What I’m listening to as I type: American V – A Hundred Highways
Ted is dead. As is Rex and Ian and, by the time you read this, perhaps Dorothy or Kath or Eunice.
I was sitting in a half-empty pub in Newcastle Emlyn when Ted’s wife called to tell me he’d passed.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. And then: “He was a real gentleman.” And I told a story about something he’d said to me, and she told another story and the conversation carried on see-sawing that way for a while, with the bar behind me hushed and listening-in.
Soon, because there was a reason Phyllis had called me on that wet August afternoon, I said:
“You should go ahead with Ted’s book. It’s almost finished and I could get it printed for Christmas. You could give it to the family as presents and it might help. It might help you to remember him as he was, before he was ill. I think Ted would want to see it finished.”
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes, what a good idea!” And there it was – the teeniest, tiniest chink of light; of something she could bear to do in a future without her soulmate.
Ted – and Ian and Rex and the others – had been one of the volunteer subjects in a pilot project I’ve been working on over the last year or so. The Lasting Lives project, which will eventually become part of my relaunched Sweeble, pairs volunteer journalists and writers with individuals to help them tell and publish their life story.
The focus is on capturing stories that would otherwise be lost so, in the pilot, myself and a couple of fellow former journalists worked with cancer patients at a local hospice. But we’re also currently looking at working with refugees and basically anyone with a life story worth capturing and saving for the future.
What I intend is to develop a set of standards, ethics and structures – plus publishing templates – to help writers work with family, neighbours, friends, and strangers to build a massive global archive of the extraordinary ways we all live our ordinary lives.
We have partnerships with local organisations: hospices, churches and public archives, and support from pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to. But this has to become bigger – a model that thousands of writers could use to capture life stories wherever they live.
So right now, as well as hopefully finishing Ted’s book, I’m in the middle of setting up the project as a UK charity and finding people and funding to help me develop and grow it.
It’s all taking longer than I’d like because I’m trying to do it alongside my paid work and all the other stuff that fills all of our days. But we’ve so far published two books and have two more ready to go. Which is really what it’s about: helping one person at a time – and their family – to see their life in print and know their story will live after them.
Yes, I did say print.
My father died of dementia. It took ten years – each one harder to bear than the last. But before his mind started to go, he’d begun writing his life story. Pages and pages of tight, handwritten text that my brother painstakingly copied into an electronic file, and I crafted into a book and had printed a few weeks before his death.
And, Oh my goodness, the difference it made!
In the book, our father, my mum’s husband, was back. In all his big, brave, joking, wanderlust glory days.
If you’ve seen someone fade away into death, you know how hard it is to replace those final images with memories of how they were. A book, written in their voice and telling the stories they used to tell, is so much more effective in rebuilding who they were than trawling through photo albums – real or Facebook ones.
The book helped my family get to a better place in remembering my father. Which is what I told Phyllis and why I knew – or maybe just believe – it would help her.
Every reporter who’s ever done a death knock knows why the family will usually talk to us. The reporter drinking tea in their front room, listening to them, writing things down, is making their story real. We’re saying: ‘People will read about this person you loved and understand why you’ll miss them.’ We want to have mattered; we want the lives of the people we love to have mattered.
I mentioned earlier about the project becoming part of Sweeble. I’m not going to go into the whole Sweeble/Bubblews shenanigans again, but for any of you missed it, Sweeble is the self-publishing start-up I started a few years back. Early incarnations failed, but I learned a massive amount about digital to print publishing and that’s going to go into reviving Sweeble as the publishing arm of the Lasting Lives charity.
I tried all sorts of publishing software during the pilot – from Blurb to Quark – and didn’t find anything that was as quick and easy to use as Sweeble had been. So, once the Lasting Lives charity is up and running, I’ll be rebuilding Sweeble as the publishing platform that Lasting Lives – and perhaps similar storytelling projects – will use.
When I met Eunice – whose book was the first one we published – she insisted no-one would be interested in her story:
“I don’t know why anyone would want to read about me. I’m just ordinary. I’ve just had an ordinary life.”
“Apart from the being held up,” her husband interjected.
“Well, yes. Apart from that time I was held up at gunpoint.” And she smiled such a wicked smile, and there – we were off.