Part 3

Ordinary  people, ordinary lives

Most of us have photographs of our grandparents, but how many of  us  know what their lives were  like,  the  sort of people they were in their youth? The glimpses rare diaries give us are frustratingly incomplete, family anecdotes only half remembered. And

what will our grandchildren know about us? We often intend to write things down, but never get round to it. We may leave videos rather than photographs, but the images will remain two-dimensional.

Hannah Renier has come up with an answer: she writes other people’s autobiographies, producing a hardback book of at least 20,000 words — with illustrations if required — a chronicle not of the famous, but of the ordinary.

The idea came to her when she talked to members of her family and realised how much of the past that was part of her own life was disappearing.

“When I started I didn’t take it nearly so seriously as I do now, having met people who genuinely will talk and have led interesting lives,” she says. “They would say they are doing it for their children or for posterity, but they are getting quite a lot out of it themselves. They enjoy doing it.”

The assurance of confidentiality encourages her subjects to overcome any instinct of self-censorship.

“I had the confidence to be honest,” says a 62-year-old man who made and lost one fortune before making another. “I was surprised at what came out. There were things that hurt, like my divorce, and the pain was still there.”

“I did it for my family, so that perhaps they could learn something, but I have

not yet let my children — who are in their  thirties — read it. They were hurt  by things in my life and  there are a lot  of details which  I  don’t  feel  I  want  them to know at the moment. If they insist, I’ll let  them.  But  I  think  I’d  rather they read it after I was dead.”

He also recognised patterns laid down in childhood, which showed themselves in repeatedly making the same mistakes. It is something Ms Renier has detected in other people. “It’s amazing how many people really have been conditioned by their parents,” she says. “The injunctions and encouragements that were laid down in childhood have effects for the rest of their lives. They become caught in repeating patterns of behaviour. They marry the sort of people of whom their parents approved

or go in  the opposite direction  as a

sort of rebellion.”

“A lot of disappointments come out. Sixty years later they still are regretting or resenting things that were never resolved with their parents. There is no age of reason. If people had hang-ups in their youth, they still have them in middle age. They live their lives in an attempt to impress a parent who wasn’t impressed and if that fails some of them seem to be seeking permission to say ‘I can’t stand my mother’.”

Recorder rather than inquisitor, Ms Renier keeps her distance. “It’s not for public consumption and I’m not there as a very nosy person. People have got carried away and told me something, then said, ‘I’m not sure if that ought to go in’. I put it in anyway they can remove things when they see the draft. But generally people want to be honest, warts and all.”

“It’s not vanity publishing, it’s not people saying ‘Gosh,  I’ve had such  an interesting life the world’s got to know about  it.’  Things  are  moving  much faster than at any time in history and we are  losing  sight  of  what  happened in the past. It’s a way of giving roots.

We need some sort of link to our ancestors because people don’t sit around in an extended family any more. People want a little immortality.”

Each book involves up to 30 hours of taped interviews which Ms Renier uses as the basis to write the life story, rearranging the chronology and interpreting. Modern  technology allows her to produce everything except the binding with its gold lettering: choose your own colour of library buckram, pick your own title.

Fascinating to the private audience at which each book is aimed, the results are obviously not of the dirt-at-any- cost school of life story. Ms Renier organises her material logically and writes well; the final content is as good as its subject. The book that emerges does not look like a cheap product — and carries a price tag of nearly J3,000, with extra copies at J25 each. She receives about 10 inquiries  a week, but the cost — inevitable with the time involved — clearly deters many people.

“I thought it would be a more downmarket product than it is,” she says. “But the people I’ve done have all been county types, readers of Harpers & Queen, which is one of the magazines z here I advertise. They’re the sort of people who at one time would have had their portraits painted to leave to their descendants.

Read the following article from a magazine and then answer questions 23-27 . On your answer sheet, indicate the letter A, B, C or D against the number of each question 23-27. Give only one answer to each question.

Indicate your answers on the separate answer sheet.

23. According to the writer, most people

A. have no interest in leaving records for their grandchildren.

B. are unable to find out much about their grandparents.

C. find stories about their grandparents’ families boring.

D. want their grandchildren to know only good things about them.

24. Hannah Renier decided to write other people’s autobiographies because

A. she had already done so for

B. she had met so many interesting people.

C. she wanted to preserve the past.

D. she had often been asked to do so.

25. The 62-year-old man asked her to write his autobiography

A. so that he could reveal his true

B. because his family wanted to read

C. so that his children would understand him.

D. because he thought he was close to

26. Hannah is surprised that many of her subjects

A. regret the marriages they made

B. remain influenced by their parents.

C. refuse to discuss their  childhoods.

D. want to be like their parents.

27. The autobiographies that Hannah produces

A. follow exactly what she was told by her subjects.

B. are intended to be interesting to anyone.

C. look less expensive than they really

D. present the facts in a way that is easy to follow