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Not Speaking is a lively and unusual family memoir, and a slice of social history.

Not Speaking is a lively and unusual portrait of a large family.

Families are places of love, care, and fun; also of anger, anxiety, trauma. I wrote this book at a particular moment in my family’s history, when love slammed into anger and they erupted together into a major quarrel amongst siblings. Most people know how that can happen. It’s the story of a Greek matriarch and her English children in postwar London; and a tale about fame, because one of the children is a celebrity hairdresser; and money, because the family started out with very little and some of the children now have lots; and about books, because I am a writer and a book-lover; and about a man from the slums of Blackfriars who grew up in poverty and didn’t want to become a father at all, who was dearly loved by all six children, and especially the one (as the reader discovers) who wasn’t biologically his.

Over the past thirty years I’ve published with a variety of mainstream publishers – Routledge, Faber and Faber, A&C Black, Random House, Harvard University Press – but I’ve never tried to publish a memoir. I decided to go to Unbound because I wanted to reach out directly to readers. This has been, without question, the most enjoyable book to write. I found a form I could put everything into, a capacious frame for a story I always wanted to write, that never stayed still, that was by turns funny and sad but never predictable, never dull.

Praise for Not Speaking:

‘Clarke tells the family’s story brilliantly – everyone and no-one is to blame for everything.’

‘there are few if any accounts of family life that share the hunger, determination and erudition of Not Speaking – it’s a searching and resonant work of memoir and social history.’

Norma Clarke is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. She is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature with interests in the history of women’s writing, the Irish in London, and children’s literature. Her books include Dr Johnson’s Women, Queen of the Wits, a Life of Laetitia Pilkington, and Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. She has published several children’s novels: Patrick in Person, Patrick and the Rotten Roman Rubbish, Theo’s Time, Trouble on the Day, The Doctor’s Daughter. She reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and writes occasionally for other journals. Not Speaking, her first full-length memoir, builds on two published essays: ‘Generation. Generate’ in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 2004, and ‘Family Matters’ in History Workshop Journal, vol 85, Spring 2018.



Sing, Muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles,

the accursed wrath that brought countless sorrows

to the Greeks ...

                                                            Homer, The Iliad


What mighty contests rise from trivial things,

I sing …

                                                            Pope, The Rape of the Lock


For what we lack

We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still

Are children in some kind.

                                                                        Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen




I always thought I would write about our family. I was ashamed of this impulse when I was younger because I intended to be a ‘real’ writer, and I had been told that writing about yourself was the sign of an amateur. The idea that ‘everybody had a story in them’ amused a teacher at my grammar school in Bermondsey. She laughed. I laughed too.

I had other inhibitions. As the academic in the family, learning from books as well as life, I tried to be judicious. ‘You think you know everything,’ someone, in a rage, would say. ‘All you know is what you’ve read in books.’

In some of the books I read people interviewed the older members of their families and wrote down their memories. When I tried to do this I felt guilty. None of the aunts and uncles and cousins minded talking to me – they liked it. But my interest seemed to me exploitative, my polite questioning nothing but a cover for the betrayal that would follow. 

I puzzled over these feelings of guilt. I wondered about shame and laughter. I decided I was probably fearful of what I would find out and anxious about other people’s reactions to what I might disclose. All families had secrets. Secrets were surely the first rule of family.

Later there came a larger puzzle. When I made my forays, writing down the stories I was told, it never occurred to me – and nobody pointed out – that my conception of family was one-sided. At that time I thought only about my father’s family. The aunts and uncles were his sisters and brothers and they lived in the same street as us in South London or very nearby: Arthur and Edie, Tom and May, Nellie and Harry, Lou and Reggie, and Vi, a war widow. I had no corresponding impulse to write about my mother’s family as a family I belonged to. They were not English, they did not live nearby, and I felt no affinity. Their names – Evangelos and Evangelia, Toni and Pericles, Poppy, Spirithoula, Fotini – belonged in their world far away in Athens, not mine. The strangeness of this did not strike me until my father died in 2006 and my mother, who had lived in England for fifty years, briefly contemplated returning to Greece and living there.

It was a shock to think she might go home as if she no longer had any reason to stay. Had she only been passing through (spilling six children on the way)? The resentful about-to-be-abandoned child in me wanted to know if that was allowed. What did family mean if she could leave us so easily? What had she been doing in my life? The question demanded attention although it felt dangerous and wrong to ask. I was warned off by my mother herself who, told I was writing about the family, gave me a long look and pointedly remarked, ‘Say anything bad about your mother in Greece and nobody respects you.’ Loosely translated, that was an absolute prohibition.

