I would very much like to believe in the Loch Ness monster, and possibly flying saucers too. My father’s cousin, who has a house about half an hour from Loch Ness, certainly claims to have seen it, although, as she candidly admitted, her father-in-law was vice-chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board at the time, so she may have had a vested interest. I would like to believe in a lot of things which are untrue, because – the main motive for believing in such things, I guess – it gives one a superior air. People like magic. That’s why they liked ectoplasm in the Edwardian spiritualist parlours, and that’s why Conan Doyle was fooled by the Cottingham fairies.
It’s also why people like to believe in conspiracies, because it puts them in a position of infallibility. The challenges to the Warren Commission, the grassy knoll, the idea that Oswald was part of a conspiracy: all these are deeply attractive. But the fact is, there are plenty mysteries to be going on with, because we have such a ropey idea of almost anything more than two hundred years old. The whole art of family history is about turfing mysteries out of their closets, about finding out about the shocks and surprises of families as they fragment. I have yet to hear a dull family history – what I have heard is a family history told dully, which is a different matter altogether.
So, to digress into family history for a moment, since that is something I enjoy, the art of it is not collecting data (enjoyable though that is to me as an individual, and deadly to all but my closest toilers in the family swamps, we who have destroyed our eyesight by hunting through census material), but in presenting it as a narrative. It’s about story-making. It’s about structure. It’s about leaving out all the parts which are frankly of no interest to anyone, and extracting from the morass the hint or sniff of an anecdote. I’m not saying I’ve never written any boring life writing (I have). But I’ve learned from my mistakes. Facts and figures only go so far (many to the waste paper basket). But stories save the day.
So for instance, that my great-great-grandfather regularly attended the Sunderland Shipowners Society, but never said anything of note, other than ‘Seconded’, is uninteresting, as is the fact that he was born in 1842, and that he outlived not only all his siblings – all bar one younger than him, stop yawning at the back – is also perilously close to wearisome. But that he refused to eat cold meat – I don’t know if it was given away, or thrown wastefully away – that is potentially interesting. As a life writer I can do something with that – just as I can do something with the fact that his father carried pear drops, and that his mother swore and spat at Candlish’s statue in Mowbray Park in Sunderland (Candlish was Sunderland’s MP and briefly his business partner).
Life writing, which we teach on the OU course I help to run, is about the little drop of detail, not about the dates. It’s about strange little tragedies, like my great-great-grandfather’s brother who could recite passages of the Bible, but who died of water on the brain at the age of eight. I can recreate that. All writing, if it’s any good is re-creation, not recreation.
How did I get into that? I was going to write about the Loch Ness monster and flying saucers, and about Doris Lessing’s readiness to believe in ‘Chariot of the Gods’. More material for another day.
I would like not, on the other hand, to believe in the Loch Ness midges, over a five thousand of which (liberal estimate, but not very liberal) which bit me in the summer, so that I looked like a measled grotesque. Loch Ness midges have attitude. They carry tiny claymores. They are beyond the reach of Anthisan. Don’t believe me? Proof:
More frightening than the Loch Ness monster any day.