Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Beyond Nab End — William Woodruff — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 11, 2008

Obituaries have their benefits and when I say that I am not being disrespectful to the departed at all. A regular reading of the obituaries on NYTimes has introduced me to writers I have not known before. In some cases these obituaries expanded my understanding of writers whom I have known vaguely. William Styron, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick, Kurt Vonnegut, Ira Levin, Solzhenitsyn, David Foster Wallace have been a few writers whom I have known through their obituaries. To these death induced introductions, I can also include William Woodruff. To call Woodruff a writer is in many ways misleading. He was primarily a historian and became famous for a couple of well written autobiographical books viz. “The Road to Nab End” and “Beyond Nab End”  – the latter being a sequel.  A couple of days prior to Woodruff’s death I happened to see a low priced edition of his book “Beyond Nab End” which in my ignorance I did not pay attention to. Then I happened to read his obituary and realised the mistake I was making in allowing what is considered to be a “classic” slip out of my hands. Luckily for me the shop still had a few unsold copies of the book and I promptly picked a copy for reading…

The more I think about it the more I am convinced that life many a time beats fiction hands down for its unpredictability, strangeness, twists, turns, triumphs, shocks, defeats and above all its natural capacity to leave room for an ineluctable grace. One of the most beautiful thing in my eyes is the ordinary man’s heroic resilience against odds. It is not that I am not inspired by a hero’s triumph. But what robs the conventional stories of heroism their impact is that the hero knows upfront what he is up against. In the case of an ordinary man that never is the case… life winds whip him in his face and yet the turbulence is faced and somehow weathered. And it is this “somehow” that encapsulates the resilience that is touching and many times moving. Nobody so unknowingly forges ahead by placing trust on the thing ever hidden in Pandora’s box – hope – as a common man does. It is probably why I am more moved by the struggles of a Papillon than that of a Prometheus. “Beyond Nab End” is one such story

Shorn of any maudlin sentimentality it is a story told straight from the heart and this honesty reflects throughout this autobiographical narrative. The journey of William Woodruff (Woodie) and the times are eventful both on personal and societal fronts. Woodie’s running away from home in Lancashire to London and rise from a working class “sand rat” in a sooty and suffocating foundry to the hallowed portals of high learning at Oxford is a journey that makes for a joyous reading. The underlying theme of the rise of an underdog is an alluring aspect of this narrative.  However, the more attractive aspect of the book is the description of the turn of historical events of 1939-45 leading to the culmination of WW II and also its conclusion which left a trail of hideous suffering and despair across the world. One gets a superb sense of these epochal events intertwined with Woodie’s own place in and perspectives about them. As we progress along a haunting and unforgettable picture of the times gone by emerges. As part of the narration of his story Woodruff ensures that the reader meets some wonderful people – ordinary and extraordinary who have helped and troubled him on his way. As I read through, it started to dawn on me that the progress of history is not always a pleasant one and “Beyond Nab End” brings to life the impact of this progress on ordinary people

Even while building a wonderfully absorbing sociological picture of his time, Woodruff also manage to delineate his own personality as an ego free and honest individual with a deep sense of fairness, hunger for learning and knowledge, scholarship, love for life and sport and above all well considered empathy to his fellow human beings

Throughout the book Woodruff displays a wonderful ear for London cockney and brings it to life which ensures that the reader does not miss the irony and straightforwardness asociated with it. Consider the following when Mrs.Tinker meets Woodruff as tenant in her hovel in London:

I rubbed one of the stones between thumb and finger, then another, I didn’t know what they were. ‘Stones?’
‘Stones… ofcourse them’s stones. Wot else? Wot I arsks yer is wot kind of stones?
A heavy silence hung between us
‘I don’t know’
‘Gallstones, you dummy! Mine! A record!’
I just stared
”Struth,’ she exploded gathering up her treasures. ‘Wasting my time you is. You’re the kind of bloke wot gets no ‘appy in anyfink’
or when Woodruff is on his way to the war and meets a few workers who have been conscripted as soldiers and their disdain for the upperclass (nobs) of their society… ‘Ox, mite? Aren’t you on the wrong bus? Ox nobs are officers. Does yer mean to say, mite, that yer passed up a bleedin’ bed and a batmen to live in a tent wiv us?’

The book has an indescribable freeness in the flow of its narration. Mixed with an accute sense of the major events of his time Willam Woodruffe makes his own story in “Beyond Nab End” a moving and a thoroughly enjoyable read

As I concluded the book I was exasparated at the thought that as a country we Indians lack this sense of documenting our own lives and share them with the world for everyone’s benefit….. the experiences of emancipation from foreign rule and rise to the notion of a nation could have produced some breathtaking fiction and autobiographical narratives. And for that we have almost nothing to show barring an odd one here and there like Nirad C Chaudhari‘s “The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian“. I am not very hopeful that this will change anytime soon. Smothered under the burden of time, the stories of our heroes and heroines from the common masses may never be told. That we are willing to push our own past into an unrecoverable forgetfulness is indeed disappointing.


Woodruff quotes this poem while describing an incident involving one of his acquaintances which I quite liked:

With midnight’s always in one’s heart
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, we tear the rope,
Each in his separate hell

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