memories

K is for Kellogg’s Variety Pack

For one week of each summer holiday when I was a kid, I was allowed a Kellogg’s variety pack: 8 small boxes of unfamiliar cereal at an inflated price. There was the one that was supposed to make exciting noises when you poured the milk on, the one so chocolatey it turned the milk brown, the boring plain cornflakes, and some others I’ve forgotten. I’d have had more consistently tasty (and cheaper) breakfasts if I had a normal size box of Coco Pops but that wasn’t the point. Those miniature cereal boxes and the delight of choosing which order to eat them in made the whole week feel special and even now I think of long, lazy summer days when I see a variety pack.

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Every so often a bunch of working class writers start chatting on Twitter and the food reminiscences come up. Some people find it tiresome – surely we’re past Angel Delight as a big Sunday treat – but there’s a reason Proust kicks off the enormous Remembrance of Things Past with a mouthful of cake and not, say, as he puts on a favourite pair of shoes or picks up his hairbrush. Food, and particularly the food of childhood treats, takes us right back in an instant. Other things I was allowed now and then during the holidays included tinned hot dog sausages (I didn’t stop eating meat till I was a teenager), miniature Hovis wholemeal loaves, and mint choc chip ice cream. All of which still seem like the height of wild abandon.

Tinned pears currently in my kitchen

Tinned pears, on the other hand, were what we got whenever we ate with my dad’s parents, usually with one of those bricks of vanilla ice cream wrapped in card. Not an everyday item but not once a year either. I could have tinned pears every day now if I wanted to, but I don’t because then they wouldn’t feel special and transporting. I have them now and then, same as I do with buttered malt loaf or a salt and vinegar crisp sandwich. I can taste each one of these as I write, and they drop the flood defences and let memories wash over me, mostly from childhood but now overlaid with more recent times too, just like Proust’s madeleine. I wonder what Proust would have got out of a whole variety pack.

K could also have been for Keswick, knitting or kitchen sink, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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J is for Jumpers

Not unusually for the 1980s, both my grandmothers were keen knitters. Nana was seldom seen at rest without knitting needles in her hands, and it was Grandma’s main hobby apart from crosswords, swimming at the local baths, or tending her vegetable garden. Although I do remember Grandma knitting leg-warmers for my cousin and Nana knitting the odd skirt, both of them concentrated on jumpers and cardigans.

One of Nana’s many knitting patterns. I remember my parents wearing all of these.

They each had favourite patterns that they’d either bought (like the slim booklet of Aran patterns pictured above) or ripped out of magazines – Woman’s Weekly in Nana’s case and probably Family Circle in Grandma’s. Of course what with this and hand-me-downs the entire extended family could end up wearing matching pullovers as though we were auditioning to be the smiling family group on the knitting patterns. There might be some variation in colour for other patterns, but Nana always knit Arans in traditional cream (Grandma branched out into navy as I recall), and she usually knit them on the large side. My parents still wear Nana-knit jumpers that are older than me.

My dad in one of his Aran jumpers, as Nana holds a newborn me. My mum is dreadful for chopping people off photos.

Grandma followed trends a bit more than Nana did, and went through a phase of knitting enormous bat-wing jumpers in the eighties for my mum and older cousins. She also bought wooden needles thicker than her thumb, on which she’d produce open, lacy jumpers which wouldn’t even keep the chill off on a summer evening. I was too young for those, I got Rupert Bear’s face on a pale blue background, or a cartoon squirrel, each with a label sewn in that had ‘Hand-knitted by’ and her name next to a stylized ball of wool. My mum even tried knitting when I was little, and the part-finished My Little Pony jumper that I’d grown out of before she got halfway down the front (“It’ll stretch, it’ll be fine”) became the stuff of family legend. When I was in my twenties we persuaded her to throw it out. She never did get to the sleeves.

As I grew Nana would take a jumper off me, unravel it, and knit a bigger version in summer supplemented with an additional ball of yarn. Unfortunately she stopped knitting before I stopped growing and I don’t have any of her jumpers left. I do have an Aran sweater that OneMonkey’s mum knit me about twenty years ago, several sizes bigger than me because that’s the way I like them. It’s burgundy, so I stand out.

