9 February 2011

"George and Me" - a memoir

It's the season for book surprises. No sooner had I blogged about one poet realising her dream of having a collection published, than the postman delivered a thick package. To my delight it contained a copy of Jean Robinson's George and Me, her memoir of taking over the 'The George' inn at Hubberholme, a hamlet nestled in the dramatic landscape of the Yorkshire Dales.

Newly married but living with her parents, as people did in the early 1950s when housing was still at a premium after the war, her husband announced that he'd secured the tenancy of a country pub and was whisking her away from the grime of the industrial city to a rural idyll in Upper Wharfedale - a perfect dream. With her brother tagging along to help as barman, Jean arrived to find an artist's paradise, complete with tumbling river and pretty stone bridge separating a Mediaeval church from the whitewashed The George... near derelict, with no electricity, mains water or sewage, and a small addition of 17 acres of fell-land to farm as part of the tenancy agreement. Needing an interpreter to understand the accents of the locals, who take bets on how long the townies will last, Jean is determined to make a go of the business, and the farming. And does, with much humour and many escapades.

Jean's route to publication is both typical and atypical of those who aren't aiming to produce a canon of work, but want to capture an aspect of their lives as social history or as a family heirloom. For years she'd been trying to write about her experiences in the Dales, but as many do when tackling a reminiscence project that encompasses friends and family, she wanted to put some distance between herself and her written form to help allay the self-conscious use of "I". She decided to change everyone's names and write in the third person, calling herself Sylvia in the book.

But living the experience and writing about it are two different things. Realising that she needed pointers she joined a local adult education creative writing class to help her on her way. I came into the mix when a couple of chapters were passed to me for cursory evaluation, and I recognised its problem at a glance: it was written halfway between a report and a series of diary entries as Jean, and many others, mistakenly believe a memoir should be written so as to stay true to the truth. What it needed was dramatising, in effect fictionalising fact as if writing a novel.

Once explained, Jean learned quickly and learned well. Her route to publication was strewn with the usual rejections, but she never gave up. George and Me is proof of that. I'm looking forward to reading it in its entirity. Well done that author.

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