Wally Ward : Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

Wally Ward : Purpose and Audience

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Wally Ward (born in 1914) wrote his memoir ‘Fit For Anything’ (2.798) during the 1960s, detailing his life as a sufferer of epilepsy. In the preface, he dedicates the memoir to other epilepsy sufferers: Ward aimed to publish it and inspire others to overcome the limits of disability. Coping with disabilities in the early twentieth century was notably harder due to still developing medical knowledge. W. R. Gowers, a doctor writing on the effects of epilepsy in 1885, described managing epilepsy as “a task of difficulty, requiring the utmost patience and perseverance on the part of both the patient and the physician” (1). Ward explains that his memoir exists to show an example to others with his condition that one can achieve a good quality of life through perseverance and determination:

I want to give a lift to all of my readers who are epileptics and give you the will to win, as you can, if you will only set your face; grit your teeth and say to yourself . . . “I will overcome” . . . say it again . . . “I will overcome” (i)

Here, Ward makes it clear that he intends his memoir to be almost a how-to guide in coping with epilepsy successfully through everyday life. At least – it is clear he intends people to think this is the purpose of the memoir.

Despite writing a largely sympathetic autiobiography with details of the difficulties his seizures have caused him, it often comes across as smug. For example, Ward describes the statistical view of the epileptic community:

‘There are a large number of epileptics in Britain, running into hundreds of thousands; the majority of whom are quite capable of earning a living if given the chance’? (I)

Following this, Ward states that “I like to think I am a little more than that; because I made it.”(i) This, although promoting the abilities of epileptic people to “make it”, also indicates that those who are capable of earning a living and have not been given the chance are not more than the basic statistic or considerable as individuals. This contradicts the overall tone of the opening, which insists the potential is there for everyone “if you will only set your face; grit your teeth and say to yourself . . . I will “overcome””(i). Perhaps the conjunction of these two perspectives suggests a frustration on Ward’s part towards epileptic sufferers who do not “make it” and add to the perception that sufferers cannot be functioning members of society.

Young people being educated outside the Bethesda Home for Crippled and Incurable Children, c.1910. Accessible at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/people-and-places/disability-history/1914-1945/

Given that the target audience for the memoir is still others with the same condition as himself, perhaps its purpose was more to publicise his own successes. This is in contrast with the usual tone of working-class autiobiography of the time, which focused on class and detailing the hardships faced within the contemporary working-classes. Joanna Bourke discusses this tendency in her work on Working-Class Cultures 1890-1960, describing it as “concerned as much with the symbolic expressions of power in social relationships as with material realities. In this way, ‘class’ was intrinsically tied up with awareness of difference and experience of conflict.” (4) This gives us a greater understanding of Ward’s attitude in writing ‘Fit For Anything’ – he is aware of his class difference and has experienced conflict because of it. However, due to the expectations that most epileptic would not acquire work, Ward is aware of his fortune in receiving a reasonably well-paid job and sees his conflict as a result of disability, not class.

Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. Routledge: London. 1994.
Gowers, W. R. Epilepsy and Other Chronic Convulsive Disorders: Their Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment. William Wood and Co.: New York. 1885

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