J could also have been for jam tarts, Jester badge, jigsaws or jelly and ice cream, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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I is for Icicles

“You don’t get icicles like you did when I was a girl,” OneMonkey’s mum (born in the 1940s) used to say. The changing climate and rose-tinted hindsight both play their part I’m sure, but I’m starting to agree with her and I was born thirty-odd years later.

Icicles from my childhood, as photographed by my dad

I vividly remember my dad driving us through the dusk sometime in 1985, somewhere in Cornwall, and passing a wall of icicles as big as me, covering a cliff face. Admittedly I wasn’t very big at the time but they were still impressive icicles and gave me a considerable Wow moment. Even then I didn’t see icicles very often, despite expecting to be able to build snowmen each winter. They were magical sparkly reminders of fairytales or Narnia or Superman’s hideout in the Christopher Reeve film. Whereas snow could be stomped in and built with, icicles didn’t have a purpose, they just were.

Icicles at our old place, 2010

I still find snow a magical and wondrous thing, though I dare say I wouldn’t if I had to drive in it. Maybe if I lived in the parts of Canada or Scandinavia where the snow arrives weeks before Christmas and stays till the Spring thaw I’d get used to it, stop noticing its softening magnificence. Here at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales though it’s an occasional visitor that rarely outstays its welcome and I will happily watch descending snowflakes or marvel at fresh-fallen snow the way I did twenty, thirty or forty years ago. Icicles are rarer still and I can’t help taking pictures of any I encounter that are more than about an inch and a half long.

Icicles outside the window, 2018

Of course, the fact that I can remember those specific icicles in 1985 suggests they were pretty out of the ordinary. No doubt there were several winters in my childhood where I saw smaller icicles or none at all. Still, I look at the more recent ones and think, They’re just not as good as the icicles when I was a girl.

I could also have been for icing, illness or I believe in Father Christmas but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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H is for Hindu godfather

When you’re a kid you think your family’s normal. It’s the yardstick by which you measure everything else, adjusting as necessary when you discover that no, the rest of the class don’t carry their pet goldfish in a bucket of water when they go on a caravan holiday, nor do they mix an extended family’s worth of Christmas pudding mixture each year in a Victorian baby bath. Nobody else had a Hindu godfather either, not even my Hindu friends.

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In the years running up to my birth my mum worked with a man from Sri Lanka and our families became close. Although the Sri Lankan civil war didn’t begin until the early 80s, once the demand had been made for a separate Tamil state in 1975 I’m told life wasn’t particularly comfortable for Tamils like my ‘Uncle S’. He, his wife ‘Aunty G’ and their three children came to Britain; when he was born, Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was) was part of the British empire so it was an obvious choice.

I’m not a Christian but as I understand it, it’s quite an honour to be asked to be the godparent of a friend’s baby, and my mum (my dad being an atheist) wasn’t going to let a little thing like religion get in the way. Clearly I can’t remember what happened at the ceremony but I have seen a photo of a beaming Uncle S in the church. He had a big influence on my early life though not on my religion, and he certainly broadened my outlook. He moved to London when he retired, to be near his grandchildren, so I haven’t seen him for a few years. However, I always have a box of the sandalwood incense his house used to smell of and I light some when I want to feel closer to him. If only I also had some of Aunty G’s rosewater-soaked Christmas cake.

H could also have been for Hungry Hippos, hats or hedgehogs but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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G is for Golden Guernsey Goats

“Don’t tell people we let the goats come in the house!”

This was a familiar wail from my mother during a short section of my childhood. Along with not telling people how much money I had in my purse or the building society, or had received for Christmas, there were a host of other obscure rules that I never quite grasped about what we couldn’t reveal to all and sundry. Particularly the one about not telling people that my sisters were my sisters – Big Brother never really mixed with people who hadn’t known him since childhood so he didn’t pose a problem. I was probably in my teens before I realised that this was because, being technically my cousins and born before my parents got married, it made my mum look like a teenage mother and she was mortified, but of course she never explained this and so I kept on telling everyone I met about my fabulous big sisters. It’s a good job social media wasn’t around when I was a child, is all I can say.

