Thoughts on writing a book #1

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the UK today. TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are often at the top of the ratings tables and the largest family tree website Ancestry.com has almost 3 million paying subscribers worldwide and has access to 20 billion records in 80 countries. It is big business, for sure. Finding out where we have come from is a deep human need. Perhaps it helps us towards a better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. And as our world becomes ever more dynamic, busy and harder to navigate, that self-understanding becomes an important part of maintaining our identity, staying rooted

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My Grandmother Rose, with my baby brother and I, 1971

Most of us will have done a basic family tree at some point in our lives. I did one at primary school and can remember interviewing my grandparents to find out about their parents and siblings. I actually dug out this juvenile work a few months ago when I started the research for a book I am currently writing. I am writing a novel about my grandmother. The working title is Finding Rose. She was born in 1910 into a very poor family in East London, the seventh of ten children. She had a very limited education, having developed a disability called benign essential tremor. She had a ‘shake’ all her life which meant she had very poor motor skills, never able to write for example. My father, her second child, was born in Hertford on 22nd December 1940 (maternity patients were moved out of London because of the Blitz), while her husband, Charles, lay dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Kent. He died on 26th December, without ever meeting his son, my father. Rose never remarried, but had another child in 1943 and brought up her three children on her own, though with the help of her sisters, through the Second World War. Rose outlived all her siblings, dying in 1995 at the age of 85. Incredible when you think where she started. I hope I have inherited these robust East End genes!

1911 census
Could this be my great-Grandfather’s handwriting?

Through my internet research I have uncovered some incredible information about Rose and her family. I got a shiver when I saw a facsimile of the actual 1911 census form showing the composition of 1 year old Rose’s family home. But we need more than facts, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, etc. It is the textural information that I feel the lack of now – what was Charles, my grandfather, like? Where did he and Rose meet? How did Rose cope when she lost her husband? There is no-one left alive to answer these questions. My own father passed away in 2010 and my aunt and uncle are now elderly. My book will attempt to write Rose’s life. It will be necessary for me to make up most of it, so it will be my best guess at the life she had. I’m sure much of it will be the life I hope she had.

Your father's roomI have been reading a lot of fictionalised biography to help me and one book I read recently I found profoundly moving. Your Father’s Room by French writer Michel Deon is part fiction, part memoir, and looks back to 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Edouard, or Teddy, is the only child of a civil servant and his socialite wife. The family moves to Monte Carlo with the father’s job and there is a fascinating insight to life in the south of France at that time, the characters connected to the family and the nature of the relationship between Teddy’s parents. If this is an account in part of the author’s childhood then much of Teddy’s observations will have been imagined by Deon. Perhaps like me he is taking fragments of memory, partial facts and knitting them together to tell a story. It is very engaging even though it is not clear what is truth and what is fiction. How much of any of our family history is a story anyway, ‘facts’ that have been embellished (or concealed) over the years?

Your Father’s Room is a beautiful little book (under 100 pages) with a poignant ending, and Deon writes magnificently. The translation is extremely good. I’ve learned a lot from this reading about how I might approach my own book (and if my writing turns out to be even half as good as this, I’ll be delighted!) and filling in the gaps with my own imagination. I’m about 20,000 words in now, and am hoping to complete a first draft by Christmas.

Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear your experiences of family research. What have you uncovered?

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‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands

I’m going a bit highbrow this week – any lawyers in the room? I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, so a few months ago I set myself the task of reading a couple of books from the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards in the world. I read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which I really enjoyed and reviewed here back in February. East West Street actually won the prize; I enjoyed this a little less than Negroland, I have to say, but it is a remarkable work and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

East West Street img

These days we take for granted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; they are used fairly frequently, especially since the Balkan war in the 1990s, and fairly interchangeably, it seems to me. But did you know that these were only established as legal terms at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War? The gravity and scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis is largely undisputed, but when it came to actually bringing individuals to justice at the court of law in Nuremberg in the post-war atmosphere, charges had to be specified and evidence had to be considered. In many ways, it seems to me, it was a piece of theatre, but the legal minds at the time were severely exercised. And I guess if you are on the winning side, both militarily and morally, the pressure to maintain the moral high-ground is immense. The victors had to be seen to be following a path of rectitude and adherence to international standards of law.

“Jackson [presiding judge at the Nuremberg trial] crafted each word with care, signalling its significance. He spoke of the victors’ generosity and the responsibility of the vanquished, of the calculated, malignant, devastating wrongs that were to be condemned and punished. Civilization would not tolerate their being ignored, and they must not be repeated. ‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengenace and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.'”

(p.288, quote from Judge Robert H. Jackson, opening the Nuremberg trial)

This book provides a historical account of the intellectual tussle between two of the finest legal minds of the time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht fought for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ whereas Lemkin wanted ‘genocide’. To most of us the differences between the two might seem inconsequential, but the differences are in fact, as is discussed in the book, fundamental to the basis of international law. This is not the place for me to rehearse the arguments (even if I could!). I did struggle with the legal minutiae of the book, though I was able to grasp the broad concepts and it certainly made me think about an issue which I can honestly say I have never thought about before. And it was interesting, honestly!

So far I have probably made the book seem dry and dull to the average reader (though perhaps sexy to any of you legal eagles!), but prizes are not won by being dry and uninteresting and the author is far more successful than that; by far the more engaging aspects of this book are the human stories. East West Street is a thoroughfare in the city of Lviv, in modern day Ukraine, but which has previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Poland. It is also a town with which both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were linked. Lviv plays a central role in the book because it provides a snapshot of the Nazis’ ambitions and methods.

The heart of this book, however, is the author’s own quest to find out about his grandparents, Leon and Malke Buchholz, a young Jewish couple from Lviv who were forced to leave their home with their baby daughter Ruth, the author’s mother. Leon and Malke have revealed little about their early life and the author has many unanswered questions. Now dead, he sets about researching his grandfather’s early life, the circumstances of his marriage and how it was he came to be in England with Malke and Ruth. The author becomes a detective investigating his own family history and confronts some difficult truths, as is often the case. He conducts this search alongside his research into the legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and finds links and parallels.

The book is broken up into distinct parts: for example, the opening chapter is about Leon and his early life and then there are similar chapters on Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These were the chapters I found most engaging and most moving. Towards the end is a very long chapter about Nuremberg itself which was fascinating as it was not something I knew very much about before. Some parts of the book were for me overly detailed and I skimmed through some of these.

Unquestionably, however, there lies at the heart of this book a deep and terrible tragedy about which it is always worth being reminded: how prejudice, ideology, lies and propaganda, stupefied a nation, and, combined with power and determination, saw the murder of millions of people and displaced or traumatised many millions more and the consequences are still being felt down the generations today.

This is a powerful book which I recommend if you have an interest in history or the law, or if you just like to read about uncovering family stories. It looks daunting but it’s actually a quicker read than you might think.

Have you read any non-fiction books that recently that you recommend?

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