The meaning of meaning

This has been a strange, unsettling week when I have made excuses to myself not to get down and do some real keep-going-till-you-can’t writing again, the kind I was doing around Christmas, finishing Not Your Heart Away.

Unsettling because of an unexpectedly wonderful weekend. I’d never gone to university reunions before and didn’t really want to go to this one, but I’d volunteered to bring instruments for a band that hadn’t played for 30 years and wanted to meet someone I’d talked to a lot on Facebook and who’d helped me a lot in that weird editing and re-writing time.

Writing what you know is the only kind of writing I’m much good at. I’m not imaginative. I can invent scenes and dialogue but as it’s confessions time I’m going to get this out in the open. I nick stuff. I steal things that happened to other people. I take things that don’t belong to me, pasts, incidents, histories, love affairs, car crashes, all kinds of things I’ve heard over the years. Then I jumble them up with other happenings and events to make a more-or-less believable whole. I think of someone’s voice and I can write dialogue for a character nothing to do with the real person I’m thinking of, then glue someone else’s past onto them and throw in something that happened to someone else as well. But I have to keep thinking of the real individual’s voices, or sometimes just the shape of their face, a different one for each character, or for me, anyway, it doesn’t work. Once I can remember their voice I know the kinds of things the character could say, or just couldn’t in a million years, not in that way. Someone asked me if I’d like to teach creative writing. I would, except I don’t think I’m actually very creative. I re-assemble memories. Maybe that counts. But it all got very confusing, sitting in bed in the small hours, on my own, re-creating memories of people I’d melded together in a very real place I ached to see again, a place that doesn’t exist although once it very much did, very much the way I wrote it.

When I was a boy we kept chickens. I remember when I was about two years old going to collect eggs and being told ‘Don’t run or you’ll drop the eggs, and they’re for Daddy’s tea.” Except I don’t. I don’t remember it really. It’s fake. It was repeated so many times I think all I remember is the memory of the memory, not the thing at all. I remember the chickens all in a coop, for example, but when I found some old photos by accident recently there they all were, loads more of them than I remember, surrounding me in a garden and no wire-mesh in sight.

Rutger Hauer. There you go girls. Don’t say I don’t do anything for you.

It reminded me of one of the clues Decker clung to to track down the replicants in Blade Runner. Super-realistic replicants, human-like robots had come back to the Earth they were banished from. They were so realistic that the only way to make sure they weren’t human was to test their empathy, something robots and most modern politicians don’t have and can’t fake, the most human condition. Having feelings for others who aren’t going to benefit you; helping people because they need help, not because they’re going to pay you.  Ridiculously old-fashioned, isn’t it? What sort of un-reconstructed sanitised-for-your-convenience Commie claptrap is that? It would never catch on now, after Thatcher and Blair.

The clue Decker picked up on was the thefts. Because the robots, Pris and Kowalski and Rutger Hauer were manufactured aged 25 or so, they had to make-up memories of their non-existent childhoods. They broke into houses and stole family photo albums so that they could learn a memory, so that they could say ‘look, that was our dog when I was six at the lake that summer.’ To be convincingly human they needed to learn the things humans forget.

I’d forgotten what Bath was like. It was never all brilliantly wonderful although like all nostalgia, it was better than it is now. But there was something wonderful about not so much remembering as simply being a part of a place, of knowing what was in that empty shop, hearing about someone else’s monumental getting-arrested bust-up, someone else’s propositioning as a routine part of a student job, while walking the very same street where I remember being screamed at by someone so young, so pretty, so upset a long time ago, so loud they woke the sleeping pigeons.

I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted to play in a band and never did until last week. I was so nervous about it I nearly didn’t go, or maybe I’d go and pretend to have food poisoning or some nonsense like that to get out of it because I knew I was going to mess it up. But then I had a talk with myself and so did other people and I did the human thing. I didn’t steal the photos, didn’t make up the memories. I just took a chance of falling flat on my face in public and because of that maybe, I didn’t.

