Confessions of a local genius: At 77, my publisher announced me as their new discovery
Gillies Macbain, author of The Last Footman, on salvaging the past and the art of autobiography
Gillies Macbain, right, with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull
One day in 1964, when I was employed as a footman in Co Wicklow, one of my employer’s guests commented quietly that he had heard that I was writing a book. This was unusual, in that part of a footman’s role is to proceed so smoothly as to be almost invisible.
The attention was flattering, but why had he been discussing the domestic staff with his host? I only had time to tell him that it was about a bishop’s palace, a monastery and a lunatic asylum. He asked had I spent time in all of those places? But the rapidly cooling sauté potatoes in the silver vegetable dish obliged me to keep moving around the dinner table…
So at the age of nearly 77, announced by my publishers The Lilliput Press as their new discovery, I must have been writing or at least contemplating this memoir for over 50 years.
What kind of writer am I? No idea. Ask me when the reviews come out. What kind of writer would I like to be? I would like to be a local, rural genius.
That might sound conceited, or a little overambitious, but perhaps you and I understand something different by the word genius. I believe this about geniuses: that there is one in every village. The chances of a rural genius being discovered are not great, in spite of their numbers. Surely 99 per cent of rural geniuses born in obscurity also die in obscurity. The people that I am thinking of do not emerge from a school of writing, or a creative writing course, or a particular university. They just write. And often their style is not self-conscious: they just write in the same terms as they think, and are not always aware of their own distinctive character.
My publisher The Lilliput Press is also the publisher of Hubert Butler, of Bennetsbridge, Co Kilkenny. To him I would add Bob Quinn, in Connemara. And then, Mollie Keane, from Co Waterford. And John Seymour, who farmed in England and in Wales, and retired (if that is the right word for such an active man) to Co Wexford. And finally, Lady Gregory, from Co Galway.
The local village genius is more likely to find the universal, and to express it, in terms of their locality and, if they write fiction, that too is firmly rooted in the local and in the things that they know and the things that they experience. They may be self-educated and their writing will retain a strong local and personal flavour if they have never been educated out of it. How I would love to hear Augusta Persse’s (Lady Gregory’s) Irish accent, which was reputedly quite distinctive.
My odd list of formative influences also relates to people whose experience of life extended across Ireland and England, as does my own, or in Bob Quinn’s case, from the Pale to “beyond the Pale”. In some way, while rooted in your locality, it is also necessary to have left it at some stage, to achieve a clear and uninterrupted view.
There is also a characteristic of the Celtic revival/Celtic twilight authors which is so obvious that it is scarcely ever mentioned, if at all. Lady Gregory and JM Synge and perhaps WB Yeats were sensitive to the twilight of the rural and pre-industrial Irish-speaking culture, because their own Anglo-Irish culture was similarly in decline.
We have now emerged into an age of the internet, where locality has lost a lot of its insulating properties. This means that every writer can become a blogger, or publish on the internet – but it cuts both ways: every writer now can be exposed to the same influences, common mental fodder across the English-speaking world. Who has not read Harry Potter? Who has not watched Game Of Thrones?
Reaching for a description of a footman or butler, few will have personal experience of house run by a full staff of servants – but even when they have, how difficult will it be not to reach for Downton Abbey, a common insight into grand houses shared by both writer and readers, but a wholly fictional creation, and not even an Irish one?
I wrote my memoir of life upstairs and downstairs with that in mind, that domestic service in Irish big houses, with its own distinctive flavour, was rapidly fading from the collective memory. I also wrote of life along the Border between Co Monaghan and south Armagh, which I also experienced in the troubled 1960s.
As I wrote and revised, I imagined my future readers as men and women of my own age, sharing many of the same memories, but my publisher, who occasionally takes on young people for school work experience, gave my manuscript to a 16-year-old. She read it and liked it, but I was a little dismayed to realise that she was reacting to my life as history. The past 10 or 15 years which for me slid past so quickly were for her, almost literally, a lifetime.
It is a history which I fear for. Who has sepia photographs in a box in the attic any more? I keep my photographs on computer, apart from one or two which deserve silver frames. I also keep my old (previous) computer for the many photographs that it contains. Does everyone?
So my memoir serves also as a hard copy of the declining days of the Anglo-Irish big houses and Troubles on the Border. Perhaps some other local genius will purchase a copy and keep it safe?
