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Telling The Tale Of The Tribe

The challenges and rewards of writing personal memoir

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I have written four books of personal memoir, that odd category now studied as ‘life writing.’ I like to think of it as telling the tale of the tribe. My books combine travel and history and some are more personal than others, but all use my own intervention in the story as a key thread to the narrative. I like to compare the style to the avant-garde fashion of Jean-Paul Gaultier with all the stitching revealed on the outside of the garments. With each book there has been some unexpected outcome, people offended, gratified, stimulated to change. Sometimes it feels as if one is throwing a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples grow.

But of course writing about people you know has its challenges and drawbacks. Novelists do it all the time but they disguise their sources as fictional characters. Fay Weldon once said to me when I was struggling with research for an article, ‘Write fiction! Then you can just make it all up.’ Somehow to me though real life always seems infinitely more interesting than creating an imaginary world.

The first book was about my brother, an Anglican priest who died of AIDS. I interviewed him, his parishioners, my mother, the Bishop. Often people were aware I was writing it all down; one of my family once asked me plaintively, ‘Are you going to write about this, Rosie?’ Nor did they always agree with my version of the story, or my portraits of people. My sister who is much younger than I did not recognise the stern father I portrayed. Happily for her he had softened with the years. Simon’s dear friend, a woman priest, said she did not recognise her friend in my portrayal of this serious bookish young man, recalling their days of giggling together in tea shops and getting completely lost on their Greek holiday.

My second memoir was about moving to France en famille and attempting to restore a ruined monastery, educate my son in the village school and become part of a small rural community. Once I began writing of course, everything, however traumatic, became good copy, from the leaking roof to the squabbles with the farmers and the regular invasions of donkeys and cows in the garden. When my ten-year-old son finally came to read the book his comments were trenchant. Of a chapter about the history of the village entitled ‘A Cavern of Bandits and Thieves’ he remarked, ‘That’s not a very good title — only a policeman would want to read that.’

My husband agreed to my writing about him and about our relationship, sorely tested by our French adventures. As a biographer of among others, American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose whole philosophy was one of total openness in his poetry and his life, he could hardly do otherwise. He volunteered to be the fall guy: ‘You can make me the old curmudgeon,’ he offered, complaining about his unwilling rustication, French farmers and the iniquities of the French internet. But try as I might to caricature him he emerged as a sympathetic character nonetheless, what one reader described as a ‘quiet hero’. Ahem.

The village was changing from a remote rural enclave, welcoming outsiders and foreigners, artists, elderly English ladies and punk hermits with equal relish. I wanted to cherish and celebrate the real depth of community I found. One of the proudest moments of my life was when the mayor at the time translated my description of the community for a village event: ‘The mixture of people, to me, was glorious. All ages and several nationalities: French, Catalan, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, Algerian, Chilean, English. There were singles, gays, lesbians, divorcees both with different partners, adopted children, foster children, even a few conventional legitimate offspring. Teetotallers and pot-smokers, fascists and feminists, politicians and bee-keepers, farmers, gardeners, teachers, potters, donkey-owners, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, beggarmen and, doubtless, thieves too. Not to mention the writers, artists, nurses, carpenters, builders, librarians and jugglers.’

But my favourite outcome was the nun who searched us out after reading the book. I wasn’t there unfortunately but she met the donkey owner and he described her arriving, in her nun’s habit, anxious to see the monastery. She was French, had grown up in the Pyrenees, but had been sent on a mission to Wokingham in her youth and had never returned. I had brought back her childhood and love of the mountains. She wrote to me and we have corresponded ever since, exchanging Christmas cards and occasional emails and prayers. Well, she does the praying.

The next book, The Man Who Married a Mountain, was more biography and history and less about me. I became fascinated by the eccentric character of the nineteenth-century mountaineer, Count Henry Russell, who seemed more than anyone to have fully explored and celebrated these beautiful mountains. I felt if I could understand him and his story it would help me to understand the region better.

I wanted to see the Pyrenees through the eyes of Russell and his nineteenth-century contemporaries, and explore some of the most romantic sights; the great waterfall of Gavarnie, the Lac de Gaube, the Pic du Midi with its famous observatory. I travelled sometimes with my son, by then aged twelve, hoping to share with him some of its beauty. Travelling with him added a dimension of appreciation, and a way of deepening our relationship, that I will always treasure.

Again I included my own research trips and encounters, and this time I managed to offend the French. I visited several rather grand houses in the course of my research into Russell’s family. When I sent them the text for approval, as agreed, one family were horrified that I had described their house. I offended both sides of the entire clan – there was a schism of course – by suggesting that Russell may have been homosexual, thinking that this was no calumny. So annoyed were they that one member of the family wrote and published her own version of his story with a lot of the previously well-guarded photos and letters included. Result, I guess, though my own work was not cited.

So on to another subject, Love and War in the Pyrenees, about the Second World War in the region, which I did know was still a delicate issue. I talked to local people, survivors of the Spanish Civil War, British soldiers, and many others. I thought of it as the emotional history behind the theatre of war. But of course there were repercussions and I had to remove a section for the paperback which suggested that one of the characters might not have been in the Resistance.

But there were also unexpected and wonderful results. After the book was published I heard from so many people, writing letters, sending emails, even turning up at the door; the daughter of concentration camp victims offering me their last letters; the elderly Catalan farmer describing how they hid the pig from the Germans; the American soldier who had been parachuted into the mountains to aid the Resistance and whom I finally met in Paris. All stories that of course I wish I had been able to incorporate, but I began to understand that it is in the nature of such a subject that they will emerge only afterwards.

I was particularly touched by one email I received from a 78-year-old Quaker, Bernard Wilson, who had a house in the region. He says now his email to me changed his life. He had never written to a writer before, but was struck by the information about the work of the Quakers in southwest France. He had not known any of it. But he mainly wrote because he recognised my name and had known my father, Walter Bailey, or rather known his reputation – Dad always had a reputation – because both had been students for the Baptist ministry at Rawdon College, in Yorkshire.

Bernard began researching the Quaker history in southern France, keeping me supplied with new information and photos. I encouraged him and delighted in all the new material. Then he wrote about his researches and my book in the Quaker newsletter. As a result he was contacted by an American professor, who hoped he might help in tracking down his rescuer, the Irishwoman Mary Elmes, who had worked in the camps with Spanish and Jewish refugees. I had mentioned her briefly in my book, when I met her daughter at the Rivesaltes concentration camp memorial site.

Bernard uncovered a vast cache of material with details of Mary’s work. Eventually, and acknowledged as a result of my book, Yad Vashem awarded her the honour of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 2013. These are non-Jews – most famously Oskar Schindler – who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination. Bernard once observed that it was my father who had really started it all.

And after that I decided to write a novel.

Rosemary Bailey was an award-winning author of memoirs and travel books. She was partly based in the French Pyrenees for many years, a region she grew to love. Rosemary edited Collected before her death in March this year. She is greatly missed.

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