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The subjective truth of memories for Memoir

This week in the MA we’ve been working on Memoir. There has been useful discussion around the subject of “truth” in the genre: the difference between memoir and biography, the necessity of being entertaining in order to attract a publisher and an audience, and therefore the necessity of holding to a theme, being selective in what one portrays,  which might mean not telling everything, or even embellishing sometimes  in order to hold the attention… what this means for a supposedly “non-fiction” genre, the expectation that the audience understands that a memoir presents subjective rather than objective truth, etc.

For an exercise, we were instructed to run “the film” of our lives, beginning with our earliest memories, fitting in what we could in ten minutes. I took a little longer over it, as the act of remembering in this way is foreign to me and I felt I was exercising nearly-atrophied muscles. I found that I remembered impressions rather than events – and for some reason they are all to do with being outside in the garden. It was difficult to write a quick list, because the act of writing is actually what draws out the memory for me. I start with a fleeting impression and can’t progress to the next one until I’ve dragged it out to coherence word by word. I also checked a few facts with my Mom, with a startling result in one case. This is what came to me (it is unpolished – the exercises that build on this one are better written – see subsequent posts).

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I remember cherry trees when I was three years old – how I loved the hugeness of those three trees in our back garden and how exciting the long cherry season was. They were different types of cherry so the fruit kept coming for ten weeks (I have that time detail through checking with my mom now). We only lived in that house in Linden, Johannesburg for a few months. There was also a swimming pool incident – I remembered that my brother (Ian, one year old) nearly drowned in the low water that was left after it had been drained for repair, but my mom tells me now that it wasn’t my brother but our friend Trevor, who was slightly younger than Ian.

We moved from Linden, Johannesburg to Cape Town. The house there had very thick walls – I don’t have a visual memory of these, but they felt solid and cool and the fact that they were thick has stayed with me because there was an earthquake while we were there and much was made of the fact that the house didn’t fall down. I associate our faithful, not-too-beautiful, but very much beloved dog, Juno, a boxer, with the garden of this house – a spacious half-acre with no trees – maybe that’s why it seems spacious in my memory. (In fact, my mother tells me, we acquired Juno from the SPCA when I was two and we were living in Parkview, Johannesburg (before we moved to Linden). Mom says that Dad and I set out to rescue her from imminent euthanasia at the prompting of a dog-finder who had been unable to find our lost Rhodesian Ridgeback who had wandered. As I was only two, I hardly think I was the initiator of this noble mission, but who knows? I don’t remember any of it.)

In another house, in Northcliff, Johannesburg, where we lived for three years (my age – six to eight), I remember a quince tree in a neglected corner of the garden behind the house. It wasn’t an attractive climbing tree (or bush? For some reason, I think of it as a bush) but mysterious because we were unfamiliar with quinces – no one really knew what to do with them. The light yellow fruit was so large, but so inedible! There was also an avocado tree, I think, which didn’t give much fruit so we thought of it as a disappointment. In the large front garden, there was an enormous loquat tree. I could climb into this, with difficulty. I liked the difficulty and the way it made me feel especially agile and clever when I overcame it. The fruit was tasty when ripe, but awfully bitter when not. Although the ripe orange-yellow fruit was smooth to touch, I seem to remember that it was also furry at some stage – maybe in early development or just around the base?

As I think about that loquat tree, more impressions from the outside of the house begin to cluster around it. There was a large swimming pool with a tough blue plastic cover over it. I remember the smell of that plastic, and its yielding support underfoot when we walked on it (which was very exciting as we weren’t allowed to do it). I think there was also a wendy house or a shed or other such hiding place at the bottom of the garden beyond the loquat tree – or if there wasn’t, we children met there as though there were when we pretended to be Peter (me) and Jane (I forget whose role that was) and others from Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. I also remember games where I was an Indian warrior called Bravery. I presume my brothers were cowboys – oh yes! I remember the cap guns – toy guns that would give a loud report as they were fired – simply a hammer coming down on a strip of tape, and the smell of the tiny curl of smoke that would rise from the gun. I always preferred a bow and arrow – I’d somehow formulated a concept of the noble savage – must have been from something I’d read.

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{Sun 7 December 2008}   Home

Another recent creative writing exercise for our course (the Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media) was also based on a popular trAce project, now archived at http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/home/

It asks several questions about the meaning of home … here are the questions and my responses.

