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.’
A FAMILY AND A QUARREL
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.
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…
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…
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 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.
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. …
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 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.
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…
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.