York writer’s extraordinary stories of ordinary people

29 Jan 2013 @ 8.55 pm
| News

Dave’s mum Edie with her brothers with brothers Ronnie and Billy on the trap at home in Ireland. Photographs: Dave Stanford
You don’t have to search far for an inspiring story, says York journalist Dave Stanford. To mark National Storytelling Week, he explains how he found a cracking drama on his doorstep

With the advent of reality TV and celebrity gossip magazines, it sometimes feels like we are only interested in the lives of the rich and famous. But in my work I’ve come into contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of “ordinary” people and I’ve often been left staggered by some of the amazing stories they have to tell.

It really is true that everyone has a story to tell – they just sometimes need help to tell it. That’s the idea behind my new venture – A Story To Tell – where we professionally write and produce people’s life stories in book form.

Generally, people are not looking to make a fortune from writing their books. Most people want to ensure the story of their lifetime is preserved for their children and grandchildren to cherish and to provide a keepsake their family will treasure forever.

Edie as a newly-qualified nurse
Edie as a newly-qualified nurse

Others want to make a contribution to social history and shine a light on a period of time or working environment that is in danger of being forgotten. A few hope it may be a cathartic experience, providing an opportunity to get things off their chest and maybe set the record straight.

There are some who want to write a tribute to something or someone who has influenced their life, or others who hope in writing their life story they can give hope to others.

Sometimes, it may be a combination of all those factors that prompts someone to want write their story, but they may be don’t have the time or confidence to start the process.

story-to-tell-coverI got the idea for A Story To Tell when my mother, Edie, now in her mid-70s, wrote her own life story with her five grandchildren in mind. It should have made for a fascinating read. Mum was one of 12 children raised in a two-bedroom house in Eire in the 1930s and 1940s.

There was no electricity or running water and hardly any food and, just to compound matters, mum and her siblings were raised Protestant in a staunchly Catholic country at a time of fervent Irish nationalism.

But there wasn’t any real structure to mum’s own story and so it didn’t particularly read very well. One of the problems faced by people who write their own memoirs is that everything is clear to them, but not necessarily to others who haven’t lived through it.

There was no context or historical background and I really thought mum’s story deserved better and it would be a shame not to use my journalism and design skills to help.

And so began a six-month process of extended interviews between my mum and me, which proved to be really enjoyable for both us. Mum enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane and I got to find out so much about my Irish heritage and family and managed to tease out some fascinating tales that mum had omitted from her original story.

Dave's grandmother, Louisa Bonham, taken in about 1905 in Belfast when she was working as a nanny
Dave’s grandmother, Louisa Bonham, taken in about 1905 in Belfast when she was working as a nanny

They included how Edie’s English-born mother, Louisa Bonham, worked as a nanny for the Barbours, a wealthy Belfast family at the start of the 20th century. Mr Barbour’s sister, Helen, was married to Tommy Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic and went down with her when the ship’s maiden voyage ended in disaster.

In her book, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Edie writes:

It is my understanding that Helen was expecting to sail with Mr Andrews on that fateful voyage and the couple’s baby daughter, Elba, was to be looked after by my mother along with all the other Barbour children. But Mrs Andrews fell ill and did not travel, staying at home to look after Elba as Mr Andrews sailed to his death. Mother often remarked how the terrible news of the Titanic’s sinking slowly filtered back to Belfast and to the Barbour family, with the shouts of the newspaper sellers on the corner of the street outside the family home first alerting them to the tragedy.

More recently, I’ve helped another lady write the story of her childhood raised in a tiny village on the fringes of North Yorkshire at the end of the Second World War. It was really interesting tale set in a fascinating period of British history, when after years of war the social conventions of pre-war Britain were slowly being eroded.

But what set the story apart was a family secret that gradually unraveled as we went through the interview process and which saw great grandmothers become grandmothers, grandmothers become mothers, mothers become aunties and aunties and uncles become cousins.

The client’s father had been born out of wedlock in 1916. He was reared by his grandparents as the “brother” of his unwed mother, who was subsequently sent away to work in service and thereafter was forever referred to by the family as “aunty”. Aunty would often return to the family home for visits but the family secret – described in the book as “that dark shadow” – was never talked about or questioned ever again.

Looking back through 21st century eyes, it’s astonishing that such things happened in order for people to save face with their neighbours but it’s a fascinating nugget of social history that could easily have been forgotten but for this book.

Edie in the yard of the family home in Cahir
Edie in the yard of the family home in Cahir

My latest book is for a man who wanted to write his life story as a tribute to his father, a miner, and also set the record straight to a perceived injustice. Raised in the South Yorkshire mining village of Maltby, the client felt the local history books rarely gave enough credit to the role Irish immigrants, of which his father was one, had played in building not only a community but also a nation.

It’s a story that stretches back 160 years and is part historical study and part memoir, but through it all runs stories of hope, fear love and death, making for an epic tale in every sense.

A sense of mischief also courses through the book, as emphasized in the following extracts…

For all the amenities, events and burgeoning material comforts that Maltby had to offer, and they were sometimes vast compared with life in the inner cities, what really made pit communities stand apart were the people, their ethics and their outlook on life.

Running through the heart of Maltby, almost as thick as the coalseam running down below, was a sense of fun and great humour.

This abundant humour was probably born out of a need to compensate for the often soul destroying work that miners had to endure, but its role in forging a community, strengthening ties and bringing people together should not be underestimated.