All week I’ve been thinking perhaps I should have done that, the most foolish, self-indulgent thinking of all, wishing for another past. Maybe I should have learned to play the saxophone and played just what I feel, as Steely Dan used to sing. To be fair, I did my fair share of drinking scotch whisky all night long, but I think it takes a little more than that. And no use to think that and anyway, as I slowly realised, I pretty much did. Somewhere along the way obviously apart from some missed notes and a reed that just loses it after about half an hour from brand new and I don’t know why, obviously I did learn a bit. And because I never bothered to learn to read music then playing just what I feel is the only way I can play at all. I don’t drink as much now though, certainly not all night long. It gets in the way of the memory. And I came close enough to dying behind the wheel one New Year a long time gone not to want that particular exit.

The girl who sang said she felt like she was walking on air all week. I felt like we were all of us walking on sunshine. It’s still here.


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Meaning and memory

The curse of Not Your Heart Away has claimed another victim. So far I’ve had three ‘but that was my life’ comments,  one utterly heart-broken female version of Ben mourning a 30-year spiritual tryst, two people in tears, one who won’t talk to me at all, four ‘I know who this is’ comments and one some of the above so won’t review it publicly.

I wrote the book to begin with as something of an orgy of nostalgia. I’d gone down to Dorset to see my oldest friend and we sat up until silly o’clock drinking and talking until eventually, as these things do, the talk got around to whatever happened to whoever.

We ran through the catalogue of shipping container entrepreneurs, fatal motorcycle and combine harvester crash victims (we’re both from the West Country and it is not funny), eye-wateringly successful lawyers, the happy, the sad and the dead. On the way home, just like Ben I stopped the car and got out to have a look at a huge house where someone I used to know lived. When I got back all the stories from those times poured out. I’d tried to write something for decades but it just didn’t come out right. Not this time. This time it was like a dam breaking.

But I do need to clarify some things, I think. Ben and Poppy and Liz and Claire are all fictional characters. They were based on real people. The way Liz speaks is exactly the way my friend in Dorset speaks, but Liz is a made-up character. I’ve never pressed knees with my friend on a sofa in Finsbury Park and I doubt she’d want to, apart from anything else.

Poppy was based on a happy, lovely, artistic girl I knew when I was 18 and 19, who was hugely, madly, deeply into Art and Drama and Life. Just thinking about all of her hope still makes me smile. We went to the cinema together but that was as close to real life as Poppy got. The rest of her was totally made-up. She smiled a lot as I remember and although when Poppy spoke I remembered someone else’s voice I thought of that smile and Poppy’s words came out slightly differently.

Claire, ah. Well, Claire. There was this girl I couldn’t talk to. We actually did go to the theatre once, and a picnic, but she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend and there were exams and and and. Never happened. But all I had to do to write Claire was think of the memory of a voice and the character was there, complete, right down to the skin-tight Levi’s.

Am I Ben? No. I heard Ben’s voice when I was writing him. Like any first-person narrator he was a version of me, but a fictional version. I was just as stumbling and idiotic and unable to listen to what people told me. I thought I was just as poetic as Ben and probably more so.

Just for the record, to clarify, all of the things that happened in the book happened to someone, at some time. They aren’t very extraordinary things, after all. But all of those things did not happen to the four people those characters were based on, or within that time-span. Some of the things in the book happened to totally different people. Some happened years later. Some of the incidents in the story I most enjoyed writing never happened at all.

So apologies, everyone who’s said ‘I know who this is about.’ You don’t. It’s about a ghost, many ghosts in fact. The ghosts of youth and hope, the ghost of tomorrow, a ghost that like Joseph of Aramathea’s staff in Ben’s hands, never quite flourished and grew. Because it couldn’t. Because as Ben said, they’re denied the wholeness of the living. Because we all grow up. The lucky ones, anyway. And maybe Ben was right after all. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is.


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