I’ve just embarked upon writing a new book – so far so good. It is to be 150,000 words long – a little daunting. It’s a biography – I have never written one before.
The feeling is scary and at the same time exhilarating. The first paragraphs and pages are beginning to form. The idea has been with me for a couple of decades, but now the moment has arrived and I want it to be a great experience.
I hope this blog post, with some background, will encourage you to join me on this ‘biographer’s journey’. And maybe you’ll offer a little help and encouragement as I proceed.
The book is about the life and work of Cicely Saunders – the inspiration and founder of so much that has occurred in the modern hospice and palliative care movement over the past 50 years.
My story goes back to the mid-1990s when I was working at the University of Sheffield, linked with the Trent Palliative Care Centre. It was at that time I became conscious of the emerging and unexplored history surrounding the development of hospices in Britain
I approached Cicely Saunders and asked her for help. She had created St Christopher’s, the first ‘modern’ hospice in Britain and remained a towering figure of inspiration to many in the rapidly developing field of palliative care. She wrote a letter of support which I appended to a grant application to the Wellcome Trust, seeking funds to undertake some oral history interviews with British hospice founders. The application was successful and Neil Small joined me in the process of selecting people for interview and then recording their stories in detail.
Neil and I started by interviewing Cicely Saunders and then moved on to interview other key figures in the field, using the ‘snowball’ sampling method. Our visits to St Christopher’s soon uncovered a vast collection of papers and records, which its founder had carefully held onto from the earliest days of her encounter with the idea of hospice.
I began the work of cataloguing these records and ensuring their safety for posterity. In time I edited some of the papers into two volumes for Oxford University Press: one of Cicely Saunders’ selected letters; the other of her selected publications. All of her papers are now fully catalogued and available from Kings College London Archives.
Whilst preparing these two books I began to realise that a third volume should complete the set. This would be a new biography, building on a first offering from Shirley du Boulay from 1984, as well as my own growing knowledge of and fascination with my subject.
In August 1999 I embarked upon a series of interviews with Dr Saunders, at her home, with the idea of a posthumous biography in mind. As I explained to her, echoing a beer advertisement of the time, I wanted ‘to reach the parts that other interviewers hadn’t reached’.
We met regularly on many occasions and the interviews carried on until March 2005, just a few months before her death.
In the years that followed I continued my research interests in palliative care. From time to time I would be asked airily by friends and colleagues “how’s the Saunders’ biography coming on?” I would smile uneasily and say I was still pondering how to approach it, waiting to clear some space, and so on and so forth.
In truth, I knew that it was too early for the work to begin. Dr Saunders’ death was still fresh in the minds of many. But I also felt too close to her, too much identified with her papers and contribution. I needed time to work out how to approach her biography. She began to sit on my shoulder, unobtrusively, but a fairly constant reminder of the work I had promised her I would undertake.
I changed jobs, got away from the palliative care research coal face and in 2009 moved into University management. I continued to write about palliative care, but from a greater distance, no longer involved in the daily round and politics of the field. I finished a book about the Project on Death in America. I completed another on the history of palliative medicine from the nineteenth century, To Comfort Always, which will be published later this year.
As my period of management duties was coming to a close, I was fortunate enough to win a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. I then postponed a sabbatical year, my reward for those years as Director of the University of Glasgow Dumfries Campus. The Wellcome Trust-funded project was well underway. I could start my period of sabbatical.
Now I hoped to have more time to think, to reflect, and in due course to return to the idea of the biography.
So this is where I am in May 2016. I have a supportive editor in Andrea Knobloch in the New York office of Oxford University Press. I have a clear timeline. Publication in June 2018 will exactly coincide with the centenary of Cicely Saunders’ birth.
The writing has finally begun and as it moves forward I will share my progress, struggles and some of the insights gained. I hope you will join me on this next adventure, and that you’ll offer your suggestions and ideas along the way.