Judy Brown, 2014 Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library, 2013 Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage and 2017 Hawthornden Fellow:
Andy Miller’s likeably self-deprecating tour of his old diaries is an appealing read, with its open-minded questioning and an exploratory structure which accepts that to identify the real threads of a life is not as simple as it might seem.
Dr Phil Stringer, leading UK Educational Psychologist from Dept. of Psychology, University College London:
Andy Christopher Miller is first and foremost a good storyteller and here, in “The Ragged Weave of Yesterday’, he has written another intimate and immensely readable book. He tells a remarkable story about the working out of a life: how best to represent the story of a life remembered in diaries and the sense that life makes now. The author’s craft is to make the complex accessible to a reader.
This is a multi-layered book and the more I read, the more it struck me that it is like a thought experiment in provoking in a reader a mixture of philosophical and psychological reflection. I was confronted with thinking about remembering, acts of memory and meaning, reflecting and sense-making, social history, and life stages. In this respect and although not the author’s intention, it stands as a good example of folk or cultural psychology and it should be required reading for any psychologist interested in memory. Ultimately, though, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book for anyone who likes to read and reflect. In every way, it is a considerable achievement.
Paul Anderson, Nottingham Writers Studio:
Andy Miller has measured his life. And it is two foot, three inches precisely. This is the length, on the shelf, of his fifty years’ worth of personal diaries.
Five years ago, driven by the serious illness of an old friend, he started rereading them, some for the first time in decades. He was left with a strange feeling, perhaps reminiscent of Sartre’s existential nausea, of utter oppression, driven in part by the weight of detail contained in a life.
He found himself facing a difficult decision. Whether to just get rid of the lot, leave them be, or do something with them. He decided to reread and edit them. What has evolved out of this project is a highly readable book, a unique blend of anecdote, reflective memoir and social history.
Hitchhiking, political action, Bob Dylan, Sgt. Pepper’s, abseiling down college hall walls, protesting the Vietnam war, a talk with Harold Wilson, price freezing, experimental forms of teacher training (filmed by BBC): this is a smorgasbord of interesting historical titbits, humorous anecdotes and colourful scenes.
It is perhaps, though, the climbing exploits where this project reaches its peak. Delving into the diaries the author returns with wonderfully lyrical descriptions of the mountains and craggy rocks where “curtains of rain” wash grit-stone valleys, and tiny slivers of rock and wet ropes are the line between life and falling.
As well as being an entertaining read, this book is also a fascinating journey into the nature of memory and the process of editing. Why, Miller muses, were some events recorded in minute detail, and yet others, often momentous moments in the country’s post-war history, barely mentioned? How can such a vast amount of material be organised into something readable? Why indeed, did he do it at all?
His psychology background comes to the fore as he explores the nature of memory and our all-important ability to forget – we are, he notes, “a narrative-driven species”. Eruditely calling on luminaries who have tackled these issues such as J M Coetzee, Knausgaard and Tony Benn he explores how unreliable his memory of events really is.
This is a book for anyone who keeps a diary, for writers who want to understand more about the nature of memory and life narrative, and for any reader who wants a flavour of what it was like to come of age in the late sixties.
Early on in the process, Miller muses as to whether it would be easier just to “put them to the fire”. We are very lucky that, in the end, he did not.
Frances Thimann, respected author of the short story collections ‘Cello’ and ‘November Weddings’
Most of us have at some time or another kept a diary – starting as children or teenagers, or at the beginning of student life. Sometimes we keep a record of a special event, a journey, a love affair, even illness or bereavement. Coming upon these diaries later we read them with mingled embarrassment, amusement, nostalgia, and general puzzlement at the way our memories contradict what we have recorded, or how small events significant to us have crowded out the bigger ones of world importance. But Miller has kept a diary throughout most of his life, amounting to 31 volumes, about 1,627,300 words and a weight of 26lbs, ‘their bulk increasing with each recorded year and leaving a fossilised trail, like that of some huge, gnarled lizard lumbering on… towards extinction…’ An old friend’s illness caused Miller to search through the volumes for his record of their friendship, and then also to wonder about the value of all these words, and whether now as a writer he could perhaps utilise them.
Some of the book is a personal record of his own education, the complex journey from council estate and state school (more fully described in Miller’s earlier book ‘The Naples of England’) to academic achievement and professional life, marriage and family. But since this covers most of the last 50 years or so, student and national politics, social change, and also Miller’s particular fields, education and psychology, these things are of interest to all of us. He also considers, as a psychologist, the uncertain processes of memory, and, as his various ‘selves’ appear over the years, the different manifestations of ‘the self’ as they appear under different circumstances. ‘Events in our lives that trigger strong emotions…have the tendency to bring to the fore certain… selves, like characters on a darkened stage leaving the others and stepping forward into the spotlight’.
But there are other strands. Miller had a love of rock-climbing from an early age, and these sections are beautiful and exhilarating in themselves, with magnificent descriptions of wild and mountainous landscapes. He recalls the freedom and euphoria and the personal challenge: ‘Mind and muscle under threat from gravity’s callous certainty’. And he remembers the sense of vitality and willing, hopeful surrender to fate, and the open sociability of all those occasions, the fact that his companions came from all walks of life where social class had no relevance.
Miller also found that hitchhiking gave him for several years the opportunity not only to travel and see parts of the country that were otherwise inaccessible to him, but were again a way of meeting many people from different social classes and fields of work. Some of these conversations are intriguing and occasionally funny. ‘Interesting lift from… an anti-establishment guy who spoke intelligently and sensitively and then revealed himself to be a retired army officer!’ Like climbing, these travels and their challenges helped him in other ways, shaping his character with their powerful and lasting lessons in patience and resignation. ‘Freedom to fail. Freedom to be.’
He records wide reading interests from the earliest days. These were mostly works he found for himself rather than via the dry-as-dust teaching at his school. But in a magnificent passage all comes together – literature, place, meaning and personal history, when he visits Dove Cottage. Standing there amongst a group of soaked and dripping strangers he remembers his miserable efforts to recite poetry at school, then later coming across ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’. He recalls the lines while standing in the room where they were written, and as a writer himself now imagining how perhaps it came together for the poet too. ’Did Wordsworth pace this floor, casting around for the words to anchor his mood…? I had stared straight ahead from the back of the class, been interrupted one line in and ordered to speak up and start again… As his verses formed, when the effort melted away… had his life, his wanderings, this valley and this room all fused into the intensity of the present?’
At the end, Miller considers again the point and purpose of these diaries, and who they might eventually be for. But there is no doubt that for him, the work of the writing, and for us the reading, have been immeasurably more than worthwhile.