I know, I know, who cares but me that, despite my respect for the memoirists with whom I associate in the blogosphere, I remain averse to memoir. Or did, until Irene Waters’ New Year challenge finally showed me the way. As I admitted during my brief residency on Sherri Matthews’s Summerhouse, I have an interest in putting the personal into fiction. Thanks to the ensuing discussion, I’ve been thinking about fiction as a metaphor for the personal stories that shape us as individuals, but are impossible to tell. (Of which I hope to see more in a later post.) But even a Guardian article towards the end of last year, in which Blake Morrison explores several reasons for writing memoir, didn’t help me understand why writers are drawn to bare their souls.
Of course, not everyone will agree with this demarcation is fiction to the personal significance and memoir for the social, and I look forward to the discussion I hope will ensue. Many memoirists are driven to tell their personal story and sod the context; many people write fiction to look outside, rather than inside, themselves. But in relation to the question I’ve been pondering ever since I took part in my first bite-sized memoir challenge, regarding why memories provide the launching pad for fiction in some of us and memoir in others, I’m happy with the distinction. For now.
Irene’s invitation to join her in “in a prompt challenge that will give us social insights into the way the world has changed between not only generations but also between geographical location” appeals to me. I’m motivated to share the personal in the service of constructing a social history (a purpose, interestingly, omitted from Blake Morrison’s list) suddenly makes sense. A do-it-yourself international mass observation project: what’s not to like? So here are the reminiscences of the first (evening) restaurant meal from a representative of the baby boomer generation from working-class Northern England:
I don’t think I had dinner in a restaurant until I was eighteen. Before that, there was “chicken in a basket” at the disco we went to on a Saturday night, and a snack at the Wimpy bar across the road from the cinema once after fleeing an X-rated film, but the first proper meal I remember was in a popular pizzeria which, I’m pleased to say, is still there. It was in my first term at university, and probably the first time I ate pizza, and it came about because of shamelessly gatecrashing another’s date.
When our friend B announced that he was going for a meal that evening with a man he’d met on the train, S and I decided that this fellow must have dodgy intentions and that B (who wasn’t gay) would need us to go along to protect him from the older man’s advances. I don’t know what he thought when the three of us turned up together, but he was very polite and gracious. I don’t remember much about the evening, except that we ate and drank a lot, for which B’s friend footed the bill, and finished off with liqueur flavoured with a roasted coffee bean, the height of sophistication.
“So what can you tell me about Tutankhamen?” asked Simon.
I swallowed a forkful of lasagne, inwardly smarting that the only man who had shown any interest in me in the last twenty years was most intrigued by the part of my life I wasn’t at liberty to discuss. “You can see his sarcophagus and his funerary goods in the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square ...” I mustn’t let the memories derail me as they had at Venus’ party, nor I wouldn’t do myself any favours to give Simon a lecture, and a rather poor one at that. Then I remembered Geraldine. “When I was a kid we used to play at being Egyptian mummies. We’d wrap a few bandages around our arms and legs and lie down in an old tin bath we found in the allotments ...” Fiona’s voice whispered in my head: What were you, Di, a teenage vampire? Yet Simon was grinning. “We’d fill the empty space with toy soldiers and dolls to act as servants and scraps of food filched from our mothers’ pantries ...”
“Everything you’d need for the afterlife.” Simon didn’t look as if my stories would give him nightmares.
“Dolls’ tables and chairs, too, and anything we didn’t have in three dimensions, we’d draw a picture of and shove that in instead.”
“What did you do when you’d got all the stuff in there?”
“You know, I can’t remember. Maybe we just lay amongst it all with our arms crossed until we got bored or our mothers called us in for tea.”
“Sounds like an interesting childhood.”
I thought of the Chinese proverb: May you live in interesting times! I bit my lip. “You don’t think it was morbid?”
“It was just a game, surely? Like little boys running around pointing guns at each other going Bang bang! You're dead!”
I glanced at the water jug, slices of lemon floating on top amongst the eroded chunks of ice, as light as my head felt. Whatever it was that Simon had done to me, I knew I wanted more.