The Trouble with Writing Memoirs


CD cover for The Moon's a Balloon
I remember reading David Niven’s account of issues he faced while writing his “Hollywood” autobiographies. For those who have no idea what I’m on about, the two titles were Bring on the Empty Horses and The Moon’s a Balloon, a compilation of tales, both his own and borrowed, about the Hollywood of old and his time in it. In an interview with someone, he tells of sitting in his garden and being distracted by literally everything. “Oh look! There’s a jet flying overhead…” was just one great example given by the author.

Sitting down and recollecting my own memories of working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service as, to the best of my knowledge, the only “Yank” in the service and definitely the only one with Native American heritage, has been an uphill battle. Not necessarily the remembering, that part is pretty easy, but the documenting has been a bit problematic. Sitting in front of my laptop does not automatically prompt instantaneous recall for inclusion. At night however, just as sleep begins to claim my non-cooperative brain, funny and memorable events from my time at Warren Hill flood in.

From the lad who decided to escape on the day of his release to the day the prison “lost” a youngster who found the perfect place to hide all prance across my mind as I drift off.

I will not lie, there are other events that are not so pleasant, the day I got so angry at the female governor that it seemed a heart attack was imminent. The time “The Hill” lost two wings, both of which had been my work place for years until moving to another portion of the prison, because 7 lads rioted. Almost losing a good workmate and valued colleague in the same riot.

HMP/YOI Warren Hill Front Gate

The year we lost three friends from the staff to the grim reaper within a time span of mere months still haunts me, as I know it does all those who worked on The Hill. This was the one time that I actually cried in front of a prisoner. While explaining that a popular member of staff “will not be returning,” the lad, a “lifer” got angry. “You’re lying Guv!” Choking back the overwhelming sadness I looked the young prisoner in the face and said, “No lad, I’m not.” Tears streaming, I turned and left his cell.

It is not, however, the “bad” memories that make writing all this down so difficult. It is the reliving of all these events, good and bad. The funny recollections make me laugh just as hard now as then and the annoying ones still make me angry. I never intended to work for the prison service. Once I joined, though, it was something that I enjoyed and becoming, self admittedly, addicted to the adrenaline rush that working with juvenile offenders entails. The people whom I worked with, again good and bad, all made the job what it was and the lads we looked after insured there were no dull days at work.

During my interview, one of the then governors who was conducting the Q&A stopped in the middle of the process and said, “I hope you have a good sense of humour. These lads will make you laugh.”

He was right.

However hard the documentation of those days continues to be (Oh look! There’s another hummingbird!) I realize that if given the choice again, I would go back to work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service all over again. Only this time I would opt to not have the heart attack which resulted in my ill health retirement.

6 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

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Mike's Film Talk

Actor, Writer, Vlogger, Blogger, Veteran, http://MikesFilmTalk.com Member Nevada Film Critics Society

4 thoughts on “The Trouble with Writing Memoirs”

    1. Sadly, according to many of his friends, some of the funnier things in his life never made it into the books. Case and point. Niven, when he was in the war, commandeered a load of Russian caviar for his troops. The free “posh nosh” was set up at the soldiers canteen and one of the Scottish soldiers said to Niven, “Not wanting to complain sor, but this jam tastes of fish.” Priceless stuff that never made it into his “memoirs…” :-)_

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