It is not just that it took a long time to write – it took a long time to live!
* * * * * *
If I were a bookseller, or a librarian, I would classify all autobiographies under fiction. The writer of autobiography employs the same techniques of assembling a narrative as does the writer of fiction. The small differences are similar to the differences between history books and the best historical fiction, the latter having a factual background but made accessible by creating a strong narrative around a central character.
I have written a memoir of some two hundred and eighty pages which is essentially autobiographical and covers roughly a decade from 1963 to 1974.
An autobiography needs to be the story of a life which is sufficiently different so that it does not merely put before the reader things that they know already. My career path, if it even deserves that name, was an unusual one. To list in chronological order it went: solicitor’s articled clerk, Latin master (in an English prep school), pantryboy (in an Irish big house), footman, butler, assistant steward (on an Irish-owned yacht), caretaker and tour guide (at Castletown House), laboratory assistant, wine waiter, knotter and nipple greaser (and ITGWU shop steward), commercial dairy farmer, hostel keeper, organic farm inspector, wheelchair van driver, and finally, hopefully, writer.
Some of the shallowest of autobiographies are ghost written.
One of my favourite writers is Dan Breen, the Tipperary IRA man. He writes a good story, because he writes without frills, he has a very adventurous life, and his story moves on at a cracking pace from episode to episode. His title is not the most modest – My Fight for Irish Freedom – but he earns the right to boast. There is a rumour that his book is partly ghost-written. I hope that this is not true.
However short and dramatic your life, you are going to have to shape it into a narrative. The concept of “sticking to the facts” is completely illusory. If anyone sat down to write out the facts of a decade of their life – even if it could be done – it would take 10 years to read it. A rigorous task of selection is required. Forget the facts and tell the truth!
In my days as an organic farmer and hostel keeper, we were featured in a brief slot on the RTÉ magazine programme, Nationwide. The programme presenter and film crew came down to us one sunny morning, and filmed us for a total of five hours, well into the middle of the afternoon. This five hours of filming was taken back to Dublin, edited down, and appeared as an eight-minute item on the programme. Every minute of the filming was “true” in the sense that the camera does not lie – nevertheless it would be open to an unscrupulous editor to select anything they wished from the mass of material in the can and to shape it to any agenda of their own.
For many years (from 1966 to 1991) I was a contributor to the letters page of a national newspaper – the secret of which is to send your contribution on a postcard. Every letters page editor is constrained by space. His or her allotted column inches almost always need a short (and preferably witty) contribution to complete the jigsaw. If you cannot do that, it is almost better to send in a short article than a long letter.
Likewise the power of the blurb is a power of intense selection. (I do not like or trust blurbs!) Nearly 300 pages summed up in half a dozen sentences? No. Extracts from the text are preferable.
Long before an individual conceives the ambition to write autobiographically, the mind is of its nature, already selective. Do I remember the 4,000-odd breakfasts that I had over the 11 years covered by my book – individually ? I do not. I compress and distil them and am able to tell you what I usually have for breakfast.
Let me tell you what I believe – because it is fairly extreme: I believe that the narrative function of the mind is ancient, animal and instinctive. We deal with the events of the day as best we can, spontaneously and as they arise. In the course of the 24-hour cycle, we sleep. In sleep the mind is not inactive. Like a bank that closed at four o’clock in the afternoon, or a restaurant that closes at midnight, there is a lot of clearing up and sorting out going on behind closed doors.
We are composed largely of our memories, of things that we have learned, of characteristics shaped by our families, our education, our experiences, our victories, our loves, our losses.
We die every night. When we return to consciousness we are newborn. The memories that form us have been processed and revised and refined from the raw experiences that assaulted us during waking hours. This is essential. Dreaming is a natural and necessary mental process, an attempt to form experiences into a coherent narrative of who we are. A person deprived of sleep or the opportunity to dream, quite quickly goes mad.
Autobiography is this natural function carried into waking life.
Autobiography, I have found, is revelatory and, conducted as a thorough and honest examination of memories, therapeutic. A person that you had believed of importance in your life is disposed of in a few sentences. Then you find yourself typing paragraphs, with tears streaming down your face, about someone you thought of little relevance to your personal story, until now.
Autobiography is a creative act. A necessary fiction.
The Last Footman by Gillies Macbain is published by Lilliput Press