The Art of Memory

We were sitting in an Indian restaurant in Brighton. The party was split over two tables as there was not room for all 18 to sit at one. The parents, grandparents and children sat at the larger one at right-angles and a few feet away from the smaller table, just 6 of us; Julia and I, our old friends Robin and Lesley, and two of Lesley’s friends from her time years before in Brighton, Phil and Richard. The poppadoms and chutneys had been consumed along with the first glasses of wine and we had settled in for what looked like it would be a long wait for our meals. There was no hurry and the early conversation was about how Lesley had got to know them. Phil had been a teacher in the same school as her and Richard had worked with Lesley’s daughter Judy. Like Judy but sometime later, he had moved to Hong Kong to work there for a few years before bringing his family home to Brighton to take up a headship there.

The conversation inevitably got round to writing as I, Phil Lesley and Robin had all been involved one way or another with creative writing – Lesley had written stories, Robin a family memoir, Phil a variety of things including scripts for his stand-up comedian gigs and I had just embarked on a creative writing course as a retirement project. We were talking about the inspirations for writing and I told about how on the course we were doing a series of exercises that were designed to unlock our creative potential and help us get writing.

One of the exercises had asked us to take a memory, however brief and fragmentary, from childhood and develop it into a short story, very short as we were limited to 350 words to be read at the next class. It didn’t have to be true account and the story could be entirely fictitious. The memory was just the seed on which to build the narrative. I have very few memories of childhood, even up to the age of 12 or 13 but I found that any memory, however isolated and devoid of context was enough to start an imaginative basis for an account of a time, a place, and event. What surprised and pleased me is that although I expected to develop a piece of fiction the process seemed to expand the memory in a way that was plausible, even authentic. Aspects of the time, the place and the event seemed to emerge almost unbidden and I recognised them as real. Robin found something similar when writing his memoir. In writing his own memories down in the early stages of his project he, like me, found that other memories came to mind as if they were there all the time but needed the focus of writing to dig them up.

I compared this to the theory that every experience, emotion, thought we had ever had was somewhere in the depths of our unconscious, like the layers of silt and debris that accumulates over the years at the bottom of a pond. The few memories we have later in life, when reflected upon with a conscious effort but without the shackle of trying to remember exactly and objectively what happened, in other words as a sort of reverie, act as a stick that stirs the silt and lets long ago sedimented material come to the surface, first appearing as dark imprecise objects in the middle depths where a little light gets through and gradually coming into clearer focus, more detail and colour, as they rise into the full light of consciousness. Or as if the agitation of reflecting on the fragmentary memory on the surface creates an eddy that stirs the murkier depths and allows some of the debris of the unconscious to detach itself and float nearer to the surface.

It is a similar process to the strategy I used when revising for exams at University. I used to take copious lecture notes, often two sides of A4 per lecture. For revision I would condense each lecture through several stages until I had about 5 or 6 phrases for each one, each topic. When sitting the exam and writing brief plans for the questions I had chosen I found by concentrating on the appropriate phrases I could almost reverse the revision process and remember the entire content of the corresponding lecture. Thinking of the phrases helped me consciously access the original lecture notes which, given my revision had taken place over about two weeks, were not that far from the surface anyway.

Childhood experiences in my case are 60 years ago and I have very few equivalents of the phrases that in the exam that helped the near total recall of what the phrases linked to. Reconstructing childhood experiences on the basis of fragmentary memories 60 years later will inevitably be less reliable and require a deal more of imagination, speculation and creativity. None-the-less it seems to be working for me.

The Eulogy

At our last creative writing class we were asked to read a ‘performance’ piece in the allotted 5 minutes. Our tutor encourages us to take part in open mic reading nights but these seem to be mainly for poetry which is not the focus of what I’m trying to do at the moment. This may change of course.

I wrote a piece of prose about a son reluctantly giving a eulogy for his estranged father. The gist of the piece is that he recognised that the expectation is that it should be a positive and sympathetic picture of the deceased – never speak ill of the dead. On the other hand he had had a difficult relationship with his father and a positive eulogy would be mostly a fabrication. Should he tell the truth about his father? Although the piece hinted at what the truth would be when he came to deliver the eulogy he did what was expected and did not tell the truth.

