Entries in memories (11)


truth and lives


I came across a box of old photographs in a flea market the other day and stopped, as usual, to sift through them. Finding a poignancy in each image - bare sketches of lives left lying unclaimed - I was most compelled by these two. With the photos tucked in my pocket, I walked around with scarcely half a mind on the push and noise of real life and the rest filling up with stories about that couple and the pair of girls. 

I think about their stories. I think about my stories: those ones I tell myself about my self, my memories, my life. I look at these strangers in the photographs and myself in the glare of the screen; glaring slightly with concentration and seeming a stranger to myself. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I write is because making up stories about other people is frankly more straightforward than sorting out the truth of my own. 


perfect imperfect

Finally tackling the clutter and jumble at the back of the bedroom cupboard, I discovered a tatty art folder that still carried the musty scent of the cottage attic. Amidst a number of old art prints and contact sheets, I found a photo that John had taken of me a few years ago. 

A snap taken with the last of a roll of film, it was an impromptu capture of the black leather coat that I'd worn pretty much every day during my late teens and - though less frequently - into my twenties. God I loved that coat. Knee-length and slim cut, it slipped effortlessly over the beatniky clothes and 1930s dresses that I wore then. The smell of the leather was enough to take me straight back to those days of clubs until dawn and the curious peace and calm of the morning walk home.

But the day the photo was taken we'd been sifting through our possessions before yet another move and I had decided, finally, to take the coat out of storage one last time and give it away. I don't remember seeing the print before. Perhaps John and I both rejected it: he seeing the imperfections of print; me, the squeezed eyes, messy hair and far too many teeth on show. I dislike having my photo taken almost as much as I dislike looking at the results. See those defensive arms wrapped around my waist?

Looking at it now though - sitting amidst the mundane mess of daily life - that hasty, imperfect print fills me with happiness. Remembering not just those distant memories when a coat was a talisman as much as a piece of clothing but also all those times of laughing so hard that it hurts.



thinking about clams

Venice is one of those cities, like San Francisco and Stockholm, that I slipped into so easily that coming home felt wrong. Even the greenly dank smell of the water didn't worry me. I accepted it like the little flaws you secretly like in someone you love. Evading the crowds who trod heavily round the same few streets, the pleasures of getting lost amidst the back streets were heightened by the frequent discovery of a tiny deserted church with a centuries old fresco. I dreamed of training in fresco restoration and spending my life there. Sitting quietly with a prosecco in a neighbourhood square, watching the life move around us, we talked of how easy it would be simply not to go home. 

But for all the many good memories I have attached to Venice, surprisingly few of them are culinary. Some of the most disappointing Italian food I've eaten has been in Venice. There are glorious exceptions. Plates of cicchetti served in little bars full of raised voices and crowded with office workers. Gefilte fish eaten in on the canal side in Cannareggio. Little polpetti that were so hot and fresh that we burned out mouths in haste and greedy hunger. And the best spaghetti al vongole. There were no tomatoes or chilli - just a lot of garlic and wine and a soft, leafy green that lay across the clams like a little blanket and melted on contact with your tongue.

Listening again to this programme, I determined to celebrate all things Venetian with my own tribute to that vongole. Chard will be my leafy green, and I'll use a heavy hand with the garlic and the wine bottle. And there's a bottle of prosecco in the larder from the days when it was actually spring - hurray! It's so cold and grey here that a little feast is just what's needed. What are you cooking tonight?


another life

Some years ago, at a work conference, I met the man I think of as my other husband. We didn't know each other but the recognition was instant. He made his way steadily, but too slowly, towards me; pausing at intervals to shake hands and pat shoulders. Finally, he reached my table. Ignoring the chair held out for him, he fell into the one next to me and we smiled in astonishment. Leaning close, we began to talk. There wasn't much time and there were constant interruptions. He and I had grown up in neighbouring small towns in Canada. He was a year younger than me and more than two heads taller. His face was handsome and kind and his big hands moved with an unexpected delicacy. Our food lay cooling on our plates and we talked softly; seriously. That night, I was pulled away to a function. The next day we spent in separate meetings with the promise of dinner that night. But I was suddenly called back to work and flew home without saying goodbye. It was complicated. I left work and the country within a month. My life changed and moved. 

If the theory of parallel universes is true, then I'm living somewhere with my tall, gentle, garrulous Canadian. Am I happier there than here?  


winter morning

Sipping slightly too hot soup by the stream at lunchtime, I welcomed the bracing, wintery feel to the day. I'm feeling oddly emotional; or rather, full of emotions that I can't quite identify. The intense happiness that I felt this morning on my drive home from school has filtered into something more complicated. Like finding something lost, I retrace my footsteps. I remember the joy of that drive through the narrow lanes with the sun still low and pink in the sky and the air heavy with ice crystals. I remember the pleasure with which I listened to Vikram Seth as I drove. Then I remember what the music made me remember and it occurs that perhaps the answer lies there.

