The Family Firm

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The Family Firm

Our books don’t always document the lives of individuals or families. Sometimes we’ll write and produce the story of a company. The ups and downs of a business can be just as intriguing as a life story. So, when Vivienne Metliss contacted us about writing the story of her family and her family’s furniture business we were delighted to help.

Vivienne’s grandparents, Minnie Blitzstein and Woolf Kasitzky, had travelled to England from Ukraine in 1907 or 1908. The couple were Jewish and had been living in a shtetl with the local Jewish community. Sadly, a violent wave of anti-Semitism swept across Ukraine around this time, leading many Jewish people to flee their homes in search of safety. The violence was probably the catalyst for Woolf and Minnie gathering up their family and climbing onboard a boat bound for England. 

Pages from the book, showing Minnie, Woolf and their children

Pages from the book, showing Minnie, Woolf and their children

Eventually the couple would have seven children — Alf, Morry, Fanny, Doris, Jessie, Samuel and Sidney — and settle in the East End of London. To support his family, Woolf started to make and sell beautifully crafted furniture, as the book describes:

It was at Little Pearl Street that Woolf, who had red hair and a Russian-style beard and was always smartly dressed, began to make small pieces of furniture, which he would sell. Using the skills he had learned in Ukraine, softly spoken Woolf carved, sanded and varnished wood, making cabinets, tables, chests of drawers, and whatever was required. On Doris’s birth certificate (1908) his rank/profession was described as ‘Cabinet Maker’. Woolf was a highly skilled craftsman and could make anything with wood—dovetail joints, beautiful inlays, curved edges. Today a beautiful ornate mahogany table with perfectly rounded sides, carved by Woolf, has pride of place in his daughter-in-law Sylvia’s hallway. This was the start of what would become a thriving family business.

Eventually Alf and Morry joined their father and the firm became incorporated as M Woolf Furniture Ltd. The company moved to bigger premises and began manufacturing mainly bedroom furniture, which was sold in department stores around London and beyond.

During the war, materials became scarce and furniture production came to a standstill. Instead the factory began repairing and making ammunition storage containers or bomb boxes. 

“Sometimes the brothers found bits of parachute in the boxes,” recalls Irene. (Alf’s daughter) Her mother Hettie would turn these scraps into handkerchiefs. This old parachute material was widely sought after during the war by resourceful young women. Because the parachutes were made of cream silk, and any new fabric was in short supply, prospective brides tried to get hold of these silk scraps and turn them into bridal gowns. 

Woolf Furniture made the most of the postwar years, when demand for new furniture was high. Younger brothers Samuel and Sidney joined the firm, and they began to incorporate innovative designs. Sam was particularly proud of Woolf Furniture’s wardrobe doors, frequently claiming that they were ‘the finest sliding doors in the country’. The company went from strength to strength. Even a catastrophic fire in 1950 could not knock it off course, and before long Woolf Furniture was sold in most of the major London department stores and beyond. 

Unfortunately, with the advent of cheap, mass-produced furniture in the 1970s, Woolf Furniture went into decline. It just could not compete with the likes of large firms like MFI, although Woolf’s grandson Bernard would follow in the family footsteps and set up another successful furniture business, specialising in office furniture.

The book was written in collaboration with Vivienne and her extended family. This proved a great opportunity for a number of family get-togethers, bringing together the older and younger generations to share stories and memories. The hardback, cloth bound book, incorporates the original Woolf logo into its design and proved a hit with both older and younger members of the Woolf family. “Everyone loved the book and thought it was very well done,” says Vivienne.

Vivienne with some of her family and copies of the book

Vivienne with some of her family and copies of the book

Gold detail on the front of the books

Gold detail on the front of the books

As usual, the books are stitched rather then glued, making them stronger and longer lasting, and finished with a ribbon detail.

As usual, the books are stitched rather then glued, making them stronger and longer lasting, and finished with a ribbon detail.

Extracts © Vivienne Metliss 2017

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Five Reasons Why You Should Write Your Life Story

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Five Reasons Why You Should Write Your Life Story

There are many reasons why you might wish to write an autobiography or memoir. Here are our top five:

  1. To show your children and grandchildren who you really are. Remember, they have only known you since you were an adult, in the role of parent or grandparent. Write the story of your life as you remember it and give them a glimpse of the real you.
  2. To record a unique piece of social history. Biographies and memoirs of people from all ages are viewed as valuable documents by historians. Write yours and you will be doing your bit to illuminate the decades that you have lived through for the benefit of future generations.
  3. To pass on the wisdom you’ve learned. Life teaches us many lessons. Some may be worth passing on in the hope that others don’t make the mistakes that you have made.
  4. To reflect on your career. Whether you are a teacher, a company director or a High Court judge, you are bound to have plenty to say about your subject. Capturing the funny, happy and sad memories of your working life can give you tremendous satisfaction and is sure to make you see that all that hard graft was worth it.
  5. For fun. These days we’re all so busy with our lives that we often forget to enjoy the present let alone remember the past. Sitting down to write your autobiography can be a great way to wallow in a bit of good old nostalgia.

