I’ve just spent the last few days archiving my parents’ papers. I’ve always been fascinated by family history, so it was a real treat to have the time to search through note books, scraps of paper, and files scattered around the house and organising them. As a child, I loved to hear stories from both my parents, so I didn’t think the collection would bring me many surprises. At first this seemed to be the case as I came across many things that I’d seen before. I quickly found an excerpt from my Great Uncle Bert’s memoirs, a box full of my father’s employer references (each detailing his passion, skill and commitment as a teacher) and all my mother’s articles about her many journeys overseas. I didn’t have time to read them in detail, but it was both pleasant and comforting to look through them again.
Once I’d cleared the writing desk, I thought the job was done, until my sister pointed out a large drawer in a cupboard in the next room which was crammed full of books and sheets of A4. I hadn’t looked at it for years, and it dawned on me that I might come across some of the plays my Dad wrote for us. I was particularly keen to find one called “The Knight of the Urgent Detergent” which he used to read to us at bed time. But the first things I came across were several versions of a script for “Rumplestiltskin” written for us children to perform. I’d completely forgotten that one, and as I read I was taken right back to the Christmases of my childhood when we’d put on plays with whatever friends were around. As well as Rumplestiltskin there were also many poems and a putative version of “The Elves and the Shoemaker”. After that I did find fragments of a play which I think was the “Urgent Detergent” one as it involved a knight, a king, a queen, a witch and a cat, which felt familiar. It was every bit as funny as I remember, reminding me how much I’d wanted him to get them published. Alas! being a busy teacher with 8 children and bills to pay, he never quite found the time.
As I was leafing through the papers, I came across some notes about writing screenplay and then some short stories dated 1961, with some critique attached. I was wondering whether he’d gone to a writing class (if such a thing existed in the 1960’s) when I realised my mistake. The “J” Moffatt in question was my grandmother, Jane, not my Dad at all. She’d written the stories in her mid 70’s five years before she died. I choked when I saw her name in full. I had no idea she wrote.
My twin sister (the writer Julia Williams) and I were a year old when our grandmother died. Though we never knew her properly, we were both fascinated by her life. She was a highly intelligent woman who managed to gain a place to study English at Liverpool University at the beginning of the last century. However, her father (whether due to finances, sexism or both) would not let her go. Our Dad was very close to his mother and always felt this injustice deeply. Which was why he was so determined my sisters and I were well educated. It’s why Julia studied English at Liverpool 80 years later, and goes by our grandmother’s maiden name on her blog. And it’s why my character, Elsie in my unpublished (as yet) novel, “Echo Hall” is Liverpudlian and was denied a chance to go to University.
Our grandmother had a hard life. She married young, and at 48 was a widow with dependent children. Unable to find work in Liverpool due to the Depression, she was forced to uproot and move 200 miles south. She did eventually find a job as a teacher, and was a very successful one. Nonetheless she was never able to achieve her full potential.So it’s both sad and wonderful that she was writing in her seventies. Sad because if she’d had money and a room of her own sooner, who knows what she might have achieved? But wonderful, because at the end of her life she was thinking up characters and working hard to make them live on the page.
It’s been brilliant to discover this new connection with my grandmother and to realise that writing really does run in our family. I hope that she’d be pleased to think the twin babies she held in the year before her death have both become published writers. I hope she’d enjoy the stories we write. I’m certainly looking forward to reading hers properly. And from now on – whenever I write – I’ll be writing for her.