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Where To Begin?

How to start a life story

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I leave Earl’s Court tube station and dodge through the pavement crowd. The road is thick with traffic so this warm day reeks of exhaust fumes. Tall buildings loom above, framing a clear September sky that is split in two by the contrails of a high-flying jet. London is overwhelming: there are so many people, so many languages, so much noise and everything is happening at once. This morning began among the fields of Worcestershire, where for the past month I have been at the BBC’s Engineering Training Centre learning to be radio studio manager in the World Service. I grew up in a little town on the Kent coast, then left home to take a degree in a small city with a rim of hills in the distance; I knew I could always strike out on foot to open country. This is different as the city seems to go on forever. London is where I go to buy things that can’t be bought anywhere else. It is where I come to gigs and theatre shows. I am intimate with Oxford Street and the Charing Cross Road, but I don’t know what the rest of London is like, and if I am honest it is intimidating. But today I take possession of a small room in a flat full of strangers. It is 1986 and I am reluctantly becoming a Londoner.

I probably hadn’t thought about that moment for over thirty years, and yet as I started to write this article the memories returned. At first they were visual, but as time opened up I found myself hearing too, then smelling the traffic in the streets and remembering the visceral experience of sensory overload. Perhaps this is because we experience new situations though all our senses and tend to remember them more keenly. This becomes useful when we write these memories down, as an experience described through all the senses will help build a picture of the past that is alive to other readers. What started as a trickle of memory became a flood of images.

Turning on to the Brompton Road I glance into the doorway of the Coleherne Arms, where a man with a large moustache and black leather motorcycle jacket is leaning on the doorpost smoking a cigarette. I try not to catch his eye and fix my gaze on the pavement ahead. The flat is in a mansion block along a tree-lined section of this busy street: an imposing redbrick building with bay windows and wrought iron balconies. I press the buzzer and am met at the entrance to the apartment by one of my new flatmates. Andy rubs his eyes as they meet the daylight. He has just woken up after a nightshift as a croupier in the West End and is still wearing his sleepwear of crumpled t-shirt and shorts. I am led down a long dark corridor to the kitchen where he makes us mugs of tea. No one else is home but I will also be sharing the flat with his sister who is an actress and our landlord who is only here at the weekend. In his absence, the second in command is a young man who works at the V&A museum and has privileged access to the living room and one of the two bathrooms. Andy seems keen I understand this. There is someone else who comes at the weekends and stays in the little box room. He is married with a family and is a librarian in Surrey during the week. He changes out of his sensible clothes and into leathers, and spends the weekend in the Coleherne Arms and surrounding environs. ‘Just so you know what’s going on,’ says Andy, before he leaves me alone at the kitchen table. Out of the window is a cityscape of the backs of buildings: hundreds of windows containing thousands of lives. I explore the apartment. My bedroom is so gloomy it seems to belong to the night. Here is the double bed with a brass frame and walls painted dark green. There is an armchair with patterned fabric worn away and a gas fire fed with 50p coins into an oversized meter on the wall. I pull back heavy drapes to reveal net curtains and sweep these aside to see dirty glass that hasn’t been cleaned for years. The window looks out on to a narrow light-well and other dirty windows. I look up to a small square of daylight.

Moments of arrival might be the beginnings or ends of chapters in our lives, or perhaps both. Arrivals are times of transition that carry weight in our personal stories. This arrival marked the end of a sort of innocence of being known wherever I had lived. With this move came the rude shock of anonymity. Despite not keeping a journal at the time, I found I could recall this day in extraordinary detail, and yet at this point I remembered almost nothing of the days that proceeded or followed it. I found myself writing in the first person present tense, because this point of view seemed the most immersive; I imagined I was looking through the eyes of my younger self and didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Then something interesting happened: it was as though the landscape around that day was illuminated, dimly at first, but then much brighter. I saw my room at the BBC training centre with its single bed and narrow desk and I sat in our classrooms with their distracting views of rolling hills. I walked past winking lights and racks of equipment in the studios. Then I remembered the last days of summer before my BBC job began, standing in a boatyard on the South Coast, listening to the percussive slap of halyards against masts, and wondering if I would ever be that free again.

When I started to write about this moment of arrival, I only knew it was a good place to begin a life story. In terms of the exterior drama, nothing much was actually happening; a young man arrived at his new flat in a new town and seemed to be a bit uncomfortable. But on the inside a big emotional scene was playing out as the young man confronted his fears of becoming a tiny part of a place so big it appeared unknowable. Recognising the dramatic potential of seemingly ordinary moments is a technique often used by memoirists, both to begin a narrative and introduce themes that play out in the pages ahead. Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee’s first memoir, begins with his arrival at the cottage that will become his childhood home. He is three years old and disappears into the long grass. The moment explodes with sensory detail.

‘I was lost and didn't know where to move. A tropic heat oozed up from the ground, rank with sharp odours of roots and nettles. Snow-clouds of elder-blossom banked in the sky, showering upon me the fumes and flakes of their sweet and giddy suffocation. High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart.’

Similarly, Jan Morris’s Conundrum opens with a memory from a similar age. The arrival this time is a realisation she has ‘been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.’ It is her earliest memory and its reconstruction with powerful synonyms magnifies the moment.

‘I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalactites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head.’

Our memories are imperfect and episodic. They are like a patchwork quilt woven with tiny fragments of time. Finding and amplifying these small moments, recognising their significance, and revealing their intrinsic drama is a way into writing stories from our lives. And arrivals are a good place to begin.

Back to that Saturday in 1986 and I’m sitting alone on my worn armchair in my dark room, listening to muffled footsteps from the flat above and the distant roar of London. I can’t think what to do next. There are millions of people all around and I don’t know a single one. So I revert to the familiar, taking a tube to Embankment for a boat ride down the Thames. It’s something I used to do with my parents on long-ago days out in the big city. I sit amid day-trippers, tourists and families and cruise to Hampton Court and back. Among the infinite possibilities this place has to offer, the boat is a safe space and I am part of a temporary community that lasts the whole afternoon. Afterwards, I head for Hyde Park in the gathering dusk, perhaps searching for a bigger horizon. The whole of the western sky is aflame as I watch aircraft flying low over London on their way to Heathrow. They come from all the places I have yet to go. Soon I will love the crowds, the noise and the busyness, and what seems intimidating right now will become everything I love about this city. I just don’t know it yet.

Paul Dodgson is a writer, radio producer, musician and teacher. His book, On the Road Not Taken: A Memoir About the Power of Music (Unbound 2019), tells the story of his love affair with music and becoming a singer after a thirty-year hiatus.

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