But, you may well be asking, why were there goats in the house in the first place? Well, obviously it’s because they didn’t want to be outside in all weathers, though I doubt it was much warmer in the house than it was in their shelter. We lived in Cornwall at the time in a big house with a small field, on a clifftop. It had two open fires and a range downstairs, and no heating at all upstairs. The wind – often gale-force – howled between the sections of the sash windows. For reasons known only to my late Nana, the kitchen door was often wide open. Hence the goats could wander in when they pleased, up the back stairs to curl up on the bath-mat for an afternoon nap.

Yes, I hear you say with waning patience, but why goats at all, and what are Golden Guernseys? Golden Guernseys are a rare breed of dairy goat: small, coarse-haired and ginger and full of personality. By which I mean, mischievous and destructive. As for why we had a nanny and kid for several months, I’m not sure. They belonged to a couple my parents knew, who I think had a farm or smallholding. We ended up with just over a dozen of their Jacob sheep for a while too. There will have been some practical reason like they were getting a cess pit replaced or having a barn repaired and we had just enough field to help them out, but at the age of six I wasn’t party to the boring grown-up stuff. All I knew was that for a while I almost didn’t mind that we couldn’t spend much time at Uncle Bob’s farm in Cumbria, because I had farm animals right outside my door. And on many a rainy afternoon, inside it as well.

Golden Guernsey nanny tethered near the open kitchen door

G could also have been for glockenspiel but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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F is for family history

It was my Nana that instilled a sense of my family’s history in me. When I was about twelve my grandad gave me photocopies of his parents’ marriage and death certificates which helped me get started on proper family history research later, but I don’t remember him or my grandma talking about their childhoods. Nana, on the other hand… When I was little we were inseparable and she was a chatterbox. I spent my pre-school days and then my weekends, evenings and school holidays with her and assorted friends and relations of her generation. Man, could they talk. Sometimes they’d natter away and forget I was there, and I absorbed favourite reminiscences and old gossip. Often though, they’d deliberately tell stories to the wide-eyed child who hadn’t heard them a hundred times before.

Now and then they’d tell me what they remembered, or had been told, about older generations, in fact I mentioned a few years ago some of the family tales and phrases that had been passed down that way. Thus Nana’s cousin Jo Jo described the goalkeeping skills of my great-grandad for the Atherton Codders in the 1920s, eyes shining like he could still see the pitch in front of him. I heard about Nana and Jo Jo being taken on a seaside holiday by their grandparents, and about my great-grandad’s budgies in a walk-in cage in the back garden. Usually they related funny or memorable events from their own youth. Nana’s lifelong friend Alice in particular told hilarious tales absolutely deadpan and was a master of pacing and scene-setting. I can still picture her landing at the feet of a surprised old couple in 1930s Derbyshire when her husband applied the brakes too hard on the tandem after a handlebar mishap.

It had been long enough since the war (forty years or more) that I got the amusing anecdotes about misadventure and misunderstanding: “Bombing at random again?” said my great-grandma, listening to the radio. “There’ll be nobody left there. Where is Random, anyway?”. My Nana’s youngest sister using gravy browning and an eyebrow pencil to mock up seamed stockings on her bare legs. Filling the butter dish with lard to teach a small child not to filch rationed butter from the sideboard. My Royal Marine grandad getting drunk, losing his ship and having to hitch a lift on another one. Nobody talked about the sick fear, the disruption and hardship. What’s the use of dragging all that up again? And yet, even though I was a child I didn’t only get the polite or sugar-coated version of history. Nana was completely open with me about her brother having a different dad who her mum hadn’t been allowed to marry. And about the suicide of her great-grandad about a decade before she was born.

I took these facts as they were given, crucial pieces of the story that I wouldn’t find written down anywhere, but nothing shocking. It’s only looking back now I’m older that I’m amazed, thinking about how in the 1980s we still referred to children ‘born out of wedlock’, and how much stigma is even now attached to suicide which was – lest we forget – illegal until the 1960s. Not only did my Nana happily pass this information on to me when I was still at primary school, but she knew it in the first place! Her mum got married during the first world war and openly brought with her the son she’d had with a previous boyfriend in another village. No passing him off as her little brother or an orphaned nephew, or leaving him to be brought up by someone else while she got on with her new life as many others did. And as for the story about Nana’s great-grandad, she got that from her grandma Emily whose father it was.

