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The story of a life

The world is full of armchair raconteurs whose heads are filled with fascinating snippets and stories which they love recounting.

The stuff of family trees and traditions, long-gone ancestors, weird and wonderful experiences, romantic events, and homespun wisdom are all grist for their mill.

With time, these oft-told tales become polished gems which should be preserved for future generations. Sadly, while many have been urged to write a book they never follow through.

Fortunately, Bermudian author John Cox is not one of them. Just in time for the Christmas season, he has published his tenth book, 'Days and Decades', an 83-page collection of vignettes from his own life, which make charming, easy, and often very funny reading.

As anyone familiar with this author's work knows, Mr Cox has been a keen researcher and recorder of his ancestors' lives and family history for decades, but he is careful to make the distinction that he is not an historian but “a family historian, folklorist and ghost writer”.

The motivation behind Mr Cox's newest publication is neatly summed up in the opening paragraph of the second chapter: “Much of one's life passes in a blur. Amidst vague recesses of memory, there are certain days that stand out from the remainder. “For a lucky few, there are even memorable decades. Is life just a chance? Or are our fates mapped before birth? I'm inclined to believe in the latter. But if our memories are not dutifully recorded, we are lost to history”.

Indeed, this was confirmed by someone who reminded him: “As we move forward and further away from the 20th century, what you have written will become history.”

As a result, 'Days and Decades' takes us on a reflective journey through eras spanning the last half of the 20th century and up to the advent of the new millenium. The thoughtfully chosen selection of vignettes begins when Mr Cox was three. Some are deeply personal, perhaps surprisingly so, while others acknowledge the contributions much-loved family members, retainers and pets, friends and acquaintances have made to the tapestry of his life.

Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, ghosts, debilitating illness, and much more are deftly interwoven as the book unfolds.

The style is rather like that of an artist who doesn't overwork his canvas but paints with light strokes, leaving the rest to one's imagination; or of a butterfly flitting nimbly around a garden selecting landing spots at random.

Since many of the people mentioned in the book are very much alive today, and some of the fashions and customs of yesteryear are also well within current memory, the reader will identify with and even laugh aloud at them.

A gentle soul by nature, Mr Cox writes in much the same vein in 'Days and Decades', yet the text is not insipid. On the contrary, the reader's interest is so continually engaged that before one knows it, regretfully the last page has been turned.

The overall effect is akin to spending cherished time with a dear friend. “I write from the heart, so my books are going to be personal,” Mr Cox says.

Going into detail about the reasons behind writing this book, the laborious process of publishing, and his emotions when it reaches the public domain, Mr Cox said: “When I started writing it, I wanted to capture something of the Bermuda that we grew up in but which is largely gone: things like Le Petit Café in Hamilton, and taking the dog for a walk without a lead because there was no traffic.”

Shortly after he began writing, however, something “very strange” happened.

“A transformation took place. A conscious effort to get down facts was overtaken by something else. I have written ghost books, so I wondered if there wasn't a ghost out there who was helping me because the book just started writing itself.

“Suddenly I knew it was turning into something special. It is hard to explain, but true nonetheless.”

At the outset, the author also wasn't sure what form the book would take whether it would turn towards what he calls “a cathartic release” or be “just vignettes”. Today he concludes that “in a sense it has probably ended up being both”.

“I spent a lot of time reflecting on the past. When you get near the dead they seem more real than the living, and you become more akin to the past. My whole writing came from reflecting on the past.”

In fact, because of his obsessive interest in the family genealogy from an early age, his paternal grandfather, the late Sir John Cox, used to say that his namesake was the only person he could recall who knew more dead people than living.

Struck down by ME/chronic fatigue syndrome at the age of 17, the author confesses he was so debilitated that he actually thought about dying.

Fortunately, he subsequently discovered that using the time to reflect on family history during recurring episodes actually helped him with his writing.

Likening the advent of a book to giving birth, Mr Cox says that once the protracted process of writing and publishing a book is complete, he is “always very happy”.

“It's like bringing something into the world. You put your heart and soul into making it happen, and when it comes out you are almost ecstatic. Then you go through a period, which maybe all artists go through, when you feel you could have done better. There are certain ideas which you think you could have written better, or should have left out. More than that, however, is the fact that when you are writing you want to be able to hit it dead centre, and often you don't do that.

“Eventually I get over all that when people I least expect say to me, 'I really enjoyed the book'. There is always somebody who comes along and says, 'That book is wonderful'. Then I am glad I did it, and I never turn back.”

Modestly, the author follows up this revelation by recalling an occasion when, after writing an article for the then-Heritage Magazine, the late Reginald Ming introduced him to the Governor of the day and, referring to the article, said: “Your Excellency, he is a good little writer.”

Chuckling, Mr Cox said: “It keeps things in perspective. To this day, I still know I am 'a good little writer', and that's fine with me.”

Because he feels 'Days and Decades' is “a personal experience”, the author has decided not to sell it in the shops. Instead, it will only be sold at Tucker House in St. George's during the Bermuda National Trust's annual Christmas walkabout on Friday evening, when Mr Cox author will be on hand to sign copies.

Printed on heavy, glossy stock with a hard cover and dust jacket, and including numerous family photographs, the price is just $10, with all proceeds being donated to the Trust.

Mr Cox will also be selling copies of his 'Cameos of Old Bermuda' at Tucker House the same evening for a special price of $10 instead of the regular $20 per copy. This book was published last year, and is a sequel to 'Life in Old Bermuda'.

“Ironically, 'Days and Decades' begins with me travelling to St. George's in 1978 to begin my first day of work at Tucker House, so signing copies there on Friday night brings me full circle,” the author noted.

John Cox with his new book Days and Decades

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Published December 01, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm)

The story of a life

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