vignettes of a childhood 100 years ago
At the start of lockdown I put up on Facebook a short description my mother had written of her experience of the 1918 flu. I was amazed at the interest it evoked. I followed it with a short piece about her early life – and got a similar response. Here were my friends, all dealing with the adjustments of lockdown, several living alone, some with real anxieties – all welcoming a little distraction, and it seemed that this hit the spot.
I had asked her when she was in her seventies to write some of her childhood memories. Since then I have explored the history of the places and times she moved through. I thought one day I would write it up for my grandchildren, but I hadn’t got further. Now my friends’ reactions suggested it might fill another purpose. I thought about how some 19th century novels were published chapter by chapter – there’s a charm in a serial story, getting involved in the characters but having to wait to find out what happens next. Perhaps that would work now for people stuck at home, their ordinary pattern of lives disrupted?
So I started sharing vignettes from my mother’s childhood, in instalments. At first I kept them short, thinking that suited the attention span of people dealing with sometimes difficult changes. Readers said, ‘Why are they so short?’ – so they got longer. Facebook posts need photos and my mother had left very few – so I searched the internet for ones that showed her places, at the times she was there. Within a couple of weeks several hundred people had told me they were following it and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. Friends who don’t do Facebook heard about it and wanted to be included – so now each instalment also goes out to a growing email list, and for really elderly friends it goes to grown children or carers who print it out for them.
I asked readers to tell me why it worked for them. One wrote, ‘The appeal is in knowing it’s a real story, the mix of hardship and bravery, and parallels for our time. The way you have structured it is so appealing, the parcelling out in a serial. A lot of people are struggling to read at the moment. Right story, right time, right structure!’
So I kept going.
I’m not planning to publish it in book form yet — it’s part of a larger project. But if you’d like to hear when it does, sign up to my blog.