Nana with her grandma Emily in 1920

It was passed to me as I imagine it was passed to Nana, with sadness but no shame or condemnation. Emily found her father’s body and understood what had driven him to desperation. Perhaps the village doctor understood too, because the death certificate uses fancy medical terms for ‘died of old age’ whereas it must have been obvious what had happened. Emily clearly loved him and didn’t want the truth to be forgotten. Thus, even though Emily died nearly forty years before I was born I feel a connection with her, and thanks to the passed-down story I know that her dad had his troubles but did his best. Which I’m sure she would appreciate.

F could also have been for Ford Fiesta, fireworks, fish and chips, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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E is for Environmentalism

Last year I was clearing out a box and flicked through my (sadly incomplete) Garfield sticker book before it went in the bin. Eleven-year-old me had diligently written my favourite foods and pastimes on the relevant pages, and where it asked me to fill in what I wanted to do when I grew up, it said I wanted to save the planet. There in black and white (or blue and pale orange) was evidence of an early interest in the environment.

It shocked me when I saw it, because I would have said my interest in recycling and eco-responsibility came later. I know that when I was in my teens we had the energy-saving bulbs that took ages to get bright, but that was because my dad knew they were cheaper to run. I also remember when I first went to university I had a cardboard box for clean recycling, which Big Brother took home when he came to visit. At the time, I only had access to paper recycling on campus but at home we had a wheely bin for paper, cans, and certain types of plastic. I couldn’t bring myself to throw all those tuna tins in the bin. Dolphin-friendly tuna, naturally.

I’ve always loved animals: I grew up around cats, dogs, goldfish, goats, sheep, horses and ponies. We even lived somewhere temporarily where the neighbour’s donkey used to stick its head through the living room window whenever it was open. I mentioned a few posts ago the time we spent appreciating the Cumbrian outdoors, and I had the I-Spy books of British Birds and British Wildlife. Having said all that the thing that’s stuck in my mind, the thing I think might have made the difference between me being a nature-loving rambler and me being concerned about what we were doing to the planet, is a giftbox of soaps.

It was a colourful box the size of a shallow shoebox, and it was a present from my mum’s childhood friend, one of those people I knew as Aunty. The Body Shop (famous back in the late 80s as being the one that didn’t do animal testing) and Friends of the Earth as I recall, had joined forces and here were soaps shaped like a whale, a panda, a turtle maybe and a couple of others I’ve forgotten. There was a badge and a poster explaining why they were endangered and what we could do about it. It horrified me. Also, the soaps were too nice to use so the box hung around in the bathroom for a good decade proclaiming its earnest message, probably until Nana died and we worked our way through the stash of every nice soap she’d been bought for the last twenty years. So don’t dismiss the seemingly inconsequential, the marketing campaigns and the greenwash. They might not be game-changing in the grand scheme of things, but maybe they’ll make one kid think really hard about the world and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

For some reason I’ve kept this badge 35 years

E could also have been for elevenses or Earl Grey. Until I manage to get that Twinings sponsorship, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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D is for Down South

For such a tiresomely Northern writer I have a startling confession to make: I spent nearly five years living Down South. In my defence I was not quite three when we decamped to the East Midlands and just gone seven when we returned to Drighlington having fit in a miserable eighteen months in North Cornwall in the meantime (don’t ask).

I don’t remember that much about it, and certainly if I look at a map of England now I’ll struggle to find the places we lived. Other than a lovely pool of floating lights for diwali in Leicester, what I mainly remember are differences in language. Not long after we moved to a village near Loughborough in the summer of 1981 we had a workman in one day and he called my Nana ‘mi duck’ whereas she of course called him ‘love’. Over his teabreak they had a good long chat about the different dialect words they used, and I listened with fascination. It was the first time I remember realising that there were different regional English varieties.

I knew there was BBC English (the proper one) and American English (a bad habit picked up from watching films) but without knowing the word ‘colloquial’ at that age I thought the way we spoke at home was what colloquial English sounded like all over the country. I don’t remember being an object of interest at school, however, until we moved to Cornwall.

Cornwall in red. The East Midlands is north east a bit, or maybe a lot.

Cornwall is as far away as you can get from West Yorkshire and still be in England. I had the unfortunate combination of being an intruder in established friendship groups, and having a noticeably different accent and unfamiliar vocabulary. I learnt to avoid the troublesome old-fashioned bits that were still current in Yorkshire but apparently not down there: thee and thou, the dost tha and hast tha constructions, saying five-and-twenty-past when telling the time (though I’ve reclaimed that one recently, I never stopped saying it that way in my head). The East Midlands workman notwithstanding, I was baffled as to why my classmates would pick up some of my perfectly normal utterances as catchphrases and use them out of context.