If you want to write your life story but need a little help to get you started, why not get in touch? We can write or edit your book for you and organise for a few copies to be professionally printed and bound.

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Look Back in Hunger

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Look Back in Hunger

Dolly Mixtures, Sherbert Dip Dabs, Spangles, Walnut Whips, sticky toffee pudding, Grandma’s roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, rhubarb crumble, rice pudding, rabbit pie, Spam… What foods evoke days gone by for you?

Our sense of taste is inextricably linked to our memory. A special dish or a distinctive flavour can take us by surprise as it instantly transports us to the past. This is perhaps why so many of us love to cook dishes from our childhood for our own children. Through delicious food, we are trying to create happy memories for them to return to one day.

Below is a selection of some of our favourite food memories from our clients:

Pineapple Chunks

When we became tired, Maud and I climbed on to the top of a jeep with a canvas top. We were lying there when some American soldiers turned up and informed us that it was their jeep. They asked us what we hadn’t had during the war and we said “Pineapple!”, so they went away and came back with a tin of pineapple from somewhere. They didn’t have a can opener, so they prodded the tin open with a penknife and handed these pineapple chunks round to everyone. That first taste of pineapple was like the food of the gods, and it’s still one of my favourite flavours. (© Elizabeth Osborn 2007)

Dried Egg

I loved dried egg. Whale meat was served for a school meal — extremely chewy and not very appetising. There were a few food items that I liked and still buy, including Spam. I have tried to find dried egg but could not find a product that had the taste I remember. (© Rex North 2014)

Rabbit Pie

A favourite dish of mine was Mother’s rabbit pie. After I had provided the fresh animal, Mother would deftly skin it, chop it up and immerse it in a pot of boiling water, all under the watchful eye of the cat, who was always ready to accept the leftovers. Combined with vegetables fresh from the garden, and a very crisp pastry topping, this was a meal to be savoured, and when it came out of the oven with it’s little chimney spouting steam, we knew that we were in for a treat. (© Sally Kendall 2008)

The Knobbler

We were not allowed to waste food for the simple reason that our parents could afford to buy very little. When my mum got a loaf of bread she would give one of my hungry sisters or me the ‘knobbler’ to eat. This was what we called the end piece of the loaf. My mum made sure that she was fair and we each got a turn at having the knobbler. Whenever I was the lucky one who received this meagre piece of bread, I would eat around the edges and take tiny bites of it so that I could make it last for as long as possible. (© June Sault 2010)

The Bastible Oven

It was lovely to come home to our house because it would smell of hot soda bread or cakes. My mother would make mouth-watering griddle cakes in a frying pan over the fire. The soda bread was cooked in a bastible oven. This looked like a witch’s cauldron, a little iron pot with three legs. A lump of hot peat would be taken from the fire and put on the hearth. The oven would sit on top of it with the soda bread inside or an apple tart or a rabbit or two, cut up to fit. When the food was safely inside the bastible oven, a lid would be put on top and another piece of peat would be placed on to the lid. This method meant that the food cooked from the top and the bottom. The soda bread came out crispy and delicious. (© Ellen Philomena Hayes 2014)

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The Life Story of a Book

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The Life Story of a Book

There are several stages to making a biography with Book of My Life:

1. After an initial conversation, we’ll recommend the best option for you. We’ll then match you with an experienced professional writer in your area.

2. Your writer will meet you in a place convenient to you, somewhere you’ll feel comfortable (usually your home). You’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about your life. Depending on which option you’ve chosen, this will be followed by between four and nine further meetings.

3. After the interviews are complete, your writer will begin working on your book. He or she will submit the first chapter for approval as soon as its ready. Once you’re happy with it, your writer will complete the rest of the book.

4. You’ll receive a copy of the first draft and have an opportunity to make amendments and corrections to the text at this stage. 

5. With the text approved, we’ll move on to the design stage of the project. We’ll scan in your selection of precious photographs and include these within the typeset pages. 

6. If you would like a dust jacket, we’ll provide three design ideas for you to choose from. 

7. We’ll send a copy of the layout before a final proofread to check for any errors that have slipped through.

8. Finishing touches: finally, we’ll ask you to choose what colour cloth you’d like to be applied to the cover board and whether you’d like silver or gold lettering on the spine. 

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9. Your books will be delivered within about five weeks. 

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10. You can now share your unique story with all your friends and family.

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A Fascinating Family History

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A Fascinating Family History

Everyone has a book in them, so the adage goes. The challenge is to write it. David Small’s three children knew that both their father and mother had fascinating stories. Sadly, before the death of David’s wife, Annette, they had only shared the briefest of glimpses into the past. As David coped with the trials of getting older, Mary, Francis and John decided to act. If they didn’t capture their parents’ stories now, they could be lost forever.

