The ‘Writing Lives’ module appealed to me as soon as I read through the LJMU level six options booklet. I had pretty much decided that I wanted to move on to MA level after my degree, and the research element of the module was perfect for my needs, even though I had no idea at this point what direction I was aiming for at MA level.
I remember the first ‘Writing Lives’ seminar very well. Initially I was slightly overwhelmed (and feeling a bit out of my depth) when we were all told that we would be using social media to promote our individual blog posts and those of everyone else in the group. I don’t particularly use Facebook, although like many people, I have an account, but Twitter was completely new to me. I think my initial scepticism was that I had the view that social media was merely for broadcasting trivia. I was surprised to find that Twitter in particular is a useful way of broadcasting subject specific blog posts such as ‘Writing Lives’, and to also follow other authors on a range of subjects such as Victorian crime, Great War Fiction and not forgetting LJMU’s own level five research based blog ‘Prison Voices’ run by ‘Writing Lives’ very own Dr Helen Rogers. I now have a completely different view of social media. It’s a good place to pose questions and gain feedback; you can promote your own work whilst keeping up to date with what others are currently working on.
Our first task was to choose an author from the 230-plus memoirs from the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies held by the Brunel University Library. My initial choice unfortunately was not available digitally, but luckily I then found Jack Goring. At 27,000 words Jack’s autobiography wasn’t a quick read, plus it is handwritten, which throws up its own challenges – occasionally you come across the odd word that you can’t read – then all you can do is look at the individual shapes of the letters and see if you can find something similar in a word you recognise elsewhere in the manuscript.
However, once I had read through Jack’s autobiography it was clear that here was the story of an ordinary man who through his work and beliefs had not only experienced so much, but had met (and in some cases been close friends) with a wide range of influential and well known characters from the late 19th and early 20th century. Jack was born in 1861 and died aged 80 in 1945, meaning his life neatly straddled the latter end of the 19th century and nearly the first half of the 20th century. For anyone interested in the fin de siècle, Jack’s life is a good illustration of the way the Victorian era gave way to modernism through his depictions of how ordinary everyday life changed rapidly as new technology and innovations changed everything from transport (Jack remembered new stations being built for the London Underground) to the truly terrifying experience of a modern World War. This is not to say that Writing Lives is purely history-based. Reading and writing is pivotal to the project, and this is shown not just in Jack’s autobiographical writing, but in his journey through literature, from comic books, canonical writings and political literature, to becoming an author in his own right of children’s verse.
It goes without saying that in order to do justice to writing about a life such as Jacks that is full of references to people and events that there is a lot of research involved. There were many names that I either did not recognise, or needed further evidence to explain them fully. Jack just wrote about them from a personal point of view, so there was a fair amount of additional research to identify and verify who they were and their significance historically. I feel that my work so far has begun to expand on the original autobiography enabling it to be more accessible to anyone interested in the historical context of Jack’s life, although there is still much more work to be done to expand it even further; something to be tackled as part of an extended research project such as a master’s thesis, something which I hopefully intend to do in the future.
Writing Lives is an important way of ensuring that autobiographies such as Jack’s are preserved and expanded upon for a wider audience. There is a sense of responsibility on my part to write accurately and honestly on Jack’s behalf. Research has to maintain the authenticity of the original work and not trivialise or make light of any aspects of Jack’s life; rather it is my responsibility to enhance and illuminate his work whilst keeping the writing embedded within his personal experience, rather than turning it into an academic piece that gives a generalised view of the era being discussed.
Research is addictive! It leads in so many directions, especially when you include tools such as genealogy sites such as ancestry.co.uk – you can end up going on a tangent – such as researching your own family tree! Luckily the collaborative aspect of Writing Lives helps you to stay focused on the subject you are writing about at the time. Proof-reading each other’s work helps to keep all blogs up to standard and keeps everyone well informed as to the content of the Writing Lives website. Also, it has to be said that a little competition between authors keeps the standard of writing at a consistently good quality!
Finally the main thing that I will take away from being part of the Writing Lives project is a sense of achievement. I never thought I would (at degree level) have the opportunity to have my work published for others to read. Seeing your own name up in lights (so to speak) on the Writing Lives website has given a real boost to my confidence. Writing about a real person such as Jack Goring is a privilege; his memoir is a personal recollection of what are at times painful subjects, such as the death of his first born son, so there is a real sense of responsibility on my part to do the best I can, after all, I have spent a lot of time with Jack and although I have no idea (yet) what he looks like, I think I have got to know him fairly well – Writing Lives is just the beginning – watch this space!
And on a final, final note…..
Jack Goring dedicated his book of children’s verse The Ballad of Lake Laloo to his daughter ‘Barbara and her brothers and sisters of all ages and names everywhere’ Writing is something to be shared, and therefore I would like to think that Jack would not just be interested to see the work written about him (and in fact all the authors we have written posts about for Writing Lives) but be pleased that these autobiographies are available in a form that is accessible to all.
274 GORING, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp. 332 (c.27,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Goring, Jack. The Ballad of Lake Laloo. Utopia Press: London, 1909.