My Family and Other

I have wondered about writing my family history as a book to offer to publishers, but I think my notes will probably just stay in the family archive. I may in the future, however, use some characters and incidents in stories. We'll see.

At times when 'writer's block' sets in, adding some more notes to 'the history' often makes the words start flowing easier in other projects .

Though I am now a professional writer, I have to admit that I am not well read - at least, not in the same way that most writers and English teachers are. However, my parents' bookcase did fascinate me from as far back as I can remember. You may think that being surrounded by books from birth was the major influence leading to my present lifestyle, but I'm sure other family members, friends and experiences have played their part.

Some family members have been 'normal'. My parents were 'normal', but the family-tree has a few twisted branches.

My father was an engineer, but always read in the evening. His staple diet was 'westerns' and 'thrillers'. My grandmother on my mother's side, who lived with us, spent most of the day reading novels. My mother always seemed to be writing letters. As a child I was constantly read to by parents and grandparents, and in due course I read all the usual children's books of the time - Enid Blyton, William, Jennings, Billy Bunter. At 5 or 6 years old I was given a set of junior encyclopaedias, which were consumed voraciously, and by 9 or 10 I had such an interest in scientific things that, by 11, I had read all the biology necessary to pass 'Junior' exams for 16 year olds. Most reading from 13 - 18 was non-fiction. I think I imagined myself accompanying David Attenborough to far off places, and spent all my spare time reading his works, and those of Gerald Durrell.

At school we studied English literature as a separate subject - Chaucer, Shakespeare, many wonderful writers, but still I mainly read non-fiction for pleasure, and probably still do. I have to admit that I hardly ever read a novel, hate reading more than two pages in bed, and find very little time between 'doing things' and family activities to do much more than dip into books, read poems and bits and pieces of 'good stuff'.

At college I joined the Drama Society, had many friends in the English Department, read poems, plays and short things. Then, when I first started teaching, again I spent a large amount of time socially with some of the most talented actors and playwrights, wits, and some of the most learned and well-read people that I think will ever walk this planet.

My parents thrived on entertaining. This usually meant hours of debate / discussion, which I loved. So in one way or another I have been surrounded by words for most of my life.

However, I also wonder if my love of books could be in the genes? I never knew my great-grandfather (that's as far back in the family history that I can go) - but he was an author, printer, stationer and bookseller in outer-London. He wrote a Dictionary of Lancashire Folk Speech, which was published, and volumes of poems, which he self-published. He also printed the works of his friends.

One of these friends was Ernest Hartley Coleridge (whose name was the origin of Ernest as my middle name) - grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - and I have a copy of Ernest's unpublished poems. (I don't know if any were published later). He wrote in an obituary to my great-grandfather that, at the back of the stationery shop, he had a 'den' where many of the poets and writers of the day would gather for discussions, and to be entertained.

He must have also been an avid and very regular theatre-goer, for I have much of his collection of hundreds of play-bills and details of performers from the 1860's, with scribbled notes around the margins. He also collected engravings, particularly illustrations for books, and I have a small attache case full of those too. But great-grandfather, Frank E. (Francis Edward) Taylor, was embarrassing.

He was 'different'. He was the local eccentric, lunatic, nut-case. I'm sure he was called all those and a lot more. He was respected for his knowledge by his friends (who had often been initially summoned to his den, rather than invited), loved for his stories and adored for his wit, but there were not many politicians or local dignitaries who did not despise him, for none were safe.

Every day or two, he would make up a satirical poem, a squib, making fun of some council decision he felt inappropriate, a local member of parliament, a new police regulation… These were printed on his press, and I believe put in his shop window and distributed freely to his customers. His shop was the site of much laughter from patrons, and indignation from those attacked in his verses.

Independent Franky, as he called himself at election-time, was someone politicians hated, no-matter what party they belonged to, for in the most part, in verse, he proclaimed them self-centred or worse.

The trouble was, not every cause he fought for was a worthwhile one. He started to be considered someone 'trying to hold back progress'. No sewage running down the road in pipes for him. It would spread diseases far and wide! He campaigned for the retention of cess-pits. My grandfather, Ernest Taylor, spent as much time as he could road-racing on the super-lightweight bicycle he had made inorder to escape the controversies.

In standing up for 'people's rights', in one battle, Frank E. was summoned before the magistrate at the local law court for refusing to put a street number on his door, gate, or anywhere else on his property. This was the last straw. My grandfather, who had, by now, left the family business and obtained a job in a grocery store in the town, decided to move a long way away.

After years in the stationery, food and retail trades, Ernest decided to abandon all that he knew to become a farmer - for which he had zero knowledge or experience. He was going to be a pioneer, and in 1912 he took a 100year lease on 14 acres of land on the outskirts of Letchworth - a new town that mainly only existed on the plans.

He invited two others to join him. One was Thomas Flaws, the son of the editor of the Bedfordshire Times newspaper, who also had 'limited' farming experience, to say the least. The other was Gertrude Matilda Beaumont, the daughter of the owner of the grocery store where he worked. Though Ernest asked her to marry him so that they could set up this venture together, she declined. She would live unmarried with them both first, to see if she liked the lifestyle.

This is Gertrude and Ernest on their Ner-a-car motorcycle.

Was this 'small-holding' going to be viable? Was it a wise decision, in 1912, for an unmarried young lady to move in with two men in an isolated house on the edge of civilization? The scandal! What did her parents say? What did the neighbours in London say? What was their reputation in Letchworth? …And what a big change to leave a comfortable home with a maid to find that, at her new home, there was no flushing toilet, no bath, no hot water, no income, no mechanisation - just 14 acres of untamed land.

Gertrude eventually did marry Ernest. Ernest died when he was 95, and Gert at 99. During the whole of their married life they never had a day when they were not sharing their house with someone else …but I'll have to write more about them and the way they worked the land at some other time.

As I sit here in my own ‘den’, with many of my great-grandfather’s books beside me and my writing buddies visiting me in person or by email, I definitely feel I am following in his writing footsteps, and that his spirit watching over me. I just wonder how crooked my branch of the tree will be considered.