memories

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.

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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.