The Trouble with Writing Memoirs

CD cover for The Moon's a Balloon
I remember reading David Niven’s account of issues he faced while writing his “Hollywood” autobiographies. For those who have no idea what I’m on about, the two titles were Bring on the Empty Horses and The Moon’s a Balloon, a compilation of tales, both his own and borrowed, about the Hollywood of old and his time in it. In an interview with someone, he tells of sitting in his garden and being distracted by literally everything. “Oh look! There’s a jet flying overhead…” was just one great example given by the author.

Sitting down and recollecting my own memories of working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service as, to the best of my knowledge, the only “Yank” in the service and definitely the only one with Native American heritage, has been an uphill battle. Not necessarily the remembering, that part is pretty easy, but the documenting has been a bit problematic. Sitting in front of my laptop does not automatically prompt instantaneous recall for inclusion. At night however, just as sleep begins to claim my non-cooperative brain, funny and memorable events from my time at Warren Hill flood in.

From the lad who decided to escape on the day of his release to the day the prison “lost” a youngster who found the perfect place to hide all prance across my mind as I drift off.

I will not lie, there are other events that are not so pleasant, the day I got so angry at the female governor that it seemed a heart attack was imminent. The time “The Hill” lost two wings, both of which had been my work place for years until moving to another portion of the prison, because 7 lads rioted. Almost losing a good workmate and valued colleague in the same riot.

HMP/YOI Warren Hill Front Gate

The year we lost three friends from the staff to the grim reaper within a time span of mere months still haunts me, as I know it does all those who worked on The Hill. This was the one time that I actually cried in front of a prisoner. While explaining that a popular member of staff “will not be returning,” the lad, a “lifer” got angry. “You’re lying Guv!” Choking back the overwhelming sadness I looked the young prisoner in the face and said, “No lad, I’m not.” Tears streaming, I turned and left his cell.

It is not, however, the “bad” memories that make writing all this down so difficult. It is the reliving of all these events, good and bad. The funny recollections make me laugh just as hard now as then and the annoying ones still make me angry. I never intended to work for the prison service. Once I joined, though, it was something that I enjoyed and becoming, self admittedly, addicted to the adrenaline rush that working with juvenile offenders entails. The people whom I worked with, again good and bad, all made the job what it was and the lads we looked after insured there were no dull days at work.

During my interview, one of the then governors who was conducting the Q&A stopped in the middle of the process and said, “I hope you have a good sense of humour. These lads will make you laugh.”

He was right.

However hard the documentation of those days continues to be (Oh look! There’s another hummingbird!) I realize that if given the choice again, I would go back to work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service all over again. Only this time I would opt to not have the heart attack which resulted in my ill health retirement.

6 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

I’m Doing this Right Now…..Not

 

Cover of "Bring on the Empty Horses"
Cover of Bring on the Empty Horses

I am writing a book! Well…I’m trying to write a book. It should be really easy, but… The problem is with me, amazing how much that sounds like the classic break-up line, “No really! It’s not you, it’s me.” I love writing; always have. But I’m suffering from the ‘David Niven‘ syndrome.

David Niven (1910 – 1983) was a wonderful actor. He won an Acadamy Award for his role as the faux military man in Seperate Tables. Niven was an extremely articulate and intelligent individual. I have always admired the man, even when he worked in some of the most execrable films ever made. He had that certain something that set him apart from the other folks in the film.

Niven was a brilliant story teller. He was at his best when regaling people with amusing stories of people he had met, or worked with, or knew. It was these stories that he finally, after much prodding from friends, wrote down and they became – The Moons a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. Faintly auto-bigraphical in nature and wonderfully funny and sad, these two books stayed on the bestseller list for ages.

It has been argured that David cribbed a lot of the stories in his books. It has also been said that he embellished the tales to make them more interesting or funnier. How tiresome. I really, and I don’t think any other fans of the book do either, care. What he was good at was both telling stories and then (later) writing about them.

I am sure he embellished a lot, if not all, of his of his “cocktail party” stories. I remember reading in another book on Niven’s life. Someone famous (don’t ask me who, please don’t, because I’m damned if I can remember) listened to Niven recount an amusing episode at a cocktail party. At the end of the story, he scratched his head and said, “I was there! And I don’t remember it being that funny!”

The point is, as I said earlier, that Niven was good at the telling of and later the writing¬† of these wonderful stories. *Yes, I know that I’ve called the stories wonderful several times now*¬† But, where the stories were easy to tell, they were much harder to write about. He liked writing in the garden, but this favourite spot was filled with diversions. Niven himself mentions in one of the books that: “I can always find something else to do. ‘Oh look at that bird.’ ‘Oh what a lovely butterfly.’ Even the sight of an aeroplane passing overhead can take up huge portions of my time.”[sic]

Now I am not saying the book I am writing is going to be anywhere near as good, or amusing, or popular as Mr Niven’s. I do suffer, though, from the same problem. If I listen to music for “inspiration” whilst writing, I have to be careful to not really listen or I will get caught up in the music and stop writing. I also suffer the same problems in the garden; not secluded by any means, but it can offer a lot of quiet. It also offers – birds, bees, wasps, butterflies (although not many), planes, or helicopters flying overhead. All good for allowing my grasshopper mind to wander. It seems that my brain cannot wait for the chance to stop thinking about the things I really want to write.

I have two books going on at the same time, I like to write the same way I like to read, one short story and one book with a collection of short stories. Not a problem. But…But… I also have three blogs. don’t get too excited, I usually write the same item and copy and paste it to the other two sites. I also follow a few blogs and I have to comment on the ones I’ve read and liked. Oops, my coffee cup is empty, must go and refill the kettle and make another one. Oh look how filthy that television cabinet is looking, I’ll just go sort that out. Oh look, someone else has subscribed to my small channels on YouTube, I must thank them. Ah! Someone has commented on: my channel, my facebook page, my Twitter, my…Well you can get the idea, I am sure.

My daughter (Meg) is a great Dad cheerleader though. She keeps reminding me that I am supposed be working on the book(s) and not mucking about with all these other things. It helps. And I figure if David Niven could combat the distractions, so can I. I seriously doubt that anything I write would even be published, but I will have the satisfaction of finishing it and having at least one person love it as much as I do.

But first I just have to post this blog and then copy it…