“You may ask the question, why have you written all this, about your life? Firstly, my family suggested that I should write about my life. They were all concerned about me in my present experience. I had to spend many long days on my own and during this long winter season, there have been many days where it is impossible to go outside because of snow, rain and or severe frost, when the safest place was in your own home. Secondly, my wife has been in hospital for nearly six months. This has been the worst blow. When the one you have loved and talked to for 57 years, is suddenly taken from you because of illness, you are likely to bemoan the fact. So in writing, I tried not to forget, but to do something to prevent me from brooding over the vacant chair that is ever before me”
From this excerpt from the final chapter of Thomas’s memoir, we know that writing about his life and times as a child through to adulthood, was a way for Thomas to cope with the heart-breaking process of losing his beloved wife to illness. It was a way in which he could pay homage to his wife and their life spent together. Perhaps the process of writing the memoir was a way in which Thomas could relive happy memories? Perhaps it was therapeutic to spend time and effort creating something so meaningful and dear to his family. Thomas recalled his memories more as joint experiences with his wife, rather than solely independent recollections. This makes for an incredibly moving read. However, due to Thomas’s extremely active life, in which he worked with many influential collective groups such as the Labour Party, the Methodist movement, as well as the Durham mining community, Thomas may have written a memoir that reaches out to an audience far beyond his expectations.
When thinking about the immediate audience of Thomas’s memoir, it seems that it may have been meant as a family heirloom to be passed down through the generations long after both he and Polly died, as were many working-class autobiographies. In the final chapter of his memoir, he writes as if he is directly speaking to his children and grandchildren, suggesting that the memoir perhaps was intended as way in which later generations can return and remember both Thomas and Polly, as if they had never passed at all. He writes, “Do not mourn our passing. Just remember us as Mam and Dad, Nan and Grandad, as nana mac 2 and Grandad Mac 2” (109). When thinking about the detail that Thomas goes into when describing the various stages of his life, he may have also intended it to be a way in which later generations of his family could learn about times past, the working and living conditions, politics and religion and how they have changed or not changed over time. At a time when these issues are constantly in a state of flux, it certainly is a unique and precious relic.
If you have read my first blog post, a short piece introducing Thomas and his interesting life you will know he had an active role in many organisations. In the first stages of his memoir, he discusses his life as a young miner, who climbed the ladder to the top and later became a lecturer at the NCB mining school. Talking of his time at the school, he writes “Over the eight years I was at the NBC School, I must have had between 2000 to 2500 boys through my classes, and 500 adults. I enjoyed my work. It was strange that I had to wait so many years to fulfil my ambition to teach.” As a student reading over 40 years after he completed his memoir, it’s heart-warming to know that, most of all, Thomas’s ambition was to teach. Maybe he would be surprised to know he would be doing so well after his passing. His extraordinary life, which reached out to so many different organisations, means his memoir is a sort of window into the past; a unique insight into the history of the South Hetton Labour Party and the mining community of Durham. Unlike what we read from the history books, Thomas’s memoir serves as a first-hand account of a life living through an age where the voices of the working class were seldom heard. In uncovering Thomas’s memoir, I hope that it will become a piece of the puzzle in uncovering the cultural and social history of the North East.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70
McLaughlin, Thomas, The Life of an Ordinary Man, 1979, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.475