A professional review
“Find a soft spot to land on”
“Find a soft spot to land on” is the life story of a troubled man: his struggle to find himself a place in the world and a stabilising focus for his confused emotions.
It is labelled an ‘autobiography’ on the title page, and in the introduction. It is written in the style of a conventional autobiography, and my intuition tells me that this is in fact what it is: a memoir.
The story opens with a road accident, in which the author was hurled through the air and landed on his head. His injuries led to many years of therapy and treatment. This partly explains the wry humour of the title, though ‘finding a soft spot to land on’ has been the guiding principle of his life. To tell that story, he goes back to the beginning: his birth into a poor family in Bradford in 1948. The background is filled in concisely and skilfully, with a sketch of the circumstances of his birth. His father was a tram-driver, left to bring up his five children after their mother abandoned them to go to America with her GI boyfriend. The children were mothered by their father’s sister, Chrissie, who also helped the family drag itself out of financial debts. Chrissie is a pivotal character in the story, the author’s emotional focal point.
The story is narrated in the form of a sequence of episodes which have been woven together so that they form a continuous narrative. The episodes add up to a convincing portrait of a life: the petty sibling frictions, the difficult circumstances, and the ties that held the family together. It is also a credible portrait of a young boy gradually becoming a young man: his perception of the world is reconstructed with an authentic touch which is often absent from similar memoirs.
It is this element – the recapturing of the perspective of youth – that unifies the first part of the story. This is what it is all about: his experience of the universal childhood struggle to understand the world, and to find one’s place in it: as the title has it, to find a soft spot to land on. As it turns out, he lands on some pretty hard spots along the way.
The prose style is simple, unpretentious, and the narrative leavened by humour. This is especially marked in the tales of childhood escapades and pranks, but even the episodes dealing with the author’s experience of beatings (from teachers, from his father) and his adult hardships have humour in them. That is not to say that the tone is jokey – far from it. A pitfall that many amateur memoirists fall into when trying to inject humour into their stories is to adopt a jokey tone, often highlighted by a rash of exclamation marks. Not so with this author, the humour is always dry, often wry, and entirely natural.
While on the subject of style, one of the features that marks the manuscript out as a memoir is the near-total absence of dialogue in the first half. Ii is notable that among the exceptions to this no-dialogue rule are the scenes involving his relationship with his aunt Chrissie, his surrogate mother. These are narrated in greater emotional detail than other scenes, especially after her premature blindness. The relationship between the troubled young man and his mother-figure are remarkably touching, especially in the period following her departure from the household.
Gradually, frictions and departures whittle the household down to the author and his father. Unable to settle to life, and with his emotional anchor gone, he runs away from home. After living with a travelling commune, he finds himself living rough in Piccadilly. This is the beginning of a spiral. He is sent to an ‘approved school’, from which he absconds. This results in a spell borstal, from which he escapes. His path into adulthood is about as inauspicious as it could be. Living alone, he struggles to make ends meet and to cope with his loneliness:
My mind was in turmoil … At the time, the only thing that I had done wrong was to grow up. As far as I was concerned, nobody wanted me and I couldn’t get a job. My stomach rumbled and the thought of food entered my brain … any moment I expected to be ejected once again, out into the freezing cold winter that surrounded the City of Bradford … My only thought at the time was to end it all before life became too unbearable, then all my problems would be over.
He is pulled back from the brink by a reconciliation with his older brother, Alan. Determined to sort his life out, he joins the army.
At last he has found a role, a focus in life, and his sense of self-worth grows. Following a period in Hong Kong, his regiment does a tour in Northern Ireland. The troubles are at their height, and he finds himself at the sharp end. Amidst the violence, though, he finds another emotional anchor: his first encounter with Betty, the woman who is to become his wife. Stints in Germany, Canada and Cyprus follow, along with promotion. He and Betty have children. Life seemed to be complete: he has found a soft spot to land on. Eventually he leaves the army and takes work as a security guard.
Here we reach the point at which we first entered the story: the accident in which he was hit by a car and suffered head injuries. The last part of the story takes us through his recovery and his story down to the present.
In conclusion, I remain convinced that this highly involving story is primarily a memoir. The product of the author’s storytelling skill makes it feel fully authentic. There is something else too. What really sells the story is the novelistic structure of the narrative arc. Throughout the second half of the story – the narrator’s adulthood – the key events of the narrative involve returns to his family at pivotal emotional moments. This does mark a strong sense of the emotional arc of a novelistic narrative.
I strongly recommend this manuscript. It is authentic, highly engaging, entertaining, absorbing content, and provides a wholly satisfying emotional cycle from beginning to end.
Finally, I find Find a soft spot to land on as a most worth book and any resulting publication would have a potential readership amongst a wide mainstream audience and could generate a great deal of interest.