I always enjoy attending book launches. There is something exciting about seeing a pile of crisp new books hot off the presses, (or these days straight from some photographic process) carefully displayed, and also meeting and talking with the excited author – knowing that you will be among the first to hold and read an entirely new creation. I have been fortunate enough to host a couple of launches for books I have written, and I know how exciting and apprehensive it can be for the author. To open one’s soul to the world and to publicly share something you have created largely in solitude over several years – can make you feel quite vulnerable. What if people hate what you have written?
The recent book launch I went to was for the launch of a memoir written by an old friend of mine. The book was modestly entitled, The Ordinary Life of a Ten Pound Pom. Cliff Owler, now aged in his late 80s, had immigrated to New Zealand alone as a young man in the 1950s under the government scheme to encourage English people to migrate to our country. You paid the sum of ten pounds and the New Zealand Government paid the rest. Hence the sometimes slightly derogatory term of ‘ten-pound pom’ came into our language.
The self-effacing title of the book got me thinking about what constituted an ordinary life. Is anyone’s life truly ordinary? In the book, Cliff retold a story he had shared with me many years ago. I have told it to a number of people since and all have found it most thought-provoking. Cliff was born in 1931 in a poor suburb of the Scottish city of Dundee. Times were hard and Cliff’s mother already was struggling with a one-year-old child. The old doctor who delivered Cliff, a sick and premature baby still to draw his first breath, held him up and asked the mother, ‘Are you quite sure you want this baby?’ If Cliff’s Mum had decided that she couldn’t cope, either emotionally or financially with a sickly further child, the doctor would have recorded Cliff’s arrival as being still-born. Cliff’s Mum said yes, she wanted the baby, and the doctor slapped the baby on the bottom or did whatever doctors do, and Cliff’s life started.
It is hard to imagine that the start of a long and successful life had depended on such a few words and an instant decision being made by a stressed mother who had just given birth. The doctor was obviously a pragmatic man who had seen much suffering among his many destitute patients struggling to feed their families in the midst of a financial depression. He gave the mother a terrible choice to make but I’m sure he was a kindly man who wanted the best for the patients in his care. As for Cliff, he has never been in any doubt throughout his life that he had a loving and caring mother.
Anyone who has lived a long life has lived through many interesting events and has had many varied experiences. To write intelligently about your life is to record a snapshot of social history and give a personal account of the times in which you live. A well-written memoir is much more than just a personal chronicle relevant only to immediate family and friends. Although I have known the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ author for almost fifty years his memoir told me much I didn’t know. It educated me, as a person born in New Zealand, about what it is like to arrive and make a new life in a strange country, without family support and company. It made me think of how additionally difficult it must be for those who not only come from another country but have the added difficulty of not having English as their first language.
I am quite sure that no one’s life can be called ordinary. You do not have to be famous or a so-called celebrity to have led a life worth writing about. Modern history is no longer just about Kings and Queens. With the huge interest in genealogy that exists these days writing about your life and your family history is well worthwhile. If you unselfconsciously write for your own satisfaction and do it from the heart, others will find it interesting too.
By Terry Carson.
This is another of Terry’s posts on GrownUps. If you like Terry’s work, you can read more from him here.