The distinctive voice of Lata Mangeshkar sent me back to a cinema in Kathmandu and the first Bollywood film I'd ever seen. Breathless after the scrum to find a seat, I sipped gratefully from a flask of chai laced with ginger and pepper to try to combat the vicious cough that would only clear when I briefly left the choking pollution of the city for the mountain air two months later. Senses already heightened by my rapidly rising temperature, watching that film was unlike anything I'd known. People clapped, cheered, booed. Walked around, chatted, argued and spread out food. Sang along. I remember my hands on that flask in the dark and my senses singing.

Intense cold, a constant cough, an odd sort of loneliness and a discovery of my own self-reliance are what I remember most from those first weeks. The intensity of that time was greater than the warmer, easier days that came later with familiarity, changing seasons and the arrival of John. An intensity of memory that equals my early days of motherhood: always intertwined because I came back from Nepal pregnant with Joel. 

So when it came to Seth's choice of Bach's Partita for Solo Violin No 3 in E Major, another layer of memory was revealed. One of my favourite pieces and especially so during those odd, intense, exhausting early weeks after Joel's birth when I'd lie on our bed with Joel propped on my knees and we'd gaze at each other, working on our new relationship in the outside world, letting the music fall around us.

Funny things, memories. Now it's time for the drive back to school and I've let the fire go out, so wrapped up have I been. It's the onion, memory. *


* Craig Raine


my my..

Should it ever be a life-saving necessity to sing the entire back catalogue of ABBA I'll be just fine. My family moved back to England from Canada a couple of summers after ABBA won the Eurovision song contest and their songs were pretty much the only cultural currency I had with new school friends. I knew all the words, came to learn all the dances, and came to understand that my friends only had eyes for Agnetha.

With her guileless eyes, gappy smile and princess hair, Agnetha was friendly and familiar. She striped her eyes with blue and her lips with pink as we did alone in our bedrooms. But it was Frieda who drew me in. Who daunted me. Unlike Agnetha, she belonged firmly to the world of adults - a world that both attracted and frightened me.

Frieda looked like the terrifyingly sophisticated friends of my mother; the ones who held martinis in one ringed hand and coloured-tipped cigarettes in the other and gazed coolly and silently at the shy child before them. No friendly blue daubs for them. They circled their eyes with kohl and wet their lashes thick with mascara and those eyes seemed to appraise me and find me wanting. I didn't want to be like my mother, or one of her friends, with their messy lives and children they considered a bore. In control, a little reserved but still able to smile and sing and - yes - be a little bit ridiculous, Frieda offered a better version of womanhood. 

So not only do the songs of ABBA occupy vital storage space in my brain, they're also involved in my early thoughts about what it means to be a woman. Who says pop is shallow? 



I'll always have Paris

I remember a dark room, with early light squaring up against the desk at the end of the bed. Too early and a scratchy start to a weekend in Paris, woken by the shouts, laughter and noise of the bakery opposite. Too early to speak I picked up my camera and snapped. Still lives of our lives on the desk. Keys, notes, glasses, a watch. Bed, unmade. An unsmiling portrait of him, hands crossed, in the chair. That light, that street, that bakery. The rest of the weekend passed by as they did between us then: a little light followed by dark and back again. But nothing is as clear to me as that first morning. A morning more than 20 years ago. And those photographs exist only in memory as the roll of film didn't catch.

I was reminded suddenly of those lost images of the early days of a long-complicated affair when I read Brooke's post. And it made me think about why - and how - I take photographs. Sometimes my eyes see something that creates such a jolt of pleasure, or memory, that I feel a need to record it. Brooke describes beautifully how carefully she composes with film but, film or not, my method is to work quickly, without much regard for technique. Of course, it's a further joy when a moment captured looks as beautiful as it did in my mind but ultimately, the end result is less important than the process. And key to the process is being attentive, engaging, being present. 

Perhaps that answers why taking photographs is so important to me. It's a form of mindfulness - anchoring me back in the now - but also a reminder of what I repeat to myself so many times it must qualify as a mantra: there really is so much that is beautiful. Snapping a moment whose recall will later make me happy is my way of acknowledging, and being grateful for, those frequently incidental moments of pleasure that, together, make for happiness. My snaps are the scraps of happiness I throw in the path of a future I sometimes fear: a store of memories to remind me that sometimes it's better not to look ahead but simply to look around. Be here, right now - remember this.  

