A visit to his childhood home in 1948 spurred John Edmonds to ‘set down a record of people and memories with the neighbourhood before advancing years dulled [his] recollection’ (3). He describes the decrepit condition of his former dwellings as ‘akin to that of viewing an old friend’s corpse prior to its funeral’ (3). This sad disrepair inspires the preservation of his precious childhood in the format of his memoir. What struck me throughout reading John’s memoir is the vibrancy of his home life whilst growing up. The streets were unspectacular, the houses humble, and at no point does John deploy idyllic and fanciful adjectives out of nostalgic fervour. ‘The Lean Years’ is a grounded text of a grounded childhood. This is the message John wishes to convey. Instances of romanticising Bermondsey are few and far between. Instead, brutally and admirably honest throughout, John concedes that times were hard, and these strained living conditions translate perfectly through to the reader. Yet the colour in John’s words does not burst from any proverbial rose-tinted glasses, nor from any spectacular prose or wistful rhetoric, but rather from the sheer character of the working-class people in his recount of adversity. It is evident that John felt great affinity with the arena of his childhood. The tribulations of his formative years taught him fundamental lessons to take into adulthood. It is apparent that this brazen authenticity is the central tenet that John wishes to communicate to his audience. His personification of 118 Eugenia Road as ‘an old friend’ (3) is particularly moving, yet is testament to the life of a street once deafening in character, now sadly ‘old battered and forlorn’ (1). ‘The Lean Years’ is John’s lasting tribute to an upbringing prone to becoming forgotten as easily as the road itself fizzled out into quietness.
Regenia Gagnier muses that David Vincent and Nan Hackett have ‘accepted the view of autobiography as the revelation of a centred, unified subject or self’ (1987, 337), to which she concedes that such individuality has led to autobiographies being labelled a middle-class form of writing (Pascal, 1960). Yet John’s memoir, ‘The Lean Years’, represents an inclusivity that emblematises the collective throes of working-class South East London life. ‘Most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 1987, 338). Indeed, John does not appear to be a man with too high designs for his autobiography. He seems to write foremost for himself, to preserve the decaying memories of his childhood with time encroaching so rapidly. John apologises for ‘what may seem to be overmuch space to the railways of the district’ (3), yet this captures the heart of the memoir: a man writing about the things he loves, in the area he loves, for himself, and likeminded people.
In reminiscing about the past, John retains a firm, controlled grasp upon the present. He dismisses those of the older generation keen to comment on the bygone ‘good old days’ (3). He adds that this fabled halcyon time is mere ‘illusion’ (3). Displaying an awareness of his audience, he laments man for being ‘lazy by nature’ (4) and being unable to ‘successfully adapt an existing way of life to changes as they occur’ (4). In one of the rare occasions he directly addresses the reader, asking ‘younger readers to consider this phenomenon should it become manifest when pursuing the following pages’ (4). He is conscious of his representation of a period lost to time, yet hoping the tales that brought him boyhood joy can be passed on to the next generation via his written word.
Some working-class autobiographies are written to tell great stories. Cecil George Harwood, for example, writes vividly on huge subjects of early twentieth-century life, such as the First World War. Others, like John Gibson write of societal and systematic injustice, whilst Joe Ayre compounds this theme with tales of excruciating poverty and even death in his memoir, ‘The Socialist’. John’s motivations for writing are much simpler. He does not at any point indicate who his intended readership is. On this account he is characteristically vague, as with the omission of information about himself and his family in later life. What is clear though is John’s voice. I feel that this is the main thing he wished to communicate in his autobiography, whether it be for a reader in many years to come, or for himself to look back upon fondly as the years roll by. That genuine beating heart of working-class South East London life is a relic to be treasured, his childhood a light to be cherished, and his honest voice a rarity to be remembered.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for news and updates on upcoming blog posts at @JordanWalkerJMU, and keep on eye on the #WritingLives hashtag, from which you can find the brilliant array of talented contributors to the project and their fantastic blogs. Lucy’s, David’s, and Luke’s Twitter handles have been included in the underneath bibliography, but check out the other excellent Writing Lives bloggers on Twitter, found easily via the #WritingLives hashtag or from my feed.
2.237 EDMONDS, John, ‘The Lean Years’, MS, pp.89 + 3pp. list of illustrations (c.18,000 words). BruneI University Library. http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9517
2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). BruneI University Library.
3:O232 GIBSON, (John?), Untitled, TS, pp.7 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.
309 HARWOOD, Cecil George, ‘Down Memory Lane’, TS, pp.104 (c.65,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Beighton, Luke (@LJBeightonLJMU). ‘Joe Ayre (b.1910): An Introduction.’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/introduction/joe-ayre-b-1910-an-introduction Web. Accessed 4 March 2018.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (Spring 1987): 335-363.
Hogg, David (@DavidHoggWL). ‘John Gibson (1887-1980): An Introduction.’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/introduction/john-gibson-1887-1980-an-introduction Web. Accessed 4 March 2018.
Pascal, Roy. Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.
Smith, Lucy (@LucyJMU). ‘Cecil George Harwood (b. 1894): An Introduction.’ Writing Lives. http://www.writinglives.org/introductions/cecil-george-harwood-b-1894-2 Web. Accessed 4 March 2018.
A Strike at Smithfield Market in February 1922 – http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/interwar-labour-relations.htm
South East London in 1948 – https://www.pinterest.co.uk