It took me years to untangle which bits of my ‘not proper’ vocabulary were general UK slang and which were Yorkshire dialect, in fact I went to university unaware that some of the words I used wouldn’t generally be understood. Which led to interesting conversations with Geordie OneMonkey when we first met, but that’s another story.

D could also have been for dogs, Drighlington, dancing, or detective stories but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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C is for Caravan

My grandparents’ caravan in the 1960s

Around about 1960 my mum’s parents acquired a touring caravan. After several years of annual trips to a Blackpool boarding house they could instead explore Scotland and the Lake District, going where they pleased and making their own eating arrangements. Which they did for a few years until apparently they found a place they particularly liked and by the time I came along in the late 70s, the family had a second-hand static caravan alongside about a dozen other static caravans in a farmer’s field in Cumbria. Throughout my childhood we went as often as we could afford the petrol.

It’s been said many times that there’s something peculiarly pointless about a static caravan. All the flimsy construction and inconvenience of the touring kind without the freedom and variety of the open road. My dad’s parents had their own static caravan near Morecambe until they gave it up in the early 80s to spend the money on a self-catering holiday in Spain for the coldest couple of months each year. Aunty D lived permanently in one at a windswept location above Huddersfield. Her daughter’s now retired to one near Hull. Oh the glamour of our metal and fibreglass boxes on their wedged-in-place wheels. And yet we loved it.

Until my mum got a mobile phone for work in the mid-90s, there was no phone and no TV. We went for walks up fells and round lakes, where my dad pointed out wildflowers and birds, and once in a while we’d see deer or red squirrels. We had picnics – usually the traditional British sort where you park in a layby and eat hard boiled eggs in the car. In the evenings we read books, listened to the radio or Hancock’s Half Hour tapes, did jigsaws or crafts, played Scrabble – or Monopoly if Big Brother was around. In short it felt like an escape from real life where we did wholesome, boring, old-fashioned things together. I wavered for a while in my teens, but once it had gone I missed those excursions into a quieter existence, and even now I find the sound of rain on a metal roof surprisingly soothing.

C could also have been for cardigan, continental quilt, chip shop, or custard. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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B is for books

As you can imagine, I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I had a shelf of my mum’s hardbacks from the forties and fifties, with titles like Amelia Goes to the Seaside, or Doris Of Buttercup Farm. I got my older cousins’ Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton boarding school books. I borrowed books from the local library and the school library. There were family trips to library sales, charity shops and secondhand bookshops on Saturdays to stock up, and for a few years my dad worked near a secondhand bookshop and would regularly come home bearing his lunchtime haul and dish them out among us. I won books as school prizes and I had fond relatives (and the family friends known as auntie and uncle) who gave me books or book tokens for Christmas and birthday.

I can still remember the thrill of a five pound book token, stuck like a hinged stamp on the inside of a greetings card. So much more exciting than its modern credit-card-alike equivalent. I would clutch it tightly as I prowled the children’s room of the New Bookshop in Cockermouth, terrified that it would somehow come adrift and be rendered void before I found the perfect reading material. Then as now I had an unvoiced fear of wasting it on a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I don’t remember ever doing so, but I wonder if that’s down to my dad’s guidance. I was often steered by him towards books or authors I might enjoy (who am I kidding? I still am), and I remember him reading the blurbs on books I’d picked up because of their attractive covers to check they were my sort of thing.

I vividly remember picking this for its cover

What with the paternal steering, hand-me-downs and secondhand purchases I ended up with an odd mix, some of them still (or still in the 1980s) considered children’s classics and others plain old-fashioned. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, BB’s Little Grey Men and the Pat Smythe books beloved of my horse-mad mum (Pat Smythe was a famous showjumper in the 1950s). Most of them my contemporaries hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, but at least that prepared me for being completely out of step with them musically later on, when I bypassed Take That for The Clash thanks to Big Brother’s record collection.

Not common reading matter among my peers

B could also easily have been for baking, bacon butties, bread. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Creative non-fiction: letting go of accuracy

Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.

