Kate's Writing Blog

Excerpts from Lifelines Assignments

Hurrah! I have finished the Open College of the Arts distance learning autobiographical writing course, Lifelines. It took me almost three years, which included a year’s extension. I can say that doing the course has had the desired effect: it has pushed and guided me into being an autobiographical writer and the many writing exercises generated much material that will eventually be incorporated into my memoirs.

The five tutor-reviewed course assignments have given me 10,000 words that I can expand on (and I have additional material I could not use in the assignments because of the 2,000-word restriction). I’m still pondering about the structure and I think it likely that I shall do an 80,000-word volume of memoirs that will include various interesting episodes from different times in my life (and my ancestors' lives). This also makes it possible for me to follow up with a second volume of memoirs later. I have masses of material to choose from. So now I’ve set myself a target of writing 2,000 words a week. When I have my 80,000 words ready, I shall start looking for a publisher, or I shall self-publish (though I would have to borrow the money to do so).

Below are extracts from the five assignments I completed during the course. They were written between March 2010 and November 2012.


ASSIGNMENT 1 - DEAR DIARY

Gondar

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Dear Diary

This morning I came out on to the verandah to serve the cats' breakfast of Lake Tana fish and was immediately aware of a distressed crying at the garden gate. I went to look, and there was a brown rat-sized pup, obviously left there for me. I picked it up and turned it over. A girl. Good, I thought. I have always preferred bitches: they don't cock their legs over my potted plants. She was severely stunted with misshapen legs owing to vitamin deficiency. If you ignored her crooked knees, dirty fur, pot-belly and the bustling crowds of fleas, she was pretty, with four white socks, a perky tail, lop-ears and dark brown eyes. I bathed her, dried her in the sun and combed out the fleas, then gave her a meal of milky bread and boneless slivers of fish. Contented, she fell asleep in the shade of the geraniums.

I wonder who made the decision to leave the puppy here? Did a mother tell her young son: "Take that puppy and give it to Mrs Katy - it'll have a good life with her"? Or, more likely, "Get rid of that filthy thing - we can't feed it, it's covered in fleas, and it's doing its business on my newly-swept floor!". I imagine a ragged child bringing the puppy - Ethiopian adults would not consider it an important enough task to bother getting involved. The children of Ethiopia run errands and do chores for adults much more than British children do. When I was a teenager, my mother, who worked full-time, paid me and my sisters to do the family laundry and clean our home (our brother helped by washing up twice a week, nothing else); in Ethiopia, daughters do these tasks routinely and without any reward. I feel that boys and girls should help by doing a fair share of the household chores (with satisfaction of a job well done being the only recompense), rather than being paid like staff or living like guests in a hotel, expecting everything to be done for them.

[Post Script: Later I called the puppy Melita. She still lives with us.]

Melita
Melita


ASSIGNMENT 2 - JUDY POODLE AND ME (THE EARLY YEARS)

In 1996 I spent a week as a volunteer at the Amitabha Kadampa Buddhist Centre on the Somerset coast, near Minehead. Judy went with me. The work I did depended on the weather. When it was fine, I toiled in the gardens; if it rained, I scrubbed cookers in the kitchens or typed in the office.

The Amitabha Centre occupied a grand, historic house that had been a boarding school years before. Within the thick stone walls, the air retained its winter chill, despite it being high summer. At night Judy snuggled up with me in a sleeping bag in the girls' dormitory - my own hot water poodle, which leaked occasionally.

A gompa is a room where a golden Buddha sits on a table spread with colourful flowers, scented candles and edible offerings. There, teachings are given and meditations led by the sangha (the ordained monks and nuns). At the Amitabha Centre the main gompa was in the spacious south-facing reception room with its crystal chandeliers, ornate fireplace and French windows.

One day I entrusted Judy to an acquaintance on the north side of the building while I attended a session in the main gompa. A monk sat in his robes facing fifty cross-legged hopefuls, each striving for enlightenment. During the meditation, when eyes were closed and minds should have been empty, giggles from near the French windows rippled across the room. I sneaked a glance and saw Judy coming towards me sheepishly, tail down, head held low. She licked my hand and curled up on my legs. The mirth spread throughout the room. Even the monk was laughing. "May she stay?" I asked. "Yes," he chuckled before re-starting the meditation for everyone. While I sat with the hint of a smile on my lips, Judy slept contentedly. She objected to being left with someone she hardly knew.

