Guy Oates (1905 – 1987): Researching Writing Lives

In my final remarks let me read you these few lines, written many years ago, in one of my more serious moments:

Could we but see our future,

Could we but see our end.

Could we but see to culture,

To know which way to trend.

Could we but see our double,

Could we but see our fate.

Could we but see our troubles,

To see before too late.

(Oates, 7:103)

Choosing Guy

L-R: Aubrey, Sep, Guy and Russell 1919

When faced with the challenge of picking an author, and finding a memoir to write about, I decided that the only way to choose from such an incredible selection, was to go off good old fashioned gut instinct. I wanted to feel a connection, in some way, with my author, and I knew that by doing this, I would be able to write passionately about their story. When I read the short extract from Guy’s memoir, I knew instantly that this cheeky, happy, caring man, was the author for me. The eight volumes which accompanied the cheeky fellow, were, however, a little daunting, but fortunately, Tasha Silo had also formed a soft spot for Guy and we decided that if anyone could do him justice, it would be us (having worked well together before). Armed with 750 pages of a life, and a man, who we knew little about, we began our journey into Guy’s story.

What I Enjoyed

One of the most enjoyable aspects of researching Guy’s memoir, has been the incredible insight into the real life of working-class people during the early 20th century. Through Guy’s astounding level of detail, his memoir becomes almost novel-like, and consequently, the people, the places, and the events, all come to life through his words. The people he cared for, became people I cared for, and the hardships he endured, weighed heavy on my heart, and every experience he included in his memoir, allowed me to understand his life in a way which standard historical accounts cannot. Without the detail, it is possible that I could have gained a good understanding of working-class life, but through Guy’s extensive details, I was able to comprehend the hardships of his life and how he was affected by them. For example, there are numerous accounts of children dying from tuberculosis, in the 19th and 20th century, which provide details of the disease, its symptoms and the awful deaths it caused. However, through Guy’s memoir, I got to know his brother Sep, his gentle character, and what he meant to his family. When he became ill with tuberculosis and died, the relationship I had formed with Sep, through Guy’s stories of him, meant that I was able to experience the loss of Sep, and how it affected the Oates family. It was not just an account of the disease, or another child dying, it was an account of what the disease left behind, a grieving family, and the loss of a life that should have been more. Additionally, Guy’s memoir also provides a fantastic insight into life in the workhouse, which historically, seems to focus on the accounts of inmates, or official reports, rather than accounts from the people who worked in, and ran the workhouse. While we were researching for the huge, eight-part, ‘Life and Labour’ post, it became clear that accounts of this kind were rare, and therefore, we began to understand that the blogs we were creating, were unique, and would provide a relatively new insight into life in the workhouse. Guy shows how people like him tried to improve the lives of the destitute, by introducing small changes, showing compassion, and remembering that the inmates were human beings with feelings.

Blogging Guy

Although I have some knowledge of blogging, and I am confident in my writerly voice, I found this experience very different to the blogs I had written in the past, which usually focused on fictional literature. When I started to write the blog posts, I was mindful of the fact that Guy was a real person and his life, and memoir, was something to be respected. After deciding that we would search for his family members, both Tasha and I felt that we had to create a blog which expressed Guy’s words, told his story, and honoured his thoughts and feelings. We wanted Guy’s family (if we managed to find any), to be proud of his words, and how we had used them, and subsequently, we found that we had to adapt the tone of each post, so that we were able to reflect Guy’s feelings. For example, in the ‘Fun and Festivities’ post, I adopted a playful tone, which mirrored Guy’s attitude towards his childhood games, and embodied the cheeky, playful boy, who we grew to love in the early volumes of the memoir. However, in the ‘Home and Family’ post, I focused on Guy’s mother and her experience of loss, and therefore, a fun and playful tone would have been disrespectful, and contradictory, of the thoughts expressed by Guy. Although our attempts to find Guy’s family were unsuccessful, the posts we created remained considerate of how we represented his thoughts and feelings, and we remain hopeful that one day, his family will be able to read about his remarkable life.

The Research

As researchers, we could not ask for more from Guy’s memoir, which provides everything you could ever want to know about his life and family. He gave addresses, phone numbers, names, dates, newspaper clippings, maps, pictures, diagrams, and instructions on how to make a string ball. We had details of every aspect of his life, and we were incredibly excited to use the information to help us in our search for family members. However, we were surprised when our efforts to find his family proved harder than we thought, and after endless searches on social media accounts, contacting ancestry members through our family tree matches, and even contacting a lady who matched Guy’s niece in name, age, location, and profession, we were not able to find a direct relative. Undeterred, we continue to search. 

Goodbye Guy

When I began reading Guy’s memoir, I never could have imagined the bond I would form with him, or the affection I would feel for a man that I have never met. He was a remarkable, kind and caring man, who always tried to see the positive in any situation, even when he was suffering. Guy failed to see how wonderful he was, and this truly saddens me. His words have been able to make me laugh, horrify me, and deeply move me. I have learnt from him, been in awe of him, and strived to make him proud.

Tasha has been a fantastic partner, and I must say a huge thank you to her, for her enthusiasm and hard work, and for her support. Writing Guy’s life, reading his memoir, and putting together a blog which honoured him, was a huge task, and a genuine team effort. I could not have done it without her.

Most of all, thank you, Guy, for your wonderfulness, your string ball, your beautiful words, and your incredible attention to detail, it has been a privilege to write about you.

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