn others; to teach others; to relieve or amuse themselves; to understand themselves” (Gagnier, 1987, 342). It is possible that this was also Fred’s motivation for writing; however, it is the timing of Fred’s memoir, which provides the biggest clue as to its intended purpose and audience.
A year before Fred began writing his memoir, his wife, Ivy Hetty, had recently passed away on 19th February 1990. Fred speaks frequently and fondly about his wife and their shared life together, so it is possible that writing his memoir brought him some comfort, as he adjusted to life without her. Fred reminisces about the many years they spent together, from their wedding day, when he describes her as “a most beautiful bride just like a queen, the best ever seen” (p.13), to their elderly days and the walks they enjoyed to town “doing some shopping and having a drink in the King’s Head” (p.33-34). In speaking about her in this way, Fred is helping to keep her memory alive, for both himself and the many children they had together.
It is clear that his wife was a constant support to Fred, throughout his life. When recalling details of his wartime experience, he remembers sending “home for money and fags” (p.17), before immediately changing the focus to the present day and the pain he is experiencing at her loss. He writes, “How I wish my wife was here now for me to hug and kiss” (p.17), suggesting that the writing of his memoir has been a cathartic process, enabling Fred to deal with his wife’s’ death and the sadness he feels at her passing.
It is important to highlight that Fred began writing his memoir in his senior years, at the age of 83. It is possible that his age, combined with his wife’s death, made Fred aware of his own mortality. After discussing his wife’s passing, and how she had thought she could see the gates of Heaven, he writes, “I suppose she thought that I will find out when we both meet again in Heaven, me being at present cemetery side of 83 years old” (p.38). Clearly aware that he was approaching the final chapter of his life, perhaps Fred’s intention was for his memoir to serve as a permanent record of his life, enabling him to live on even after death.
Fred uses his memoir to show the sense of pride he feels at the life he has led, providing another purpose for his writing. He uses his memoir to inform others about the hardships he faced and his success in overcoming them. Despite having a difficult childhood, never feeling like he belonged, Fred went on to have a happy and successful family life with his wife and children, and he uses his memoir to highlight this. The pride he feels for his wife and children is tangible throughout. Fred also shows pride when discussing his employment history. He writes, “I have had a full and varied life- I have been a Jack-of-all-Trades from errand boy, office boy, ice cream salesman, manager of gents’ outfitters, bus conductor, fitter’s mate, plumber’s mate, candidate for County Council, also town Council” (p.39). By listing the variety of jobs he has held, Fred is celebrating his hardworking nature, as it is something he wishes to be remembered for.
Throughout his memoir, Fred speaks about himself both as an individual and as a collective group; however, when discussing childhood and his wartime experiences, he uses the pronoun “we” more frequently. This may be because he felt a sense of community and belonging during these times in his life. Fred speaks fondly of his “school days” (p.5), however, for Fred, school was constantly interlinked with employment. This was not unusual as many working-class autobiographers “were working outside the home by the time they were eight years old”, which often resulted in this period of ‘childhood’ being problematic” (Gagnier, 1987, 344). This is the case for Fred, who began working in his formative years in order to support his family members financially.
Another purpose for his memoir can be found when Fred compares “the marvellous good old days” (p.42) to modern day society, suggesting he is using his memoir to warn future generations of the problems facing the world today. He describes the world as “a disgrace to humanity” with “more murders, rapes, muggings, burglaries,” but “not enough religion” (p.42). Fred uses the final chapter of his life to stress the importance of faith and of being responsible stewards of God’s creation, with the warning that people will “destroy the world” (p. 42), if they do not alter their ways. This is confirmed by the conclusion to Fred’s memoir as he purposely ends with a direct biblical quote: “Forgive them Father for they know not what they might do” (p.43). Fred uses Jesus’ last words on the cross to close his memoir but subtly inserts the word “might” as a message to future generations that “destruction” (p.43) could be averted, if people change their ways.
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.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987).
Image 1- Photograph of Fred in his later years. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/?name=Frederick+Ernest_Baxter&birth=1908_bury+st+edmunds-suffolk-england-united+kingdom_1676920&death=1997_bury+st+edmunds-suffolk-england-united+kingdom_1676920&father=Albert+Edward_Meacham&marriage=1932_bury+st+edmunds-suffolk-england-united+kingdom_1676920&mother=Lily+L_Baxter&searchType=t&spouse=Ivy+H_Sier&treePerson=167268832_282174297347
Image 2- Picture of pen and paper. Retrieved from: https://techcrunch.com/2014/11/04/the-backbone-of-american-elections-pen-and-paper/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAANq2IPdZh2IuJWSkDbSvPuuso2Zww2zPAx0-bsl5WpMpr0Up7Qt_CXROmKbWmLy5DYj0Xdt3MBbsXBA_WvnKsPVfAn6QCemQRuHfKLxifevlDcyNFGJnYJj6wiV-yla4g0WxAPaBm5phtqRZ0ArbQ2V9ukg9u4fNRyiYqmRtlahS
Image 3- Cover page of Fred’s memoir. Retrieved from: 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.