Monday 11 December 2017

The story of your life

Catalina Stogdon on the new ways of preserving old memories

Catalina Stogdon

A picture may paint a thousand words, but is a thousand words enough to tell the story of a life?

Or does a video recording leave a truer impression – weaving in voices and actions in full, glorious technicolour?

The saddest thing, surely, is to have no record at all – no diaries to pass down to add colour and shape the identity of succeeding generations; perhaps only a few faded snaps to show the grandchildren. A life lost.

Lucy Gaskill, a former solicitor turned researcher, has set up a company, Biograph, of professional interviewers to keep the tales of our families alive in the form of written biographies – a life story, published.

Those of us who feel their lives are not exactly packed full of daring deeds will wonder if they qualify for such treatment. Are all our life stories really worthy of a book?

“All lives are interesting. It is why people take such life decisions that makes them so fascinating,” says Gaskill, who has interviewed a cross-section of British society from war heroes and artists to nurses and vending machine operators.

Women in their seventies and eighties, even if they have not had illustrious working careers, offer intriguing domestic details of what life was like in the Forties – the laborious nature of “wash day” with all its soaking, boiling, scrubbing and wringing out; the rationing, home schooling and dalliances with soldiers.

“This is the age when most people decide they want a record of their lives, something to pass down to their grandchildren,” Gaskill says.

An individual’s biography can also act as an historical document which future generations can learn from. “Many who chose to have a biography have lived through the war. They are a dying breed,” she adds.

One Englishman spent his childhood in Burma but had to flee with his family to India when Japanese bombers attacked Rangoon. As a young boy, he was more worried about what would happen to his pet deer after they had to be dispatched to the local zoo.

“His children may not be able to visit these countries so it is a way of them sharing in that experience,” says Gaskill.

In his biography, Second World War officer Alan Harvey, who was awarded the Military Cross, recalls humorously – among the tales of derring-do and dispatching of German infantrymen – that those young soldiers who had gone to public school were recognisable by the fact that they wore pyjamas in bed. It is the illuminating vignettes of people’s lives that make them worth treasuring.

For others, such as artist Gus Grieco, a biography allowed him a voice.

Gus was struck down with a rare blood disease as a teenager that left him paralysed from the shoulders down. But one avenue still open to him, which he took out of sheer frustration, was art. He drew with a pencil or paintbrush in his mouth and the results are astonishing.

With painstaking strokes he has mastered striking, haunting portraits of his much-loved mother and father, cityscapes and self-portraits. He commissioned a book on his life to “explode the myths that people viewed him as not having a brain. He was trying to claim back his identity,” Gaskill says.

Erno Borbas, a retired brickie from Luton, wanted to capture his Hungarian childhood. The rise of communism interrupted his education and forced his family’s dramatic escape into Austria in the Fifties.

Hugh Kemp, an artist and former coal miner, records hearing the sound of a plane over his family home in Birmingham. From the window, he saw a German fighter-bomber swoop so low that the swastika and the pilot’s taut face encased in goggles came into view.

Historical record aside, is it really the done British thing to spend so much time talking about oneself?

“Most people are very humble about their lives. They are prompted to come here by their children, or are given it as a surprise anniversary present. They enjoy digging out photos – it inspires them to get in touch with old friends,” Gaskill says.

A short questionnaire is sent beforehand to jog the memory. Subjects agree the final wording, choose photographs and advise on their preferred style of book. It is written in the first person by the interviewer, “as though the subject were writing it themselves”.

In the concluding chapter of his biography, Gus Grieco reflects: “Who knows in this life how long the future will stretch? It may be longer or shorter than any of us hope, but that is the important word – hope. I look forward to enjoy as much as possible and leave my footprint on the world in some small way.”

Gus passed away, sadly last December, aged 39. His book ensures that his footprint won’t be washed away.

How to archive

If you want to write a biography yourself, the first step is to organise and archive family paraphernalia, before getting out the voice recorder.

Divide material into distinct categories: official papers to keep (will, qualifications, birth and marriage certificates); personal (family photos, letters, diaries); digital archives (important emails, digital photos).

Back up photos and important digital files on to at least two hard drives. Don’t rely on USB sticks – they are for short-term storage only.

Update digital files onto the latest technology to prevent them corrupting.

Good old-fashioned paper deteriorates more slowly than digital files. Store documents in a strong cardboard or archive box (a good selection is available from away from strong light, under the stairs or in a dry cupboard.

Source: Tim Gollins, head of digital preservation and Philip Gale head of private archive teams at The National Archives (

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