Last year I went to the cinema with a friend to see Rocketman, a biopic film about the life of Elton John. It was an inspirational story about how a shy boy named Reginald Dwight was transformed into the international superstar, Elton John. Though it was a familiar tale of rock star excess and exploitative management, it had some poignant moments, especially the scenes concerning Elton’s relationship with his family. As the credits rolled, I noted that Elton was the Executive Producer and his partner, David Furnish, was a Producer. Unlike other films of a similar genre, (such as Bohemian Rhapsody), the lead character is very much alive and clearly has a strong urge to tell his story from his own perspective. I imagine that Elton John wanted to make the film so that people will understand him better, and also as a counter to the mass of information written about him by other people. Though we may not all be superstars, we all seek understanding to some extent.
This got me thinking about the value of us telling our own stories, rather than leaving it to others. When we research our ancestors, don’t we wish that they could tell us their stories, in their own words? One of the frustrations of being a family historian is that no matter how stellar the research, at times it can feel as if we barely scratch the surface when it comes to getting to know a person. How do we get under their skin? What was their life really like?
Going into a bookshop or newsagents, one notices that the shelves are chock-a-block with the autobiographies of celebrities. Obviously, this type of book is popular with their many fans but should it just be left to celebrities? One suspects that the facts in many of these books may be selective, the content being an exercise in self-promotion, but what if you wrote about yourself? What would you include or leave out? How would you want to portray yourself? The truth may be subjective and flawed but an account of ourselves would still be a gift to future generations.
Writing about yourself is never easy. Some things you may want to keep private. Sharing intimate thoughts may not be desirable. There are also many genuine dilemmas. For example, how do you treat sensitive information which concerns people who are still alive today? Yet don’t be put off, despite the potential pitfalls. Instead, follow the same advice that you would give to someone just starting out on their family history quest. Instead of interviewing relatives, ask yourself the questions. Where have you lived, what schools did you attend, what jobs have you done, how did you meet your spouse, what hobbies do you enjoy? Create a timeline of significant events and go from there.
A redeeming feature of a funeral can be the moving tribute to the recently departed, usually given by a family member or close friend. Sometimes, on these occasions, interesting stories and facts about the person’s life emerge that are unknown to the majority of people present. Even then, one is left wanting to know more. So many questions but the opportunity to ask them is gone. Don’t leave it too late, both to interview your relatives and to write your own story. History is a collection of stories told from different perspectives and your own perspective, even if riddled with biases, is of immense value.
With a world that has gone digital, there is a mass of information available yet its permanence is uncertain. Data protection has, in many instances, rendered the keeping of personal information unlawful. Emails in their abundance ( I have over 50,000 in my Inbox), lack the physicality of letters and cards that might have previously been preserved over the years. Photographs, although more numerous than ever before, remain on phone sim cards or hard drives: few make it to be admired in frames or photo albums. A concerted effort needs to be made to leave a personal legacy to future generations because otherwise, it may not survive. Tell your story: your descendants will thank you.
© Judith Batchelor 2020