Saturday, 14 March 2015

Starting to Frame by Roger Gordon - a memoir

I’ll start off with what this book is not. It is not some slick, ghost-written, celebrity memoir, much of which you suspect is embellished and re-imagined to make the celebrity look good. What you get with Starting to Frame is an account of the life of an ordinary bloke (I mean that in a good way) – but that is what makes it special.
Roger Gordon (“Soft Ayperth” to give him his ‘Sheffield Forum’ moniker) tells the story of his upbringing in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s, in a working-class/aspiring middle-class family. It contains elements that many Sheffielders will recognise, and I think anyone who lived through those years will enjoy the trip down memory lane. For younger readers the interest will be sociological: a description of the world their parents or grandparents grew up in during the post-war years. (It is a factual account that complements the Brian Sellars novels reviewed in my Sheffield novels blog post.)
Every memoir is, to an extent, a work of fiction, and I even debated with myself whether I should put this review in with Sheffield novels – the very fact it contains dialogue gives it a fictional element, but there is no doubting that this adds to the truth and honest telling of those events. As I have written elsewhere, fiction is often is a closer representation of the truth than a ‘factual’ account. Like a novel, this is a well-rounded story, not just a stringing together of life events. Roger Gordon tells the tale of a tough, but in many ways not uncommon, childhood. The story of a dysfunctional family – but are fully-functional families the exception anyway? He openly describes bouts of mental illness which he continued to live with throughout his adult life. These led to short periods of hospitalisation, but the illness didn’t stop him pursuing a very successful academic career and fulfilling life. As he says: “I have learned to face these setbacks as one would any recurrent medical condition – a strep throat, sinus infection or a sore bowel. Something that is hard-wired into my genome, as the lives of my parents attest to. Definitely not a personality flaw.” This openness about mental illness is a very positive thing and can only contribute to the drive to change attitudes such as the Mind/ Rethink Mental Illness “Time to Change” campaign seeks to do.
This book is indie-published, something which makes it an even greater achievement in my view. It is therefore not as slick a piece of work as if it had been through the commercial route. It is, however, well written (you’d expect a retired university professor to be able to string a couple of sentences together). It could be said the little flaws just lend to its authenticity. The book is professionally produced and typeset, and it probably takes a pedant like me to even think: “it would have been a bit better if…”
Another interesting aspect is that Roger moved to Canada in his late twenties to only return occasionally thereafter. That detachment enables him to write about his Sheffield years in a special way – looking, not only back in time, but also from a different world. He uses dialect in the dialogue, but also explains things for a North American audience, things that it wouldn’t have struck me to explain. He remembers things as they were, but slips in words like “recess” for “school playtime/break” and uses “jock” in the context of a sporty kid at school. It just adds to the charm. The title, Starting to Frame, uses the verb ‘frame’ in a way I have not heard recently – not since I was told “Come on! Frame, lad!” – as in buck your ideas up.
I saw a copy of this book at Sheffield Scene on Surrey Street the other day, so you can buy a copy of it locally. It is also available through Amazon. It would be interesting to see what other people think of it.
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