Fred Baxter (1908-1997): Researching Writing Lives

I was initially attracted to Fred’s memoir due to its title, ‘Cemetery Side of 83 Years; The Life Story of a Bury St. Edmunds Man.’ The title revealed the author was a man, who had lived a full life, yet was clearly aware his final chapter was approaching. Despite this, the humour included in his chosen title, suggested that Fred had accepted his life was drawing to a close and was consequently eager to tell his life story. As I began to read Fred’s memoir, I was able to resonate with his sincere tone and I soon became absorbed in his writing, with a keen interest and strong desire to bring his story to life.

Before taking part in the Writing Lives project, I had little experience of blogging, but once I began, I quickly realised I would have to adapt my usual style of writing. It was important that the tone of my writing both complimented the different themes I would address and ensured that I was respectful to Fred and his family. I never lost sight that I was writing about a real man and his family and as such, I was very careful to present the facts contained in Fred’s memoir accurately, whilst also aiming to capture Fred’s emotions. For example, when writing my Education and Schooling post, I adapted my writing style to a more joyful tone, in order to reflect some of Fred’s happiest childhood memories and to reflect the enjoyment he showed when recounting events from his school days. In contrast, when writing about the death of Fred’s wife, Ivy, in my Illness and Health post, I changed my writing to convey a more sincere tone, in order to echo Fred’s sentiments regarding his wife’s passing. I found this particular blog the most difficult to write, as Fred’s love for his wife permeates his memoir and I wanted to ensure that I honoured their love, by respectfully chronicling their final days as husband and wife.

By completing the project, I have gained a much deeper insight into the hardships faced by the working class in the early 20th century. I was surprised to learn how unmarried mothers were viewed by society and the resulting stigma attached to both mother and child. To avoid this, it was common for a child to grow up with the belief that their maternal grandmother was in fact their biological mother; the belief Fred held in his earlier years. This made Fred’s experiences even more distressing to read and, subsequently, to write about. After using ancestry sites to complete further research into Fred’s family history, I discovered that on his stepfather’s military records, the word ‘illegitimate’ was written next to Fred’s name. This shocked me, as not only had I never expected such a record to contain the parentage of a child, I would never have anticipated any children to be labelled as illegitimate. It was after finding this document, I began to fully understood and appreciate the comments made by Fred regarding his parentage. Furthermore, it also emphasised the importance to Fred of Ivy, his wife, and the family they created. The sense of acceptance and belonging Fred experienced, as a husband and father, clearly meant a lot to him because of his early experiences; therefore, I felt it imperative to communicate these sentiments when writing.

It was both interesting and invaluable to read both a child’s and an adult’s perspective on war. Fred was 6 years old when World War One commenced and 31 at the beginning of the Second World War. Despite having learnt about these wars, in various years of my education, I felt honoured to be able to gain a deeper understanding from Fred’s first person perspective. Fred’s transparency when discussing the events he experienced, such as the hardship he faced because of rationing and the trauma of the bloodshed he witnessed, whilst working as an ambulance driver, provided a rare insight into not simply the facts surrounding war, but also the impact on the lives of ordinary people and the emotions they experienced.

My work benefited from the collaboration I undertook with my peer, Shreya. This was invaluable, as after reading each other’s work, we were able to suggest to each other different avenues for further enquiry. For example, after reading my Purpose and Audience post, Shreya suggested I consider the significance of the timing of his wife’s death, and the motivation this provided for Fred when writing. With these comments in mind, I reread the memoir, paying particular attention to the details regarding Ivy. It was only after this realisation did the comments he makes about her, take on a deeper meaning. It became apparent that the reason he frequently writes about Ivy is the fact that he was missing her so much and that writing his memoir helped him to fill the days, after she had died, and to keep the love they experienced alive.

In terms of social media, I have realised the importance of increasing readership by promoting blogs through platforms, such as Twitter. By posting more frequently, I noticed that more users were attracted to my page, and as they listed my posts as a ‘favourite’, even more users accessed my blogs. Although previously, I had never been a user of the Writing Lives site, I found it an enjoyable aspect of the module. Posting pictures of the landmarks mentioned in Fred’s memoir really helped to build a sense of locale, by allowing readers to envisage the communities Fred lived in, at various points in his life.

My work has contributed to public history by helping to build a more rounded collection of working-class lives and writing. Historically, upper-class literature has been considered more valuable, with working-class writers often experiencing difficulties, when attempting to get their work published. I felt a sense of duty and responsibility to write about Fred’s life story. I believe the Writing Lives project is essential, as it creates an opportunity to bring the stories and experiences of the working-class to light and enables people to live on through their memories and the blogs, which detail these life stories.

As a researcher, I have learned to be more resourceful. I processed an array of different sources, synthesising information from these, in order to identify and select relevant evidence to support my writing. In addition to this, I adapted my editorial skills. When first reading Fred’s memoir, I focused more on the chronology of his writing, taking note of the facts and people mentioned, rather than the emotions contained. After a second reading, I became more aware of Fred’s inner voice and emotions; he rarely explicitly states how he feels, instead preferring to make subtle hints regarding his thoughts and feelings. With this knowledge in mind, it became a priority to make my writing more nuanced to reflect these subtle insinuations and in turn, this brought out the nuance in Fred’s writing. I became more empathetic towards Fred.

I am grateful to have been provided with the opportunity to work on a project this special, and feel honoured to have been able to share Fred’s life story. It has been an enjoyable and fulfilling experience to watch Fred’s life transition from the pages he wrote in his memoir, to the blog posts I have produced.

Bibliography

Work Cited:

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.

Images Used:

Image 1- A photograph of Albert Meacham’s Military Records. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/interactive/1219/30972_176057-00793/1298688?backUrl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ancestry.co.uk%2fcgi-bin%2fsse.dll%3fdbid%3d1219%26h%3d1298688%26indiv%3dtry%26o_vc%3dRecord%3aOtherRecord%26rhSource%3d1219&ssrc=#?imageId=30972_176057-00769

Image 2- Old Map of Bury St. Edmunds. Retrieved from: https://www.francisfrith.com/bury-st-edmunds/bury-st-edmunds-1882-1901_hosm34261

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