• Helen Gregory

On a trip to the British Library this weekend I really enjoyed seeing all the early manuscripts and authors’ first drafts, but was particularly taken with The Book of Margery Kempe - the earliest English autobiography.

A former brewer and horse mill owner in East Anglia, Margery was the mother of 14 children who became a visionary and mystic. The book, written in 1440, records, “hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng” (her feelings and revelations and the form of her living), providing a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class woman in late-medieval England.

After her two businesses collapsed, Margery saw it as a sign that she was being punished by God and decided to devote herself to a religious life. She made pilgrimages all over the world, attracting attention to herself by wearing white and weeping loudly when she was moved by devotion. Suspicious locals doubted her motives, which resulted in several arrests, accusations of heresy and she was even threatened with being burnt alive in the street.

It isn’t a dry, factual account but contains plenty of great detail to help us visualise her life, for example: “It befell upon a Friday on Midsummer Even in right hot weather, as this creature was coming from York-ward bearing a bottle with beer in her hand and her husband a cake in his bosom…”.

The British Library calls it a, “startling document which often feels open, honest, unvarnished and unashamed”. And despite it being nearly 600 years old, I can see some parallels with my life story writing as Margery couldn’t read or write so dictated her book to an amanuensis – a scribe who wrote it down for her.

Margery’s life might have been a bit more dramatic than most, but I’m glad she made the effort to record it. Who knows, perhaps in another 600 years people will be reading some of the life story books I’ve helped to write!

  • Helen Gregory

Now that lockdown is easing, I’ve been enjoying getting face-to-face with friends and family again - the simple pleasure of sharing tea and cake in the sunshine has been wonderful. These all-pervasive rules around social contact were important, but hugely constraining on our lives and relationships. Most of us have had to adapt to the new normal of Zoom conversations, but I certainly won’t miss failing wi-fi connections, frozen faces and echoes.

Let’s face it, virtual meetings can sometimes be awkward. We usually connect better if we meet someone in person rather than communicating via a screen or phone. Our conversation flows more naturally, particularly because we can read facial expressions and body language more easily. And how many of us have sent an email and then realised that someone has misunderstood or misinterpreted a request or off-the-cuff remark.

Human beings are social animals. We naturally want to meet and interact with other people – it’s a good way to establish trust and build strong relationships. When we laugh together, smile at one another, shake hands, or share a meal, we bond on a primal level that can’t be replaced by electronic communication. Someone who sees your face on a screen isn’t likely to feel the same connection to you as someone you meet personally a regular basis. Social contact is even said to help to improve memory formation and recall, and protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.

As well as seeing my friends, I’m really looking forward to doing life story interviews face-to-face again. It’s a privilege to share memories with a client about their life – and meeting in person makes it, well….more personal than a virtual meeting. So let’s all enjoy those chats together in the sunshine - tea and cakes optional!

  • Helen Gregory

Last year was one that I’d rather forget. Without being too dramatic, it’s hard to remember many good times, which is why I’ve been casting further back for happier memories.

It’s also not been easy to remember the good times when these recent interactions have mainly been on Zoom. While we haven’t been able to see friends and family face-to-face, these video calls just about suffice – although they don’t compensate for the lack of a hug and real emotional connection. Being forcibly separated from our loved ones has also thrown a light on all our relationships and while some have petered out, others have been put more sharply in focus.

Many of us lost friends and family in 2020. Sometimes a eulogy has been the only way of remembering their life and the part they played in our lives. While sitting at a funeral recently, enjoying listening to recollections about my good friend, I reflected on how this relatively short summary of her life was ephemeral. Sadly, we hadn’t got round to writing her life story and some of these precious memories would no doubt eventually be forgotten, maybe not by us, but by her children and future grandchildren.

This pandemic has been a time for reflection and for gratitude. We might not particularly want to remember the last year but, like me, why not use the time to remember further back - to childhood, family life, holidays, best friends and achievements? These dark days and evenings are the perfect time to dig out your old photographs, diaries and special momentos.

Life is unpredictable and precious and if there was ever a time to record your stories to prevent them from being forgotten, it’s now. I’m taking my own advice and have just started talking to my parents about their childhoods – and I can’t wait until we can ditch the zoom for a proper catch-up!


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