On a calm evening, a group of us went down to the beach. We walked and talked. The sun was setting. The tide was far out. A young monk bolted across the wet sand towards the distant sea. Judy set off in pursuit. I watched them, thinking what a unusual painting the scene would make: a barefoot Buddhist monk, his burgundy and saffron robes billowing, silhouetted against the apricot sunset streaked with ruby clouds, and a small black poodle chasing the sprinter's footprints across the sands, the glowing western sky reflected beneath the horizon and in the shining film of water left behind by the retreating sea. I can still see it now.

[Post Script: The Amitabha Kadampa Buddhist Centre is now located in Bristol; Judy died in Ethiopia in 2006, aged 15.]


ASSIGNMENT 3 - LONGER PIECES

In the balmy evening, when bats soar over the peach trees and Orion hunts along the edge of the escarpment to the south, I sit on the verandah and look up at the Milky Way. Ethiopians know Orion’s belt as sewst kokeb – three stars. An owl hoots softly. Crickets rub, rub, peep, peep, squeak, squeak. They remind me of tappets in a badly-tuned engine, though I have not owned a car for fifteen years. Sometimes I hear the rumble of the generator at the village mill or the whoop-whoop howl of hyenas.

A light floats by: a male firefly is signalling to a mate. Behind me, yellow moths as big as butterflies and hard-carapace beetles alight on the bright window panes: the living-room light is on and we have no curtains. Maldiba is a wooded smallholding fenced like a stockade, and our dogs roam free over our land. There is nobody out there. Nobody to look in.

Crowded, polluted England is far away, at a low-temperature, low-light latitude I could not bear now. Since I left, much has changed. In Plymouth, Russians talk on street corners, Nigerians carry bulging Sainsbury’s bags home, and Eritreans look for bargains in the Dr Barnado charity shop. I have to get used to this new multi-cultural England with its African vicars, Afghan shop owners and Indian post-office clerks. Yet I, too, am an immigrant - one of a tiny number of Westerners who have made Ethiopia their home.


ASSIGNMENT 4 - JOURNEYS (2005)

A prisoner, I am being escorted by an armed policewoman across the Ethiopian Highlands to the remote town of Lalibela.

Sprawling across a ledge below Mount Asheton and high above the crocodiles basking on the Tekeze riverbanks, Lalibela is a World Heritage Site, its ancient churches hewn from volcanic rock. Sacred for priests and pilgrims, it is one of my favourite places (though rapidly being spoilt by tourism) and incarceration in Lalibela Prison will be a retreat. I shall meditate, think, read, write. Afterwards – surely the British Embassy staff will rescue me at some point? - I shall write a bestseller about my experiences.

The battered bus bounces along the dirt road, sporadically engulfed by billowing waves of dust thrown up by passing vehicles. Inside, passengers sit snug together, gripping seat-backs and soothing infants. I’m on the sun-baked side but can open the window a crack to suck ribbons of plateau-air into my nostrils. Over the engine’s roar, a young man talks about the forthcoming elections. We rumble past cowherds – stunted, pot-bellied children in ragged clothes - who make V signs at us. This is the gesture adopted by Konijit party supporters.

An Englishwoman in Lalibela Prison might generate publicity for The Kindu Trust, but feeling that immovable, ironclad hand of the Law on my shoulder is intimidating and disheartening for a good citizen such as myself. For more than a decade I have toiled to help the poor and needy and disempowered, so why am I being treated like a criminal?


ASSIGNMENT 5 - FAMILY HISTORY

Oliver Fereday
On 7 September 1948, my great-grandfather turned on his gas oven and set about killing himself. He positioned his body so that his head was inside. What did he use to stuff the gaps? Tablecloth, Birmingham Post, clothing? Oliver Fereday was 78, a widower and depressed. When my father learnt of his grandfather’s suicide, he was guilt-ridden at not having visited the old man more often. It was 2010 before the reason for Oliver’s behaviour was understood, and I was the one who discovered it.

Oliver had six children, including Henry (‘Harry’) Edwin Fereday, born in 1893. At 21, Harry was courting a local girl called Edith Winifred Marks.

Edith, born in 1892, had six siblings. Her elder brother, my Great Uncle Vincent, died of appendicitis because John and Annie Marks, for reasons of ignorance and economy, were slow to take their son to a doctor when he had abdominal pains. A century later, in Ethiopia I witness similar unnecessary deaths resulting from a lack of knowledge and no readily-accessible free healthcare.

John Marks, a gun finisher, was born in Whitechapel in London’s East End in 1863. In early 1870, he was taken by his father to one of Charles Dickens’ last public readings at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly. The Marks family moved from Whitechapel to Birmingham at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888.