There are so many reasons for not writing about family; there is so much, it would seem, that is best left unspoken. And yet it is the primal subject. We know who we are by finding out about our families. ‘Everyone does family history nowadays,’ writes Alison Light in her wonderful reconstruction of her family’s past, Common People, the History of an English Family. Everyone has a story. The television series Who Do You Think You Are? invites celebrities to discover their ancestors in the archives. Like Light, they look at the generations that have gone, drawn by the fascination of the past and ‘people we can never know’.

The people we can never know will never know what we write about them and we may make what use of them we please. Writing about the living is another matter; they will be sensitive and have opinions. Siblings, even more than still-living parents, are likely to view the memoirist in their midst with reservations.

Not Speaking is the title of this book in acknowledgement of the pressures that remain and the taboos that exist. It also carries the meaning, ‘not on speaking terms’, a state of affairs very common in families. Mostly it signifies ‘that which was unspoken’, meaning not only secrets and shared but forbidden knowledge, but also a deep level of non-articulation that could be traced back to (or find its excuses in) barriers of language and culture. Literally and metaphorically it often seemed in our closely-bonded and quite talkative family that people did not speak each other’s language, a pattern established by our parents: our father did not understand Greek; our mother, when she married, had no English. 

When my father died my sense of self slipped a gear. I believe something similar happened to my siblings. For all six of us his death altered the internal balance of the family. It took away some restraints and introduced new demands. We all mourned a loved parent but for the youngest, Athena, called Tina, who had latterly absorbed our father into her domestic life, it was an overwhelming loss. She wanted him buried near the woods on her land. Keeping him close was one way of dealing with the feelings, but there was more to it than that as she, and we, gradually realized.


200 backers, 94% funded

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Dear Friends,

Now that Not-Speaking has achieved the grand total of 200 backers (hooray) and 94% funding (hooray) I definitely need to say thank you to everybody who is supporting it, and a special thanks to those who have pledged twice (and will be getting two books, one to keep and one to give away). There's still time for new people to get their names on the supporters list that will be printed…


Friday, 3 August 2018

Everybody's on holiday, and so am I. The last time anybody pledged was July 21st. We're at 89%.(We'll be going into production once the project reaches 100%, and hopefully have books going out to supporters by February/March.) It's a strange, switched-off time of year. I needed to switch off, as I'm sure you did too, and now, four days in to a trip to California, I'm definitely there: a hammock, a…

At the salon

Sunday, 22 July 2018

We thought it would be fun to make a short video at Michael Van Clarke in Marylebone, one of the (two) salons that feature in Not Speaking (the other is in Mayfair). Because Rena lives next door she spends a lot of time there, getting her hair done and keeping up with the gossip. She cast her usual shrewd eye on our antics. We filmed in a bit of a rush (it was hot, the salon was busy, Huxley, Piers…

Re-reading 'Round About a Pound a Week' - again

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Re-reading Maud Pember Reeves's Round About a Pound a Week, and I have to correct what I said about porridge in an earlier blog. Reeves did, in fact, completely get the matter of the pot the porridge was cooked in, and about the way porridge would easily catch and burn when cooked. What strikes me now, reading again in preparation for a short talk at Literary London on Friday, is Reeves's quiet fury…

Special thanks

Friday, 22 June 2018

Special thanks to Craig Howes and Meg Jensen for pointing me to IABA (International AutoBiography Association) and its mailing list, and a special welcome to anybody visiting the Unbound site for the first time. Not Speaking is now 74% funded. Getting there!

Tell a friend

Monday, 11 June 2018

Dear lovely dear supporters,

It's very exciting to report that Not Speaking has hit 69% of funding. The number 69 feels quite significant to me right now so I want to celebrate it and thank you all. However, 70 has to be faced, and that feels significant with regard to the book. This is the downhill slope - in a good way. Once we tip over the edge to 70 there really isn't far to go. If everybody…

Housing and decency

Friday, 1 June 2018

  Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton (Verso) takes me back to the1960s and the fights between my parents about housing. To be re-housed by the council was an aspiration. We were on the Southwark housing list, but they moved slowly.