My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.

I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.

What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).

Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.

If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Based on a true story

I’ve had a piece of creative nonfiction published this week, at the ever-fabulous flash purveyor Ellipsis Zine, and it feels a bit weird. In a good way. I think.

The first exercise on the Fast Flash workshop I did last month was about the power of recall. Events with strong emotional content are stronger in our memories, said Kathy Fish, and she asked us to dredge up some strong memories, no matter how slight the incident, throw in as much sensory imagery as we could, and write something vivid. The second memory I made a note of was learning to tie a bow in around 1981:

Lying in the dark car, head on Nana’s lap, her face striped by moving orange from the streetlamps, and me reaching up to tie and untie the bow at the neck of her dark dress (black or dark brown, with orange squares or diamonds?). It felt rough, like the skin on her fingers.

If you read The Lesson (as the piece was eventually named at Kathy’s suggestion) you’ll see the essence of the whole thing was right there in that first flood of memory.

As I write this blog post on Monday afternoon, The Lesson has been getting a lot of love on Twitter already, and it’s great to know it’s touching so many people. It’s a big leap from sharing it with a dozen fellow participants on a writing course, who are also sharing (in some cases unbearably sad) memories, to sharing it with anyone in the world who cares to read it. I’ve written a lot of fiction with real cores, but nobody generally knows which bits are real and which bits I made up. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with admitting to loving your grandmother, and if I could look up at her now I think I’d see that smile.

Faint memory fragments through a different lens

A couple of weeks ago, a coincidence of reunions. Two people I know slightly, when brought into the same room turned out to have been at university together, more years ago than either would probably care to dwell on. Earlier that day a friend had told me about meeting the husband of an acquaintance – I know him, she said, now where from? Then the memory resurfaced, of one brief conversation 30 years ago in the woodwork room, with this boy who wasn’t in her class. She even remembered his name.

I reassure myself, when facts, dates and details escape me, that it’s all in there somewhere and I could retrieve it if I really had to. Whether that’s true or not, it’s the junk that remains a little nearer the surface that’s interesting, and the way it differs for everyone. In both instances I mentioned, one of the pair had a memory sparked off by the other’s presence while the other took more prompting (or didn’t have any recollection at all but was too polite to say so). Was it seeing the person that triggered the memory, or would they have spontaneously surfaced if the recaller had been asked half an hour earlier to think of people from university, or from school?

It made me wonder about all the paths I’ve crossed at 4 schools and 3 universities, not to mention everywhere else I’ve ever been. Spontaneously, I can remember all sorts of odd details about people even if I never knew their names, regulars from the bus I stopped catching 5 years ago, or girls the year below me at primary school. Do they remember me at all, or do I show up on the radar of people I wouldn’t even recognise if they introduced themselves to me at a party? Not that I go to parties, but maybe if they ran into me in the middle of Bradford or strolling through Eldon Square one Christmas. Does the girl whose pristine set of plain wood casing colouring pencils from WH Smith (W Aitchsmith, as she always said) that I can still picture so vividly remember that she owned them, aged 8? If she remembers me at all, is there some detail in the forefront of her mind that I’ve long forgotten?

I dread to think how some people remember me, and I’m absolutely certain I’ll have faded from some memories I’d rather have lodged in, but I’d like to think there are a couple of people in the East Midlands with hazy 30-year recollections of a little girl who always had a Snoopy flask full of tea.

Proustian cassettes and former glory

Some people never liked the audio cassette, but I was (and still am) disproportionately fond of them. Wondering what was on an unlabelled one this morning, and assuming it belonged to OneMonkey (I am an obsessive labeller. I bet you never could have guessed that) a wave of memories crashed in as it turned out to be the final programme in the 2007 edition of BBC7’s listener-written sci-fi chain-story (Picture This), plus the accompanying interview with Robert Shearman who wrote the first and last episodes. Steph May, author of alternative ending 2, got a mention in the interview but sadly I didn’t – never mind, you can still read my alternative ending on the archived BBC webpage.

As I listened I was transported right back to the kitchen (2 houses ago) with the cassette player and DAB radio next to each other on the table so I could tape it for posterity. Not long after that I got this package through the post, containing the whole thing on one of those new-fangled CDs, and my excitement levels reached danger-point. I think it was the fact that this was from the BBC – blame Douglas Adams for that feeling, I guess (among other things).