Those lost photos sound sad but, in my head, they aren't. Instead, they're a symbol of hope. Every time the shutter closed it said "the morning may not be what we wished but we're here, this is us, these are ours, this is you. That is a good thing."

Joel at 2. I love it despite its imperfections, for what it makes me remember.


love, actually

Flicking through my notebook, I stopped at this photo of Picasso and Dora Maar. Look at the two of them together: perfect. Her glossy voluptuousness alongside his bullish solidity. The symmetry of their poses and their bodies a contrast to the horizontals of sky and sea. And, apart from wishing it was me in that sea with the scents of the Mediterranean around me, it set me thinking about the mysteries of pairings.

Often, during my (many) moments of people watching, I pay particular attention to couples. What was it that drew them to each other; what keeps them together? Over the years I've seen friends and family un-couple and re-couple. I've done the same myself. Sometimes it's a mystery why one individual is chosen over another. But a greater mystery to me is this deep need to move through life with another person. At times it seems that being in a pair demands more than it gives; times when love can be hard to summon. Times, to be honest, especially with the conflicting needs of family life, when a relationship seems less a matter of love than a practical arrangement. There is no hiding in a long relationship; all one's flaws are exposed and tested, over and again. To know someone utterly is to be known, and the vulnerability that comes with that sometimes overwhelms me.  

But to be willing to endure this exposure, endure all the compromise and contingencies and uncertainties that moving through life with another person involves, is to me what love is. To love someone despite, as well as because. To ask 'would I do it again?' and be able to answer yes. Yes. What more?

Bei Hennef

The little river twittering in the twilight,

The wan, wondering look of the pale sky,

       This is almost bliss.


And everything shut up and gone to sleep,

All the troubles and anxieties and pain

        Gone under the twilight.


Only the twilight now, and the soft 'Sh!' of the river

        That will last for ever.


And at last I know my love for you is here;

I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,

It is large, so large, I could not see it before,

Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,

         Troubles, anxieties and pains.


You are the call and I am the answer,

You are the wish, and I the fulfilment,

You are the night, and I the day.

          What else? It is perfect enough.

          It is perfectly complete.

          You and I,

          What more - ?


Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!

DH Lawrence, from Selected Poems (ed. James Fenton, Penguin)



familiar ground

 A weekend away in the depths of the Kent countryside; a ten minute drive from Canterbury but a curiously remote and rural world of wheat fields, high hedges and ancient lanes. We stayed just down the road from the house we once lived in. And possibly made the mistake of visiting it. Or rather, trailing muddily alongside down a footpath, peeping into the garden as we went.

I pointed out the field that Joel knows only from one of my favourite photos of him, at a little over a year, running topless back from our blackberry gathering. The greenhouse where he took his first steps and helped John water tomatoes and me pot up seeds. The gates that he walked with John to open each morning. The grounds that I wheel-barrowed him round in when he was too heavy to carry and our return journeys laden with vegetables we'd picked. Searingly vivid moments of remembered happiness stand out amidst the background grey of profound isolation I felt during our year there. And our visit brought that remembered unhappiness to the fore.

Was this the cause of my snippiness and critical eye this weekend? Easy to say so. But despite it all we managed to make a lot of happy little memories. Fresh fish on the beach at Whitstable, and discovering scores of fresh oysters hiding in the sand (reader: we left them). A trip to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate that surprised and pleased us all and Joel's first stick of rock. Tree climbing, flower sniffing and hide and seek in the glorious garden of the cottage we were staying in. No TV, computer or radio so quiet nights of reading and just a bit too much wine.

And the relief of coming home and appreciating again that then isn't now.


reasons to be cheerful (part 3)


Rainbows. Fleeting and elusive, revealing the ultimate beauty and complexity of light, they seem like such a gift. I remember my 12th birthday, walking home from school with friends as a double rainbow appeared directly over our heads.  We stood awhile in awed silence, arms around each other. 

So here's to summer days making rainbows with sprays of water and hunting them down in sudden summer showers.





Sometimes I'm caught out by a photo or a letter that slips out of a 'strictly in the past' album shelved out of reach amidst a tangle of gift bags that accumulate dustily. Today it was music. Two tracks that shuffled next to each other and sent me back to another lifetime. And the clouds gathered over my house and, for a while, the rain fell in bursts. Actually, not metaphorically. Weather and music combined synchronistically to induce a rush of nostalgia that took my breath away.

Now the sun's out again and I have a school cake sale to attend and swimming to cheer on, and risotto ingredients to buy and prepare. And life continues on.