‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hübl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And when others write books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.’
-Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Yeah, I went there – I began a piece of writing with a Milan Kundera quote. You can judge me all you like as long as you read on… What makes this even worse is that I’m sitting in a café in one of the more questionable districts of Paris , drinking a tiny cup of coffee while I write these words. Somehow, the cheap nasty coffee, the cigarette smoke or the pristine hair of the clientele has reminded me of my grandmother. One of her greatest ambitions was to visit Paris, which she did, aged 80 on a mother-son bonding trip with my father. Primarily, she was impressed by the French attitude to smoking. My father told me he saw another side of Paris by standing on various street corners gazing at traffic through a cloud of cigarette smoke, which could form the basis of an amazing travel guide, ‘Travels with Smokers’. Lonely Planet, I await your call for a commission.
So, Paris makes me think of my grandmother. And while I wanted to write about her life, I was just about to scrawl across the page (I’m old school like that), the following epithet:
“While my grandmother is one of the most awesome women I’ve ever met, she’d never call herself a feminist.’”
And then I stopped. Because I don’t know if my grandmother would call herself a feminist, I’ve never asked. Until a few years ago, I don’t think anyone had asked her which political party she voted for. It was only a few months ago that someone asked her about working in a hospital in the Gorbals and about how her husband proposed to her and her opinion on Scottish independence.
In the past, elderly women in rural towns were often respected and venerated members of the community. They would dispense advice on matters as diverse as health, farming, enterprise and power, and with this advice came stories. These stories travelled from grandmother to granddaughter, mother to daughter, sister to sister, neighbour to neighbour. They were often warnings about transgressing societal norms but they also alerted women and girls to the inherent possibilities in a system which was designed to limit their potential. Now we have Grazia and Heat and the sidebar of shame – how much of the content in these media outlets has ever told you how to negotiate an unfair and repressive world?
My grandmother doesn’t really believe that her stories matter, but they do. She is as much a pioneer for rural Scottish working class women as thousands of middle class English women have ever been. She brought up her 8 brothers and sisters, faked her birth certificate so she could leave school at 14, trained as a nurse in the exotic climes of Glasgow (as my family are from the north, this was rather unusual), supported her brother through art school, was an air ambulance innovator, and instilled a love of education in her son, my father. She did all this in exquisitely immaculate suits, a cigarette in one hand and the occasional glass of brandy in the other. When I asked her last month if she ever knitted she replied, “No, I’d rather read a library book.” In short, my granny is awesome.
And her stories are not only part of mine and my father’s story; they form part of a rich fabric of testimony and history. My grandmother bore witness to one of the most exciting periods of British history. She was born in the same year that universal suffrage became an act of parliament, she lived through a war, the establishment of the NHS, the first wave of feminism. They way she experienced and perceived these socially significant milestones is important. She is one of the only people who can really tell us what it was like to grow up as a disadvantaged woman in rural Scotland, to use the welfare state and education system to improve her life and to get to the age of 86 and remain sharp and intelligent.
But no one is listening.
I was reminded of the dearth of women’s stories while watching the men’s Wimbledon final on a balmy London Sunday not too long ago. The commentators’ interest in Kim Sears was based solely on her relationship with Murray, her own stories were forgotten. Likewise, in the self-congratulating haze that ensued after the final, Virginia Wade’s story was conveniently airbrushed from history. Kate Middleton is another case in point: her stories are channeled through the man she married or her reproductive function; we forget that she is very probably an articulate and intelligent woman with something to tell us. She is relegated to the realm of symbols, and symbols rarely have voices of their own.
I studied history at university, mainly because of my love for stories. I wasn’t solely interested in white, able-bodied, heterosexual European men, but that’s what I ended up studying. Women’s stories were pushed below the surface, into boxes specifically designed for them – they remained apart and specialised. Sitting in a class devoted to women’s history, I realised that it was still just the same trope: white upper/middle class women writing history for other white upper/middle class women. Through looking at women in history in this way, we miss so much.
Because stories take time. They require concentration. They often require sitting down and listening to someone for the sheer joy that you can – not just waiting until it’s your turn to speak, but really listening and then asking questions. They are best told orally, with the requisite hand and facial gestures and falling and rising tones. We can jump into them and be carried away.
What I realised through the act of writing ‘my grandmother would not consider herself a feminist’ is that we need stories back. Because we don’t listen to stories anymore, we consume them. Glossy magazines, red top newspapers and social networking sites feed us news, but they don’t tell us the myriad of stories that make up a life. These missing stories and ideas are then destroyed because they are forgotten, which in turn becomes the destruction of memory. And, as Kundera tells us, the destruction of memory, this constant rewriting and airbrushing, only leads to further impoverishment.
Every person’s life is given meaning by the stories they tell and the ones they choose to keep hidden. Your granny is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people you’ve ever met, so go out and visit her. Because it’s so easy to become part of someone else’s story, to weave their wisdom into the fabric of your life. All you have to do is ask…..and then listen.