On my father’s deathbed, he asked me to seek the whereabouts of a family heirloom of which he had fond childhood memories. It was a silver rhino and his last recollection of it was seeing it on his aunt’s desk, weighing down the morning post. It stood on a plinth, engraved with the words:
“To George, in gratitude for saving my life, from the Earl of Athlone.”
My Great Uncle George was Secretary to the District Commissioner of Uganda in the 1920s, and he had accompanied the Earl on a hunting safari. The Earl took a shot at a rhino and missed. As the seething beast charged towards them, George asked the Earl if he should like some assistance. The Earl assented and the rhino came to its final resting place at their feet.
Until then I had taken little interest in family history but the search for this memento opened doors of connection to previously unknown members of family and, in the process, enriched my sense of belonging. More than this, I discovered a passion for biographical work. Although I never found the silver rhino, the distribution of Chasing Silver Rhinos to relatives returned something of greater value, as the people who were unearthed and into whom I breathed new life, were given a place in our hearts and minds for the rest of time. Since then, I have successfully completed several commissions other than my family: Shoemaker, A Box Full of Silence, Traumatic Bedtime Stories, and The Buckley Family.
There is never a point at which a writer can claim ‘nirvana’ in their writing technique; it is an eternal quest and this is part of the enjoyment. Courses embarked upon with the Open University, the Arvon Foundation and Ways with Words have all helped to improve my own skill in the art of writing. If, however, our words can inspire or create new perspective, then it is the Reader who is our best measure of aptitude.