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Presenting Your Past- An interview with Rachel Lewis

Ella
4th December 2018

Together with her little sister Alice, Rachel Lewis runs Presenting Your Past, helping people tell their story and create a book of their life. Family stories often become lost in the mists of time. Boxes of old photos can’t tell a story on their own. Diaries and letters can help, but you don’t always get the full picture.
 
Writing your life story is therefore a fantastic way of preserving your family history. Presenting Your Past work with you- combining your story and favourite pictures to create a book of your life, treasured for generations to come.

We spoke with Rachel about the inspiration behind the business, and what has surprised her most.

Can you tell me how Presenting Your Past began? How did it fall together?

It was losing my grandparents that really inspired me to set up the business. My Gran was a formidable writer. For almost 80 years, her diaries and letters reflected all aspects of life -from the price of post-war oranges, to tips on how to secure the best spot outside St. Paul’s Cathedral for watching a Royal Wedding. However, she never seemed to have the time or confidence to properly record her life story. Shortly before she died, she asked for my help in doing so, but we never seemed to get around to it, and after she developed dementia, it soon became clear that I’d left it too late.

My grandad on the other hand was as sharp as a tack until the very end. However, being housebound, he became increasingly frustrated and bored. Luckily my Mum was on hand to help, and she started work with him on writing his life story. She was amazed just how much brighter he was when working on the project- remembering long-forgotten stories and being able to give context to the hundreds of black and white photos that they’d collected over the years.

Talking with friends, it seemed that I wasn’t alone in missing out on my family history- we are all so busy, it’s often impossible to make the time, or we just don’t know where to start, or how to go about it.

I therefore decided to launch a service that would have a two-fold mission- to help families celebrate their history, but also offering people a chance to work on a creative, rewarding, collaborative project.

How did your background in research and communications help you develop PYP?

I’ve always been a bit obsessive about finding out what makes people tick. Starting out as a BBC researcher I enjoyed digging around stories and balancing the headline facts, with the smaller interesting details. I then made the move to Whitehall and Government Communications. Here I dealt with everything from the finer details of the Common Agriculture Policy to  coming up with new ways of talking about drug abuse with young people. Listening, questioning, writing, and then presenting my work creatively is what I’ve always loved doing.

Who are your customers? What are they looking for from the experience?

I’m lucky to have worked with a huge range of people, who’ve all had different reasons for presenting their past. For some people, working on the project is in itself the reward- a psychologist once described reminiscence work as “chocolate for the brain,” which I think describes the process brilliantly.

For other people it's been about creating a  gift for family and friends. We are all custodians, not only of our personal history, but of our wider family heritage too. I once read somewhere that as parents we should aim to give our children ‘roots' and ‘wings.’ Life story books are a perfect way of doing this- presenting inspiring stories that young people can relate to, and also giving them an understanding of where they come from.

Quite a few of my projects have also been given as gifts- the perfect present for someone who’s difficult to buy for! I’ve loved working on these ‘celebration’ books for milestone birthdays, or working with a couple to celebrate a special wedding anniversary.

Memory photo books are such a wonderful aid...do you ever feel a pressure to present someone else's story just right? Do customers tend to make many revisions?

Creating a book is a true collaboration, so I encourage my customers to make lots of revisions. At the end of the day, not all the dates, places and details have to be accurate, but the presentation has to be right. The Bob Books software really helps with this when it comes to the pictures we choose.  Sometimes when a customer doesn’t have many photos, we look to the internet to fill in the gaps- for example using stock images of posters, advertising or maps from a particular era to help illustrate their story. The software indicates when the image isn’t quite up to scratch, and I can also edit photos, to ensure that we get the best possible finish.

What has this business taught you about memory, narrative and how we remember, the good and the bad?

Everybody loves to hear a good story, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have an interesting story to tell. Most have twists and turns, highs and lows, but I’ve learnt how therapeutic sharing a story can be. We all enjoy remembering the ‘highs,’ but interestingly even recalling the ‘lows’ seems to leave people feeling stronger, realising that they faced a challenge and succeeded in coming out the other side.

 

Can you tell us about a particularly interesting or moving book you have made?

Perhaps my favourite project was working with my father-in-law. We had great fun creating his book- the perfect excuse to sit down with a cup of tea and have a proper chat- something we’d never make time for ordinarily.  It was also lovely to witness at firsthand how the family truly valued his book. My husband discovered stories that he’d never even heard before, and our children definitely saw their granddad in a new light- cutting a rather dashing figure in his student party days.  It was also a proud moment for their grandad (and me!) when they shared his book at school. Suddenly the boring history topic of World War 2 was brought to life for them, with his memories of rationed bananas and the noise of the doodlebugs during the terrifying air raids.

I have yet to make a book that has failed to move me in some way. To quote Mark Twain, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy."