Wally Ward, born in 1914, wrote his memoir ‘Fit For Anything’ detailing his life in war-time Britain while suffering from epilepsy. The idea of literacy in this period is interesting in relation to Ward – despite the wider availability of literature in the twentieth century, there is no mention of reading in Ward’s memoir. Similarly, there is no mention of having written or aspiring to write anything more, although Ward has a natural and competent writing style. I endeavoured to find out why reading and writing formed such little part of Ward’s persona.
Research into the reading and writing habits of other working-class autobiographers of the time introduced me to Frank P. Forster (via the interpretations of Catherine Feely) (I). Forster was a working-class man who read and wrote extensively about Marxism between 1934 and 1938. Feely explains that what seemed to begin as a simple diary became something Forster envisioned would be eventually publishable as revolutionary essays. Feely discusses the purpose of Forster’s memoir here:
Reading and writing were the instruments he used to distinguish himself from others, as he claimed that his diary was the result of his ‘desire to record some of my thoughts and activities so that when I am gone someone may come and read through them and see that I at least was capable of thinking of somethings that are removed from that which stinks in one nostrils’.31 (95)
Perhaps this can hint as to why Ward didn’t care for reading – or at least, not enough to give his reading any part in his memoir. Forster was looking for a focus, something with which to “distinguish himself” and become more than just ‘another working-class man’. His decision to read and write seems based in an attempt to better himself and distance himself from his class. Feely elaborates that “books are not only discussed at length in the diaries, but were also important to Forster’s sense of self. He himself hoped that his discussion of his reading would prove to future readers that he had, despite being a working-class manual labourer, ‘done much reading, much thinking’.” (94) To Forster, his intellect was his distinguishable feature.
Ward, however, was already distinguishable from others. Ward had a physiological condition which was irreversibly a part of him and defined him without needing to look for an external influence. Like Forster, he wrote a memoir based on his most notable quality. Unlike Forster, Ward need not look to books to find such a quality. Even if Ward had attempted to read contemporary literature about epilepsy to further his knowledge of it, the reading would likely have been inaccessible or incomprehensible to someone of Ward’s level of education.
It was important to Forster that the outside world should consider him a ‘thinking’ man. (96) As established in Education post, Ward was never particularly academic and took no pride being intellectual – Ward often instead emphasised his engineering skills, his ability to make toys for his children, etc. The purpose of Ward’s memoir, unlike many others of the time, is not to showcase his capacity to write a memoir or to spread any political propaganda. Ward wanted little else but to be considered a success against the odds, and to encourage others to do the same.
Feely, Catherine. “From dialectics to dancing: reading, writing and the experience of everyday life in the diaries of Frank P. Forster.” History Workshop Journal. Vol. 69. No. 1. Oxford University Press, 2010.