In Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Vladimir Nabokov nods to his work as a lepidopterist when describing his attempts at pinning down the facts of his life. He speaks of how the facts of his past life are ‘wriggling […] beyond the subjective limits so elegantly and economically set by childhood memories that I thought I had signed and sealed.’ I love that ‘wriggle’. I can see it, the poor insect screaming ‘no, not me!’ I see it as the last wriggle of freedom the lived experience can manage, before the writer pins it down on the writer’s terms. Of course Nabokov calls Speak, Memory, ‘autobiography’, such a slippery term.
I am primarily a novelist, but now, I am writing a memoir.
‘Why would anyone be interested?’ From her bed in her home in Portugal, my mother articulates the writer’s howling battle in one throwaway sentence.
I shrug, my dangling hands avoiding the snarling new rescue dog at her side. ‘To be honest, Mum, I don’t know, but I do know I have to write this.’
This has been the conversation for a few years now. I have been trying to elicit stories, facts, dates, pictures, times, recipes, secrets, senses, textures, dialogue from my mother about her life (and by default my life). I am trying to get at it.
Still — why would anyone be interested?
Horrible things have happened to both of us, but I am not writing about this. At least I’m not sure I am. I think of gardening last month with a dear friend, also a writer: ‘Tiff,’ he said, ‘don’t be ridiculous. Of course you have to write the difficult parts. Write what you shy away from. That’s the rule.’ The truth is I’m not sure because I’m having trouble with the easy parts.
When I was six my mother ran out of money. First she took in German students, but they forgot to pay. Then she took in a little Parisian boy dropped off by a chauffeur (I’m sure he wore a Breton shirt and culottes, possibly a straw hat à la Madeline). He clung to my mother, was shy with me, and petrified of my Great Dane, Cleo.
‘He only ate convenience food. I couldn’t cook it, so it took a while for him to eat. I did speak to his mother once, a call from Paris through a secretary. All she asked was for him to be kept longer. Poor kid.’
I should have added: this was 1973.
After the gourmet weekends saw her losing money, Mum put an advertisement in The Times: ‘Rehearsal Space for Bands, no Heavy Metal.’
Our first band was Black Sabbath.
Our second was Queen.
Then a wonderful Irish band – Horslips – arrived and we both fell love with them a little while they fell in love with my mother’s food. This love led to an escape route from our then-current home life and a troublesome man. Horslips moved to a local recording studio, Rockfield, and Rockfield in turn invited my mother to be the resident cook, to feed classics, anthems, and one-hit wonders; and she did, from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’.
This, then, is the inciting incident. Still, why would anyone be interested?
What did Jean Rhys say in her unfinished autobiography Smile Please? Ah, yes, ‘I like shape very much. A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’ How do you impose a writerly shape on the shapelessness of lived experience?
Back in my mother’s bedroom in Portugal I still have my hands firmly in my pockets as the probably-terrier rescue dog takes another gulping snarl.
‘What else do you remember, Mum?’ ‘It was a long time ago, Tiff.’ ‘Did you know Freddie had a cat called ‘Tiffany’?’ ‘No —’ ‘Do you think? —’ ‘I suspect it was something to do with 5th Avenue, diamonds and Audrey Hepburn, not you.’ ‘Oh —’ ‘I mean he wasn’t wild about children —’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Well maybe it was just you —’ ‘———’ ‘I do remember the farmer. He said his herd was worried, he banged on the door at 5am, woke us all up and told us Queen had spoiled his milk. Not that he knew they were Queen, they weren’t famous then, you know. And there was that time I nearly killed you —’ ‘Why?’ ‘You told your primary-school friends they could come home with you and see a rock band. They all followed you down the main road, a pack of seven-year olds all marching up the drive like little bloody Von Trapps. It was ghastly. I had to take every one of them back home in my Beach Buggy. Luckily the postmistress was deaf.’ ‘Why lucky?’ ‘She was nearest.’ ‘Oh. Will you write down the recipe for me?’ ‘I don’t write recipes, I just cook.’
Oh god, Mum.
‘Well, maybe tell me the recipe?’ ‘Which one?’ ‘The one you said Freddie liked.’ ‘Well he ate like a bloody sparrow.’ ‘But they asked for you, didn’t they? You cooked while they recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ —’ ‘It was all so long ago, Tiff.’ ‘What was his favourite dish? Freddie, I mean.’ ‘I made Pike Quenelles, the poacher boys who brought me Wye salmon would give me the pike free. But let me rest. I’m tired.’ Her eyes are closing. ‘Shall we watch the film later?’ ‘What film?’ ‘Bohemiam Rhapsody. They filmed it at Rockfield studios.’ ‘I’m terribly tired, Tiff. Can you make me a cup of tea? Lots of honey.’ ‘Sure.’ ‘You know what I always say —’. Her voice is slurry with sleep now. ‘Yes, never live in the —’ ‘Never live in the past, Tiff.’
In her kitchen I watch blue Iberian magpies squawk and meow exactly like her cat (they are the mimics in her Portuguese garden and I’ll often find her halfway down the hill looking for a cat that isn’t there). The kettle boils.
I don’t follow my mother’s advice. Part of my brain constantly lives in the past. I’m a writer and it’s my fodder, but of course what Mum is talking about is the everyday self: don’t let that self live in the foreign country of the past. As I pour hot water into the teapot, I think of my gardening pal again, the writer. ‘I would never write a memoir, Tiff,’ he said, ‘I save it all for the fiction.’ It’s damned good advice, but I have already covered parts of my lived experience in my three novels: Happy Accidents, Diamond Star Halo, and Sugar Hall. As I spoon a great glob of orange blossom honey into the cup I think of how I am going to approach this project, in what ways it will be different to the novels, and how other writers can help. I have a Guardian ‘Paperback Writer’ column pinned to my wall. In it the late Jenny Diski reveals the impulse towards and the results of both her fiction and non-fiction are fundamentally similar, for ‘Plots in fiction and stories of real-life events are simply components of the ongoing business of getting at it. Whatever it is.’ Diski gets to the heart of this by describing the writing down of lived experience as ‘screen memories’. Onto this screen we then project: ‘something bigger, deeper, larger. Everything is a layer over everything else; memory and imagination are the excavation tools. God help us if we ever got to where we thought we were going. […] I tell stories. Who knows if I tell the truth?’
I love this as a writing trigger, Diski’s ‘screen memories’ all messed up with the slipperiness of truth telling when memory and imagination brush up against one another. As I stir my mother’s honey-sweet tea I think of what I have to achieve with my own excavation tools. Perhaps – and rather too grandly – I’ll call it the palimpsest of memory: the layering of reimagining, recollection and telling after telling over the event itself. Yes, it is that old-fashioned photograph album; the one your grandmother had or has, probably with an embossed cover. If you open it you’ll see how that patterned and cloudy sheet protects the photograph beneath; and you can still see that original image, can’t you? But it is somehow different. It has to be.
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