They contacted Book of My Life and we were delighted to help. Ghostwriter Alison visited David in his retirement home. Over a cup of tea, she coaxed out some stories from his early life — cricket on the lawn; golf at St Andrews; national service in Egypt. David’s brother, Jimmy, further illuminated David’s Dundee childhood and their family history. “Alison skilfully picked her way through the smokescreens and captured some wonderful childhood memories,” says David’s son John.

The resulting book — Yearning for Home — moves from Scotland to New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and England, and illuminates the differences between the generations while also showing sometimes surprising similarities. We included a selection of family photographs, designed an attractive dust jacket and organised a small print run of hardback books for friends and family.

Sadly, David passed away while the book was being written. His children have no regrets about asking Book of My Life to write his story. “Those interviewed loved the experience,” says John. “Sharing their memories brought them back to be enjoyed all over again.” He and his siblings now have a unique family document to share with future generations — and have learned much about their family which otherwise they may never have discovered. 

For more information about how Book of My Life can help you to write and print your story, please call 020 8133 6588 or send us an email. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Growing up Under Stalin & Hitler

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Growing up Under Stalin & Hitler

In that split second, I had to make a choice: I could be killed by the Russians or killed by the Germans. I decided to run towards the tanks.

At Book of My Life we believe that every life story is worth telling. It might not set the world on fire, but your story will provide a unique insight into the past nonetheless. It will be a precious slice of social history which will shine a light on years gone by.

But occasionally we meet someone whose story stops us in our tracks. There was the Jewish woman who, as a child in the 1930s, lived next door to Hitler (yes, really). There was the woman who worked with the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and didn’t tell a soul — including close family — for 50 years. Then there was Wolodymyr Papuca, born in Ukraine in 1925, a few years before Stalin’s Terror-Famine — or Holodomor — brought death to up to 10 million Ukrainians. It’s an extraordinary tale of survival — against all the odds. You can read an extract of Wally’s memoir below:

In the summer of 1941, I was outside our bungalow near the storage area when, out of nowhere, came a loud, wailing siren. I looked over my shoulder to see the source of this horrible sound—a German Stuka ground-attack aircraft with its Jericho Trumpet heralding its arrival. It was heading directly towards me, and seemed about to attack me. The bungalow was several hundred metres away, and I would never make it back in time. So I started to run for my life towards the storage area which was on stilts. I threw my body to the ground and crawled underneath. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tightly, certain that my time was up, waiting for the blast and the blackness of death.

I waited for an age for the end to come, until eventually I realised that the noise had quietened. The aircraft was flying away. No shots had been fired and no bombs dropped. Perhaps the pilot had just meant to scare me. If so, he had certainly succeeded in his mission.

The Germans reached Donetsk but they did not, in 1941, occupy the area of eastern Ukraine where we lived. They were held up 20 kilometres short of us, largely because of the onset of the harsh, unrelenting winter. We were used to it. The Germans, in contrast, were ill-equipped to deal with such difficult conditions. Snow fell upon snow, and it was so cold that the Germans’ cars froze.

The Germans didn’t give up easily and, with the warmer weather of 1942, began pushing forward again. In May, my mother’s worst fears came true. My parents received another letter from the Soviet authorities: I was required to join another group heading east. Again, I had to take food for three days. 

“My poor Wolodymyr!” cried my mother, weeping uncontrollably. I’d escaped once, it didn’t seem likely that I could do so again. My mother became convinced that she’d never see me again and struggled to contain the feelings of panic and fear that were filling her heart.

My father was more positive. “Keep your head down, Wolodymyr, and you’ll be all right.”

I was not convinced that I would, although I had no choice. Reluctantly, I joined the group on the appointed day. On this second march, there were only about 30 students, all Young Communists. There were about a dozen Russian soldiers guarding us. Again there was no hope of escape. We marched through the Donbas area, and at seven o’clock in the evening we started to climb a hill through a field. Suddenly, some German tanks appeared over the brow of the hill and moved towards us.

Without warning, gun shots rang out. It wasn’t the Germans, it was our Russian guards. They were shooting the students on the opposite side of our group. The Russians would rather we died than fall into German hands; our lives were worth nothing. In that split second, I had to make a choice: I could be killed by the Russians or killed by the Germans. I decided to run towards the tanks, along with a boy I knew from technical college. I learned later that we were the only two to escape; all the others, many of them close friends, were shot dead.

Extract © 2016 Wolodymyr Papuca

If you’d like to read more of Wally’s extraordinary story of survival, his book, The Winter of the Wolf, is available from our store. 

Wolodymyr Papuca as a young man

Wolodymyr Papuca as a young man

Wally in 2016 with his family

Wally in 2016 with his family

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