Percy Vere (H.V.Smith) (b.1913): Purpose and Audience

‘…And I’ve reached 71 regardless. But I could never have done it without my wife’s constant help I’m sure.’ (Vere, 25).

The end of Percy’s autobiography depicts the support and encouragement that he received from his wife throughout his life, especially through his years of illness as he grew older. It feels that Percy has written his story as a dedication and thank you to his wife, who supported him in all that he had accomplished through his very life.

Thorton Heath pond, where Percy and his wife went on their first date in 1933

For many working class authors, in the 20th century, it was difficult to write without feeling egotistic. They struggled with the idea of documenting and celebrating their lives, because of their class. As Gagnier discusses in Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender, labourers were dehumanised by the work that they undertook.

 

‘Part of the problem in presenting subjectivity lay in obvious material conditions: workers, as Engels pointed out in 1844, were not “heads” but “hands”…the conditions of their labour were often dehumanising.’ (Gagnier, p. 339)

This dehumanisation from labour, led to many working class autobiographies beginning with an apology for the authors own ‘ordinariness’. Many titles also hint a lack of confidence in

A working class family dinner in 1938. Something Percy would have missed during his time away with the army.

their stories, such as ‘One of the Multitude’ by George Acorn. However, Percy does not do any of these things. He begins his memoir confidently stating his birth and diving into the story of his life, with no apologies. Although his writing never seems over confident, he details the intricacies of his work life whilst fleetingly mentioning his family life with no mention of names and very fewdates.

Through further research, I found that Percy Vere was a pseudonym for a Herbert V. Smith. It raised many questions for me as to why he wished to write his autobiography under a fake name. As Jonathon Rose discusses in Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences, as humans we are liable to forget certain details about the past. ‘We also must bear in mind that an autobiographer (like any other ‘nonfiction’ writer) is liable to forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invent and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story.’ (Rose, p.52) Percy may have felt more confidence in writing under his pseudonym, believing that no one would ever ‘check’ the fine details of his memoirs against sources, giving him more freedom to write what he wished. Detailing events how he remembered them, and not how they historically happened.

Gagnier goes on to detail the many reasons why working class people turned to memoir: ‘…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, p.342). At the age of 71, and after years of illness and numerous health scares, I believe that Percy wrote his autobiography as a cathartic way to reflect on his life and celebrate what he had achieved. Work was a very important part of his life; we can see this through the detailed descriptions of the labour he undertook and the obvious care to describe the vehicles he drove in his time with the army. Since his retirement, he may have missed the satisfaction that work provided him from such a young age. His writings may have allowed him to relive his experiences and allow him to record lost experiences for future generations.

An image depicting what male working class labourers would have worn from to day to day.

 

Works cited

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 339, 342

Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas.  53. 1 (1992): 52

Vere, Percy, The Autobiography of a Working Man , Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:783

Photographs

Labourers in their working clothes: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/d4/8c/80/d48c8041f6acc9e117d83ec350c90696.jpg  Last accessed: 16th February 2017

Family dinner 1938 :BBC News http://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/624/media/images/64136000/jpg/_64136306_familydinner_getty.jpg .Last accessed: 16th February 2017

Thornton Heath Pond: Malvern Waters http://www.malvernwaters.com/nationalparks.asp?search=yes&p=7&id=185. Last accessed: 16th February 2017

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