Life’s Rich Tapestry

The dream of writing a book and having it published seems to be a common one, and for Jean Baggott it is an ambition that she has achieved.

Several years ago she undertook the project of recording, through needlework, her life and the people and events which shaped it. It is this artwork that Jean, now in her final year studying History at Warwick, writes about in her autobiography The Girl in the Wall.

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_So this is obviously your debut book…_

Oh yes, it’ll be the only book – I’ve no plans for another!

_It must be very surreal, very strange walking past the university bookshop seeing your work. And from reading the book it sounds like you came from very humble beginnings. How have you found the hype and the reception?_

I’ve always been a person who accepts things. It’s the way I was brought up, being working class. Otherwise your life becomes a misery. So you accept things and it stays with you, to a certain extent, for life.

But I always thought that one day I might make it to the top. And now I’ve found that, once you’re up there, it’s tough! It’s tough at the top.

_You don’t think you could keep this up as a career?_

I thought the book and the tapestry might have a little success. But, the way it’s going – it makes you wonder where it will end. It’s very exciting.

_Has it snowballed quite gradually in terms of the success? You say you weren’t expecting it from the outset._

No, this time last year I hadn’t even got a publisher. My son, who’s a published writer, has been very important in arranging that.

Once it had been arranged, and I’d finished the book, it went off to print at the end of November, and then straight after Christmas the publicity started.

_You say that your son is a writer as well – do you think that writing is something that’s in your blood?_

Oh yeah. It’s something I’ve always done but nobody’s ever been interested before. I’ve never tried publishing before because to me, if the family isn’t interested, then you know that was it. If you’re family isn’t interested who else would be? But you see things do change.

_You’ve written before then – what kind of things?_

All memoirs – that’s why it’s all so fresh in my mind.

_So did you use these memoirs as a basis for writing the book?_

I always thought I had an interesting story to tell, in as much as I’ve got a terrific memory. My first memory is Dunkirk in 1940, so you see over the years I kept writing bits down and then if I asked “Do you like this?”, the reaction was… (makes pained face). I kept writing, and chucking it away – I did that for nigh on 40 years.

_So what made you transfer from that private space to something so public?_

It’s very simple – my son thought it was worth it and sold it to a publisher. Because the idea was, I did the tapestry, and so many people looked at it and said: “You know you ought to write this all down”.

And my idea was that nobody would understand the tapestry, and that’s why I did it. I thought, “500 years time they’ll still be pondering it in the British museum thinking ‘What’s this’ as they’re still pondering the Bayeux tapestry!”

_Yours is the next Bayeux tapestry, for the modern age!_

I thought – well I will write some of it down, and then it got out of hand, and I just kept writing.

_I suppose then, your book differs from ‘normal’ autobiographies which often appeal through showing what is foreign and unachievable to the public reader, something out of everyday experience. It seems your autobiography has found a niche – it puts people within the crowd, it’s something people can relate to._

Absolutely – I’m a very down to earth person. You’ll never find airs and graces. I am me. And people latch onto that.

I enjoy being interrogated about my work – I know every stitch and I know every word in the book.

_So this, and the way the writing came about, has made it a very ‘genuine’ book?_

Yes absolutely. And when the editor suggested I used a different word I stuck to my guns, and they understood.

That’s one of the instances in which the Midlands has really breathed its life into the text. Through the dialogue, traditions, landscapes the book inhabits. There’s something about the Black Country people.

_And do you think that that spirit is beginning to diminish?_

It’s still very much there in the Midlands. It’s still there to date in the Black Country. My brother still lives there and we talk frequently on the phone.

_So do you anticipate that the book will sell better in the Midlands?_

Not necessarily, it hasn’t been in any Midlands newspapers yet really. Although next week I have the Birmingham Mail coming to interview me, but the Midlands is a big area. Nobody in Warwick has contacted me yet and we have three newspapers there. But I’ve got a feeling they’ll get round to it soon.

_You don’t assume prior knowledge of the history you lived through on the reader’s part. A lot of things you read these days assume such knowledge. You managed to summarise things very succinctly and get to the point of it without blinding people with science and fact._

The thing about the book is everything is written by me remembering how I felt at the time. I mention Dunkirk.

As you’re reading the book, it’s as I remember it. I’m not saying I know all about what happened at Dunkirk. The main thing was that my parents worried.

If you move on a few more years to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a young married woman with two children. I remember the crisis as how I felt at that time.

And by 9/11 I was an old woman on my own and I was terrified, because all I could see with those television pictures was a World War, starting and I’ve known since 1945 that if we had another World War, it’d all be ended within the week and the world would be defunct – because of the atomic bomb.

My thoughts on the atomic bomb are that they’ve never used one since, but I’ve lived through times where it seemed very likely that someone was about to. They’re simply afraid to use it.

_In your book there’s a real sense of pain and violence, in the background but often in the foreground as well. Excuse me for putting such general terms on your work, but do you think your book is an optimistic book or a pessimistic book for the future?_

It’s optimistic. If you had lived through the five year period 1945-50, by 1950 I was 13 years old and considered I was lucky to be alive. Because once they’d dropped those atomic bombs there was no answer to it.

And the day they announced in 1949 that Russia had got one, we thought “that’s it” – but they still haven’t used it and I’m optimistic they never will.

Fifty years is a long time to live for and gradually that fear of atomic weapons has diminished. I lived in a time where Khrushchev said that Russia had a bomb which could completely remove the British Isles from the map.

I was brought up under all that, but we’re still here.

_A very changed but also very familiar world._

Yes, and I’m optimistic. I believe this is a good world. We only ever hear about the bad stuff.

_How has your study of history here influenced your optimism?_

I’ve spent every lecture murmuring “I never knew that” and “Ooh that’s interesting” to myself. I’m besotted with history.

_You say in the book: “It was only when I finished this tapestry that I became aware of how very important education is to me”. But you’ve also struggled with university life at times. Do you have any advice to students just beginning here?_

Keep going. You’ll end up with a different life to the one they would have had if they didn’t. I meet people who say they regret not going to university. I say to them “it’s not too late”. You’re never too old for education.

_Do you think your motives for studying are different to younger students?_
Yes, in ways. Your future depends on it, mine doesn’t. I’m here purely for education. It comes in useful, talking the way I do!

You get bad reactions from some people until you feed the fact that you go to university into the conversation. And their reactions immediately changes.

It carries weight, and that will follow you for the rest of your lives, because nobody can take that away from you.

_Have any staff at Warwick had anything to do with the writing or publication of the book?_

Roger Fagge, an American lecturer who I’ve done various modules with. I quite tentatively said to him: “I’ve done a piece of needlework. If I bring it in, will you look at it and tell me whether it’s a piece of needlework, or is it history?”

When I did take it in and spread it out on his desk he didn’t answer me for what seemed like an eternity.

I asked him what he thought and he said, “When you asked me to look at a piece of needlework I thought ‘How can I let this lady down kindly’, but this is something else Jean”. It was him that got me going on the writing.

_Your tapestry is a form of history in itself. History can clearly exist as something the individual can see themselves partaking in; does this make the book uplifting?_

I think so. I think anybody can find a memory in this book which they can share with me.

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