Boughton talks about 'decency': decent housing, treating people decently, feeling a sense of decency when your home wasn't cramped…

Thinking about book covers

Saturday, 26 May 2018

In today's Guardian, Alison Flood sets a challenge: find a book jacket that features an image of a woman over forty. She says she's failed. Even books that are about women over forty put young women on the cover. Research suggests that 75% of active readers are women in that age bracket, but the covers show things like a glass of wine, a lighthouse, a child standing on her head, a couple in a car…

Literary London Conference, June 28th and 29th

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The annual Literary London conference is on June 28th and 29th this year, at Senate House, University of London. I'm going to be talking about the late 19th/early 20thC London bits of my book. The Lambeth slums that social investigators like Charles Booth and Maud Pember Reeves ventured into with the best of intentions (I think) are gone now. Their reports describe 'pestilential' interiors, 'rookeries…

The Sociability of the Crowd

Friday, 11 May 2018

In the eighteenth century they called it publishing by subscription, but now most people will say 'crowd-funding'. An author wishes to publish a book and needs to raise capital for the printing and distribution costs. Alexander Pope published his translation of The Iliad in this way in 1720. He judged, rightly, that he could best fund a major work by approaching his readers directly and getting them…

More on subscription publishing, 18thC style

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Laetitia Pilkington gave her own twist to subscription publishing. She was a sometime friend of Mary Barber, but circumstances proved too hard on that friendship. Laetitia Pilkington’s marriage failed; she looked to her wit to support herself. She managed to raise the funds to publish her poems and memoirs together, in a single three-volume work, between 1748 and 1754, but no subscribers names were…

Rena's 95th birthday party (one of them)

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Rena celebrated her 95th birthday at Cote, Marylebone, along with at least one grand-daughter and two grandsons, plus other family and friends. There were other celebrations, and other snaps and videos, but I specially like this one.

30% funding

Monday, 30 April 2018

The wise people at Unbound told me at the beginning that projects which reached 30% of funding within four weeks generally managed to go all the way. With your help, Not Speaking has reached 30% in 12 days. That's a great omen. Thank you for pledging, and if you know of others who would enjoy this book do please direct them to the website. The sooner we reach 100% the sooner the book will happen. …

Subscription publishing: the first woman was Mary Barber

Friday, 27 April 2018

The first woman to successfully raise a subscription for a book was Mary Barber, whose Poems appeared in 1734. She was a Dublin linen-draper's wife, and some of her poems were about how ghastly it was to be stuck behind the counter, 'in smoaky Dublin pent', when surely, as a poet, she should have been loitering in leafy glades by burbling streams.

Mary Barber wrote lovingly about her children,…

A quarter of the way there

Thursday, 26 April 2018

A big thank you to everyone who has pledged support. I'm happy to announce that Not Speaking is now 25% funded. I don't know how that rates compared to other projects on the Unbound site but it seems a damn good week's work to me.


Monday, 23 April 2018

I've been trying to think about customising some rewards. I want them to be appealing and appropriately pitched. If anyone has any suggestions do tell me. I've cruised the Unbound pages, and other authors have some brilliant ideas ripe for stealing ('adapting') but it would be good to come up with original ones specific to Not Speaking. 

In the meantime, a big thank-you to all my supporters. Feel…

Starting out on Unbound

Thursday, 19 April 2018

This is a new venture and I'm just finding my way around the Unbound site. I'm thrilled to see that just two days in, 22 supporters have pledged, but I didn't know if i could find out who they were. I looked, and it was only a click away (of course). But what I also didn't know, and hadn't anticipated, was how touched I would feel. This business of dealing directly with readers - people who, by pledging…

These people are helping to fund Not Speaking.

Alex Leach
Tellisa Clarke
Dinny Ravet
Meg Jensen
Kate Pasvol
Henry Tillotson
Jenny Bourne Taylor
Sian Gledhill
Susan Travers
Sue Goddard
Ian Lush
Sonia Massai
Nel Druce
Lyndal Roper
Margaret Williamson
Barbara Evans
Clíona Ó Gallchoir
Sarah Knott
Andrew Prescott
Susie Nixon
Kate Pasvol
David Salcedo
Anni Scoot
Barbara Taylor
Tom Wynn
Nicky Clarke
Liz Heron
Abigail Don
Lou Edwards
Alex Alex Potts
Will Tosh
Ivan Collister
adrian borra
Judith Lowe
Kate Murray-Browne
Catherine Bott
Janet Lambert
Lisa Tran
Hilary-Jane Evans
Shannie Ross
Sarah Hayes Mooney
David Moed
Athena Clarke-Sheward
Tricia Scouller
Derek Pollard
Janet Montefiore
Phillipa Firth
Sylvia Lahav
Margaretta Jolly
Sally Hoyle
Jenny Gledhill
Matthew Redgrave
jane willingale
Elizabeth Shaw
Judith Clark
Inanch Emir
Charlotte McCarthy
Ros Coward
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