Julia, my wife, suggested I should have written the story with the son telling the truth. This would have been much more interesting and much more fun. When I read it out it got a good reaction from the class but I think it would have got a better one if the son had told the truth. I have rewritten the piece as Julia suggested and it is much better.

The 5 minutes allowed meant that it could only be about 800 to 1000 words so not a lot of scope to develop it. I didn’t post the whole thing to Facebook as I had with the more lighthearted and shorter The Great Mystico but I did describe the piece and how I had been prompted to rewrite it. The post got a number of comments and suggestions and it is clear there would be mileage in this to extend it into a short story. If the opportunity arises I may give this a go. At least I will develop a more detailed outline and probably post it here.

At the moment I’m thinking of having the son give the positive sanitised eulogy but at the same time conducting in his head a critique with what he was reading and how it differed from what an alternative true account would have been. As this develops he comes to see that his true account was perhaps not doing his father justice and that there were warranted reasons for recognising his father had virtues and that many difficulties in his childhood and in the family were not under the control of his parents. It could be argued they had done their best in difficult circumstances, in fact prevailed against the odds. In the end he finishes the eulogy with much less a feeling of cynicism and bad faith and re-evaluates his father, his relationship with him and his childhood. He had come to realise that his unthinking hostility was very much still the child’s reaction and in his mature years he could and should have the experience, detachment and wisdom to see things differently, in a broader perspective and recognise the ambiguities and uncertainties in life and the frailty of men and women confronted with circumstances not of their own choosing or even understanding. The Owl of Minerva, and so on….

Prose poetry

This was a group exercise to try and list the main characteristics of poetry as a form of writing. This is what we came up with.

It is structured visually on the page
– pattern, shape, lineation, syllable count
– structure, e.g. line endings, used as pseudo punctuation

Stylised use of language
– rhythm, alliteration
– rhyme not necessary but often partial rhymes
– repetition and chorus

Condensation
– multiple layers of meanings, ambiguity, use of metaphors, imagery and associations, innuendo, suggestion, subliminal

Rules, fixed forms
Often emotional and abstract content – passion, a message
Allegory
Alternative syntax and punctuation – often linking words and articles left out.

After this exercise we were given a prose poem by Amy Lowell. We were asked to make a list of the characteristic attributes of a poem that were left out and therefore made it a prose poem rather than just a poem. We were then asked to take the prose poem and rewrite it as a conventional poem sticking to the content and feel of the text as much as possible.

Bath

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
       The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
       Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.

Amy Lowell, “Bath” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Copyright © 1955 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

The Great Mystico

This was a writing class exercise where we were given 10 words that had to be used in the text – bit, draw, flex, perilous, bubble, corner, rancid, pound, high, open. As this was to be read out in class we were restricted to 350 words although this piece was a little over at 367.


Arthur Dodds sat slumped in a grubby armchair in the corner of his dressing room, nursing a glass of whisky, contemplating his fate. How had he come to this, an ageing stage magician in a fourth-rate northern club? Raising the glass he glimpsed his thin sallow face in the mirror, the surrounding frieze of naked bulbs giving him a corpse-like pallor. A short bitter laugh. He was going to die on stage so he may as look the part. The sweaty air was thick with the rancid smell of old makeup and cigarettes. A nicotine grimed fan hung on a frayed flex.

Tonight he had no assistant. She’d texted him to say she’d had enough of posing and pouting and wiggling her bum to distract his audience. His female assistants were how he got away with his clumsy clichéd illusions though they were tame fare compared to the strippers who were the main draw. Early in his career he’d included knife throwing in the act. Working for him then had been a perilous affair but he did get bigger audiences when word got round he was only a fairly accurate knife thrower. Another swig of whisky and another grim chuckle. After two A&E visits his brief bubble of success burst and he gave up the knife throwing.

He’d continued to pound the circuit but bookings were scarce. He’d tried to build a bit of a comedy routine into his act hoping it would open the door to becoming a resident comedian and compere. He’d been given a trial at a particularly seedy club but he had to change in the gents and buy his own drinks. As markers of status you couldn’t get much lower but, in any case, he wasn’t offered a second chance.