Q. What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home” conjures images of open spaces, blue skies, trees, grass, animals; freedom to walk barefoot when and wherever I wanted to, room and time to run, play, think and read, read, read – this is not my present home, but one of those that I believe I knew and for which I yearn. There was also much, much aloneness, but I did not call it loneliness then.

Q. Please describe the home of your childhood.

I lived in South Africa until I was thirty. There were many homes, but one stands out in my memory, particularly from the period before I went to boarding school at the age of eleven. We moved to Bryanston, Sandton, when I was eight. It was a three-acre property with a lovely farm-style house that my mother had inherited from my grandmother. As a younger child, I had visited her there a few times before her death, and had even stayed with her for a week. Then, I had found the house strange and cool, musty and lonely, because grandmother herself was strange to me. However, once we had moved in, it very quickly became our house.

I remember the whole property as beautiful, and I remember the additional delight that each new beautification brought to all of us, but especially to my mother, who energised each change – the extension to the lounge that brought light in everywhere, the oregon pine floors that I proudly helped my father to lay, the enormous new main bedroom with built-in cupboards lining its entire length on one side, big enough to hide a built-in sewing station and to give access through a cupboard door to a magical en suite bathroom with a huge picture window.

I loved my father’s study. It was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that he had built himself from golden pine. The lines of books were broken with staggered double volume frames that gave space for lamps and objets d’art, so the small room was never oppressive, even with its thousands of books. There were good science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and bad science fiction from Andre Norton, good romances from Georgette Heyer and bad romances from Barbara Cartland, good westerns from Zane Grey and bad westerns from Louis L’Amour, good thrillers from Graham Greene and less good thrillers from Ian Fleming; there were adventure stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and Greek myths and fantasy novels and children’s stories, including the complete series of Biggles, Just William, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. All of these, and more, he and I devoured. From that study, I took my heroes out to the garden to become them there. I was Tarzan (my brothers were the apes), I was Lord Greystoke, I was John Carter of Mars, I was Hiawatha, I was Robinson Crusoe, I was Peter Pan… I was never a girl, because they were seldom heroes, although Georgina from the Famous Five was alright, because she was a tomboy and could climb trees, like me.

The garden was not manicured like those of our neighbours, but it was a wonderful wild space for me and my younger brothers. Pretty Jacaranda trees lined the boundary with the busy main road. There were also two huge Acacia Elata trees, with dark brown bark and dark green leaves, that were easy to climb all the way to the top. Unlike our neighbours, we had no wall or fence along that road, although my parents had created inside the line of trees a row of grassy hills from building rubble and soil to act as a sound barrier. I loved to sit at the top of the tallest tree, alternately playing my recorder and singing my heart out, sometimes for hours. Inside the main garden, there were a syringa and a willow and a yellowwood, and many other trees. My favourites were the small Chinese oak that turned brilliant shades of red and orange in Autumn and the huge tree down the slope from the patio which my brother called the helicopter tree because of its winged seeds. From its huge branches hung our car-tyre swing and the birdhouse for the twenty or so white doves that my mother had installed on a determined whim. As they were not caged, the population, inevitably, did not remain pure white, but we loved to see them coming and going about their bird business.

The other animals were our beloved dogs, including Juno the boxer who had been with us ever since I could remember, and a succession of others – Buster, a black pointer, who ran away, a bulldog called Belinda who bit my father, at least two gorgeous Bouviers, Casper and Gigi, from whom my mom bred a few litters. Watchdog duties were performed by the geese. I also always had a cat – Mischief, Peculiar, Malkat (mad cat) and then Afterthought, a pure white, blue-eyed, deaf albino who always came late for everything. For my eleventh Christmas, my best Christmas ever, my parents gave me a cremello-coloured, sweet-tempered gelding called Butterscotch. My younger brother, Ian, received a cheeky cross-Welsh pony called Prince, who was black with a white blaze. We would ride them for hours, bareback, in the garden, or saddled, through the surrounding countryside. They lived in the stables and paddock that my father and my uncle had built and fenced in the acre to the rear of the house. Every so often, we would wash the horses with apple-scented shampoo and set them free in the garden to graze on the greener grass in front of the house as a reward for their good behaviour under the hose.

Q. Please describe the scent, taste or feel of home.

As I look into that word-picture, I smell new-mown grass, wet dog, apple-scented horses, brown bread baking, my mother’s Lanvin perfume, and the fresh air that I took absolutely for granted then.

Q. Which object most evokes home for you?

A purring cat.

Q. Where do you feel you ‘properly belong’ now?

I do not know.

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