Doctor Who CD, Chain Gang Picture This CD, BBC compliments slipThe next unlabelled tape did turn out to belong to OneMonkey, and the whole of side 2 was snippets of Tommy Vance’s Radio 1 Rock Show, probably from around the start of 1993 (Bruce had announced he was leaving Maiden at the end of the tour, and Tommy Vance hadn’t yet defected to Virgin 1215 – these are the things I measure the passage of time by). A few years before I even met OneMonkey, and yet it brought back such vivid memories because I’d been listening too, in a different county. This is what I love about cassettes; even when it’s an album I’d taped off vinyl to listen to on the move, I can often still remember what I was doing at the time, and the ones with bad editing and the odd word from Mark Goodier or Bruno Brookes just add to that scene-setting. Don’t expect me to get rid of my tape shelves any time soon.

Twenty years in someone else’s jacket

Sometime around October half-term 1993 I went to a car boot sale in a Cumbrian market town with my parents. It was a regular habit of ours in the few years either side of that time, and I rarely failed to emerge with an LP or a well-worn cassette. For whatever reason that weekend I bought a leather jacket.

It’s now too long ago for me to say for sure why it caught my eye – whether it was the only one I’d seen for sale at the bargain price of ten pounds or the vendor looked particularly worthy of my cash I can no longer recall. Whatever the reason, I stepped over and asked if I could make it mine.

It was too big when I was fifteen, it’s too big now, but a penchant for chunky jumpers has mitigated that to a certain extent. A minor detail like size was not going to put me off when I knew I’d found the biker jacket I was fated to wear for the remainder of my youth (and beyond). The man who wore it before me, whose features have faded from my memory at this distance, told me this jacket had already lived a rock ‘n’ roll life. It had seen Ozzy and Judas Priest, had beer spilt on it, accompanied him to major gigs. He told me to look after it and treat it well. Reluctant sale due to sensible wife.

In twenty years that already well-worn jacket has been to many more gigs. It’s been to Paris (and Newcastle) to see Iron Maiden, it’s seen the Damned more times than it might have appreciated, it’s been to rock clubs and the beach, supermarkets, libraries and my graduation (I had to take it off at the last minute to put the gown on). It’s had the very minimum of beer, snakebite and tea spilt on it and I’ve done my best to keep it away from people with lit cigarettes. It’s been photographed for my blog and painted for a recent portrait of me by my dad.

The story of my life, written in creased black leather and rusting studs. The lining, which used to be red, has a few splits in it and some stitching’s coming loose on one sleeve, but it’s still holding together. Will I still be wearing it in twenty years? Maybe not, but whatever happens I know I won’t have passed it on to a teenager I’d never met before. Though I’m glad that that anonymous Cumbrian man did.

Buried treasure

Plundering the past is often suggested as a kick-start to writing, either to borrow an incident to build a story from, or just as an exercise to get your mind working and the words flowing onto the page. A handy list I’ve got here mentions a host of firsts (pet, day at school, kiss, bedroom, experience of death), most memorables (former friend, item of clothing, shoes) and most evocatives (smell, taste, sound – but you could add most of the other items too) to get you thinking. Now maybe it’s my poor memory, my age or my mental state, but there are a lot of those that I either can’t or don’t want to remember. Our dog that died when I was about 5 probably counts as both my first pet and first experience of death, but I’m not sure I remember her, rather I remember photos of her and anecdotes involving her. I went to 4 schools and I can’t remember my first day at any of them, though I can remember my last day at all of them (even though I’d rather not). I can remember bedrooms number 2-16 (16 being the one I’m in now) but not the first one, which I vacated age 2. Memorable items of clothing are most likely to be the ones that make me cringe, things that are probably back in fashion now, like legwarmers and ear-muffs, leggings and other things I wouldn’t like to admit to. Pixie boots, for instance.

In the interest of sanity, I’m going to compile a new list of springboards, which you’re free to use: favourite childhood biscuit, preferably one no longer available; worst book studied in English at school; warmest coat you ever owned; first thing that made you feel grown-up, be it buying beer, becoming a parent, learning to drive or having some kid vacate a bus seat for you (though that one just makes you feel old, I think); most you’ve ever paid for a haircut. That should keep us all going for a while.