He lifted the bottle to his lips and drained it. He’d made up his mind. This would be his last performance. As he hadn’t got a flimsily clad girl to hide his clumsy incompetence, he would do it himself. He would strip to the buff and wiggle his own scrawny bum at the indifferent crowd. And so would end his long lacklustre career. At least he would go out on a high.

A valley through time

For a year now he had been walking the tow path and exploring the Aire Valley between Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall, a 5 mile stretch of woodland, fields, river, canal and railway. It was part of his physical and mental recovery after the accident that nearly ended his life. While on these walks he found himself reflecting on the fragility of life and the passing of time, his life and what time he had left that he so nearly lost.

Over the months he witnessed the cycles of birth, death and regeneration. Walking through the fragments of the industrial landscape, he imagined himself as a time traveller, moving through the multi-layered history of the valley. As winter brightens into spring the trees come into leaf, the dappled woodland changes colour, the vivid hues of the blue bells and the brilliant white of the wild garlic. On the canal, the arrival of ducklings, cygnets and goslings, frantically following their seemingly unconcerned parents. As the weather warms, at the weekends the dog and child walkers come out in force, as do the joggers and cyclists. The herons reappear, a figure in still life on the riverbank living in its moment or flapping lazily along the canal to take up its sentinel station at the tumbling weir.

Millenia ago there would only have been the river and pack horse trails, then turn pikes followed by the canal two and a half centuries ago and 100 years later the railway. The towpath would have been the domain of horses towing the barges full of coal, grain and limestone rather than for recreation. The medieval woods below Calverley now hide long disused quarries and the overgrown remains of a prisoner of war camp and, nearby, the ruins of a fire work factory that exploded with tragic loss of life. He pictured the bustling camps of the itinerant workmen, the navvies digging the canal and later the railway construction gangs.  He imagined the sounds of their voices and the percussion of their labour floating and echoing across the wooded slopes. Now the hum of distant traffic provides the constant background to his walks through time.

14th May 2019

WEA Creative Writing Course

Last month I started a seven week creative wring course with the Workers Education Association (WEA). Every week the first half of our two hour class is reading out last week’s homework. The second half, after a short break, is usually a writing exercise, sometimes individually and sometimes in small groups, that is preparation for the this week’s homework. Although not my first choice I find the poetry work quite interesting and useful as it involves, in modern prose poetry anyway, an economy of expression and a concern with rhythm, useful for any sort of writing. Some posts here will be the text of some of the exercises. Others will be descriptions of some of the workshop sessions.

As an example, the next post, The Great Mystico, is an exercise where we had to write a piece 350 words long that must include 10 given words. The required words were: bit, draw, flex, perilous, bubble, corner, rancid, pound, high, open.

Starting again

This blog was started in March 2014 when I intended to embark on a ‘creative’ writing project after many years of academic writing and all the strictures of style and content that entailed. But life intervened and nothing much happened although I hadn’t consciously given up on the idea. The possibility of writing had never completely waned and I occasionally toyed with the idea of trying some form of journalism, or autobiography, memoire or fiction. It was getting some encouraging comments on a couple of early pieces from the false start of 2014 and conversations with Robin and Lesley Thomas, both occasional writers themselves, that eventually prompted me to start again but this time in a rather more determined and focused way.

I bought the UEA Creative Writing Course Book and dug out the copy of Becoming A Writer by Dorothy Brande, first published in 1934 and still highly recommended by tutors today. Starting 3 months ago I started a daily writing exercise recommended in the latter – just 15 minutes a day writing anything that came to mind. For most days this wasn’t a problem as there was no pressure for it to be any good, just do the writing, and I soon found the 15 minutes became half an hour or so. Then, when I joined a WEA creative writing class In May 2019 I found I had a good resource, a collection of eclectic short pieces of prose and ideas, that could be used as the basis for the weekly home works.

Now I’ve relaunched this blog it will be used to post reflections on the process, the exercises and experience of taking the writing classes, and some of the pieces of work produced.

Bergerac

On a July morning, already hot, the metallic blue cloudless sky promising another scorching day, Thomas set off from the cottage he and his family had rented for the last ten years just north of Bergerac in the Dordogne. The others were only just emerging from their beds and he would be back in time for a shower and have breakfast with them.