The stories, and the characters behind them, were numerous as one would expect from mining men, Irish or otherwise, and were constantly doing the rounds in the village.

One such tale when I was growing up in the 1940s concerned a lecherous mine-deputy, whose name for fear of reprisals shall remain anonymous but I’ll refer to him as Jack. Deputy Jack was having a passionate affair with a miner’s wife, a very dangerous act indeed in a small community such as Maltby.

The bold Jack was in the habit of giving his lady friend’s husband overtime in order for him to carry on with the illicit affair.

One dark winter’s night, as the gas-lamps dimly flickered in the back streets of the village, Jack became even bolder and decided to pay his amour a visit at her home. After all, the husband would be at work and the coast would be clear, or so he thought!

Jack, after pondering for a few moments, cautiously gave a soft tap on the door of his “bit on the side”.

As the door slowly opened, Jack was confronted with the terrifying figure of the burly coalminer husband, dressed in singlet1 and a thick leather belt holding up his huge overhanging beer-belly and pants. Jack, momentarily tight-assed with fear, knew the game was up, but quick as a flash, blurted out apologetically: “Sorry, I’ve got the wrong house.”

“Nay lad,” said the burly miner gruffly, at the same time raising his huge knarled fist. “Tha’s got reet house, but wrong time old luv!” and his fist crashed into Jack’s nose, laying him flat on his back in the yard.

The following story, which is unrelated to mining but well worth noting, is an example of Irish savvy and cuteness, and relates to three young navvies in their 30s. The story had been doing the rounds of the village when I was teenager. Some said it was a pack of lies while many others swore it was true.

Corkman Mick “Dragline” O Sullivan and Mayo brothers Peter and Brendan Corcoran, who I was well acquainted with, were employed by PJ Burke, a civil engineering contractor based in Barnsley. Dragline was exceedingly fond of dogs. His latest canine acquisition which he bought from Limerick-man Paddy Bradish, went everywhere with Mick; to the pub, to work, and some went as far as to say that Pat, the greyhound, even slept between Mick and his buxom, crossed-eyed partner, Audrey, in the same bed.

The three lads had been working in a quiet countryside location, laying telephone cables and were being paid on a gang basis. Unknown to the contractor, the three had been fictitiously booking in a fourth man for the duration of the job and sharing “his” wages.

No one, especially the agent, were any wiser for the scam.

That is until one rainy day as the three sat in the van, word came through that the agent was to make a special visit, either to find them more work for the day or send them home.

Panic set in. The three had to think fast and prepare a story as to the whereabouts of the fourth man. As they sat in the back of the smoke-filled old van, time and their luck was swiftly running out. Dragline talked of cutting his luck and doing a runner with greyhound Pat but then a plan came to the Cork man.

Ten minutes later, Pat was sat hunched in the front seat of the van with Dragline’s flat cap on his head and Brendan’s donkey jacket3 draped over him. Minutes later, and the agent had arrived. The kettle had boiled and the agent climbed into the back of the van for a “whet of tay” before telling them to get off home due to the heavy rain and thanking them for their hard graft. He told them he was pleased with their progress and generally had the craic with them.

Pat was well behaved throughout, not making any noise as he sat motionless in the front seat taking everything in, despite it being an hour or more before the rain eased enough for the agent to continue on his rounds.

On leaving the van, with Peter walking behind him to the car, the agent reiterated his opinion of the job in progress. But it was his parting comments that Peter swore touched him most.

When asked by the other two if they had got away with the fourth man, Peter repeated the agent’s overall opinion of Pat.

“Peter, said the agent. “You’ve got a grand crew there and they obviously work and play hard but, by jaysus, the quare fellow, Pat, is it? He’s one ugly fecker and very quiet too, don’t you think?”

The following tale was doing the rounds of the village when I was in my teens, which concerned a miner by the name of Big Bill Murfin.
 Maltby pit baths were built in 1939. Prior to then, miners had to walk home in their muck and bathe at home4. Bill had been taking a shower in the pit baths after coming off the night shift.

After removing the dust and caked-on grime from his eight hours of underground toil, Bill decided to sit down and dry himself on the wooden seats provided for the purpose. A short time later the pit ambulance man received a vague message that a problem had occurred in the baths.

Scratching his puzzled head the ambulance man, with his first-aid bag in hand, rushed over to the baths followed by some members of management who had also been informed of the situation. They too were bewildered. ”What could possibly go wrong while men were taking a shower?” they asked themselves.

On arrival at the baths, one could only describe the scene which greeted them as uproar. The whole night-shift, in various stages of undress, were rolling about with side-splitting laughter, as punch drunk ex-professional boxer Frankie Lane, the baths’ attendant, lay on his back under the slatted-seating.

Big Bill was screaming out in pain as Frankie attempted to manipulate and manoeuvre Big Bill’s “family jewels”, which had become well and truly trapped in the gaps between the wooden slats.

With the aid of a jar of Vaseline, the ambulance man soon had Bill free, without much damage to his manhood, I should add. But, needless to say, Big Bill’s pride was seriously injured for many months afterwards.

It’s a privilege when people let you into their lives and tell you their life stories and its great to help people access forgotten memories, find their voice and tell their story. And the real satisfaction comes when you present people with their books. Inevitably, there’s always a few tears, a sure sign of a job well done.