He sometimes manages to cajole his son-in-law James to join him on these early morning cycle rides but generally he found himself riding through the narrow wooded lanes alone. Today this suited him fine. He always enjoys doing the circuit he discovered when they first stayed at the house but James, who is 40 years younger, was rather competitive. Riding alone allowed Thomas to enjoy the early morning tranquility as the route wends its way through the woods and fields of the valley side. Since retiring he had rented the cottage every year for two weeks in July and most days he rides round the circuit before breakfast. And so far every year he has managed a faster time than the year before, thanks mostly to James.

The eleven kilometre circuit is roughly triangular, the first section rising gently through the forest in between grassy banks of ferns and wildflowers and up the valley side. At this time of day cars are few and far between and more often than not the ride can be completed without seeing a single vehicle. You can hear them approaching long before they come into view so you are never taken by surprise, not like the deer that occasionally bound across the road. Concentration is always necessary as the margins of the road have loose gravel, especially on the bends, pushed there by the occasional cars and farm vehicles, and in the early morning there are sometimes damp patches left from the overnight dew yet to be burnt off by the warming sun.

After the first three kilometres uphill the circuit turns left at a T junction onto a wider flatter road for another three kilometres before turning left again for the third leg of the triangle home. This, apart from a few short undulations, is a wooded downhill swoop through a series of sinuous bends. The road is narrow, like the ascent, with gravel and trees on each side. For most of the descent the bends are open enough to see through them and choose a line that avoids the hazards without having to brake and slow down. About one kilometre before home the road bursts out from the trees into the bright sunlight and curves sharply to the right above a steep valley side where the hamlet can be seen in a bend of the stream in the valley below. The road takes a final left-hand bend past a farmhouse and a couple of old tobacco drying sheds where you brake hard before crossing the little bridge over the stream and home.

Riding with James is always hard. Apart from being younger he is also fitter and lighter, a particular advantage on the initial lengthy uphill section. It is on the climb that he gradually leaves Thomas behind and by the left-hand turn at the top he is usually a good 100 metres ahead. Thomas however is an experienced cyclist and when he was younger, fifty years ago, he had ridden for a minor professional team as a domestique, a support rider for the team’s star riders. His career had come to a sudden end when he crashed, with life threatening injuries, in his last race. The team was based near Paris but the main sponsor was a wine exporter based in Bergerac. This last race had been in the Bergerac region but he could remember very little about it. It was in early August and one of the highly lucrative post Tour de France one-day races, usually about 100 kilometres or so and sponsored by local businessmen and town councils for the publicity. The results of these races were never in doubt. The stars of the previous Tour De France were paid generous appearance money to take part in them and the adoring public lining the roadsides and the finish expected to see their heroes fight it out for the win. The races were fixed to ensure they were a spectacle and the crowds were not disappointed. As a locally sponsored team, Thomas’s had been invited to take part. Their opportunity to shine and get publicity for their sponsors and be noticed was in the earlier stages of the race before the choreographed last few laps of the circuit produced the prearranged conclusion. It was on an out of town section of the race on a fast wooded descent that he had his career-ending accident, avoiding a crash just in front of him and going over a barrier on a bend that sent him somersaulting into the valley below.

Fifty years later, he had forgotten none of his technique and race craft. By pacing himself up the three kilometre hill he could minimise his loss to James and accelerate over the top and hit the flat section at a good speed. James on the other hand tended to push too hard on the climb and lose speed in the final metres before the top. As a result he had to continue his effort to build up speed on the flat. Thomas, hitting the summit faster, could get up to speed on the flat much quicker. This meant he could close most of the deficit before the next turn into the three kilometre descent. Once going downhill he was in his element. James was more cautious on the descent, only pedaling occasionally and braking to slow down for most bends. Thomas pedaled all the way down in a high gear, approaching speeds of 40 mph at times, occasionally skimming off a little speed with the gentle application of the front brake. His experienced and confident use of gears, superior bike handling and selection of lines through corners meant that he always caught James on the descent and disappeared up the road to finish comfortably ahead at the cottage. But each year it got harder, each year James left him further behind on the initial hill, and each year it took a little longer to catch him on the descent. Every year James was a stronger, better bike rider, while Thomas just got older.

This morning he felt good. The air is still and cool with just a hint of the coming heat of the day. The sun was already quite high in the east, filtering through the tops of the trees and sparkling in the dew on the leaves, creating fragmented rainbows in the last lingering strands of mist. He seemed to be gliding up the hill effortlessly. Looking at his Garmin bike computer he saw he was on for a record run. There are only three days left of their holiday and so far he had not beaten last year’s time. He accelerated over the top of the hill and swung left, reveling in the feeling of speed and power, the immediate responsiveness of the bike, reminding him of the glory racing days of his youth. The flat section seemed to fly backwards past him and almost before he realised it he was at the turn at the top of the descent to home.  Lifting the left-hand pedal and shifting his weight to the inside he momentarily freewheeled through the turn even faster than usual, changed up through the gears and putting the power down. This time he was not chasing James. It was him against the clock, what the French call ‘the race of truth’. Nowhere on the descent did he touch his brakes. He knew he was taking risks but he could see the line he wanted through the bends and backed his skill to stick to it. He was flying: the air whistled in his ears accompanied by the rhythmical swish of the tyres on the road with each pulse of power he put through the pedals. He attacked the short rises and sprinted down the next slope at ever increasing speed. In his imagination, he is on a lone breakaway, only 20 seconds in front of the rapidly catching peloton, the sprinters’ lead out trains sacrificing every ounce of energy to overhaul him and get their man to the front for the finish. One more rise to get over and then the final downhill swoop to the line to receive the adulation of the crowd cheering and banging the barriers as he roared past, arms in the air. Last bend: he emerged into the full sunlight, catching a glimpse of the cottage at the bottom of the valley. Then the old tobacco drying sheds seemed to cartwheel through the air above him, the grass verge reared up into his face. The shock of impact. Blackness, silence. Nothing.

A pink veined, fluttering light suffuses everything. A few fleeting shapeless shadows come and go as the light brightens. Dull aches mingle with a comfortable soft warmness and a rising sensation of murmuring gradually increasing in volume. Thomas half wakes up to find what seem to be some of his teammates around him. He realises he is in a hospital bed surrounded by curtains, tubes and wires. A screen on a stand beside the bed displays his vital functions. He has no recollection of how he had got here but tries to hang on without success to the fading fragments of something, he knows not what, that he had been experiencing only a moment before. A feeling of wind, elation, freedom, youth, animal invincibility, oneness with the laws of physics and nature – a joyous elemental state of existence, of being. But now a feeling of desolation and loss, of regret and remorse. Whatever it was, it was once his, however fleetingly, but now lost. He heard the voice of his team manager talking to a white coated figure at the end of the bed. He would live thanks to his high level of fitness and health. He should make a complete recovery in time but his racing career was probably over. The main concern was for the head injuries and whether these might have longer term effects. As he drifted back to sleep Thomas tried to recall how he had got here, what had happened, and had fragmentary memories of hitting a roadside barrier, the French landscape flying over his head. But that was it.

For the next few days he drifted in and out of sleep. In periods of half consciousness, surfacing briefly from his drug induced stupor, he saw and heard the shadowy presence around the bed of a different cast of visitors, a young couple, two children, a weeping woman that called him husband.

Looking at animals

I’m reading John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals’. He claims that animals look at their environment in response to cues and are only in fear and uncertainty when the relevant cues are visible. When a human looks at an animal it not only sees the gaze of the animal but reflexively sees themselves as through the eyes of the beast. In addition to this there is a complex layer of cultural understanding and supposition that shapes and modifies the gaze of the human. Berger claims that humans are the loneliest of species, due in part to their capacity for reflexivity, their awareness of lack of knowledge and constant uncertainty. “Whereas in animals fear is a response to a signal, in men it is endemic’. When human meets human there is always a complex and uncertain process of interpretation, imputation of meaning, and negotiation. When human meets animal there are elements of this process but much more circumscribed, much less complex and with a limited range of possibilities.

In some cases (pets would be a paradigmatic case) animals can offer a quality of companionship not available from other human beings. They are faithful, loyal, non judgemental, non threatening, offer a certainty and constancy that does not require the dance of compromise and accommodation demanded of human relationships. This is illustrated by the example of Christopher in Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.