Frankie stood before the Circle assuming the general demeanour of a schoolteacher in charge of morning assembly, a smile (as always) tracing his lips. He held a very small piece of paper – suspiciously like a beer mat – with a small number of felt-pen bullet points scribbled across it, fading and merging together into something that could possibly keep a psychiatrist happy for months. It was his turn in Phil’s little game. Autobiography. If only he had a story to tell…
“Memories. Strange things, memories: eccentric things. Like a film you half-remember – never having made it to the end. A sense of deja vu in eveything you do. As memories increase, so they diminish; gaining clarity, but losing detail, except for those you choose to cherish. Selective things, are memories: recalling good that wasn’t there, forgetting bad unless it was comic. Past lives becoming clichéd anecdote. Six billion people becoming Frank Skinner.
Recent memories, now they should be easy. Easy to remember. Easy to recall in sharp, focussed detail. Edited, like the news, in full colour flashbacks. Accurate, like a page from The Sun. But they’re not. Why do we have such a problem with today, when yesterday seems so easy? Why do we stand at the toilet door, flies undone, wondering why we came in here, what’s this doing in my hand? Why should this be when you can remember exactly what you were doing fifteen years ago – same thing, probably.
Old memories, really old memories, seem frighteningly clear. At once graphic and vague. Dream-like in a way. A few sparse facts, reality in there somewhere, couched in hope and marshmallow. Could-have-been’s, would-have-been’s, should-have-beens becoming history. Becoming solid fact. The foundation stones of your current-self conjured from the air and built into a maze, with no way in and no way out. Just dead-ends and U-bends.
Some claim to remember their birth. The whole trauma. The terror, the cold, the pressure and the relief. Remember the smack on the arse that welcomed them into the world and the pat on the back that heralded departure.
For most of us, life is a scattering of random, unfocussed voices and images. Sentences plucked hap-hazardly from a book and reassembled to form some pattern of a life. A certain toy; an early potty triumph; the smell of an elderly aunt forcing a kiss. Of laughing, of sitting, of standing and walking. Of setting fire to Uncle Bill’s trousers. Such memories are clear and private. You. Your memories, all your own. Tiny rivulets, running alone, down a crowded window-pane, separate and unmolested, bur heading, none-the-less, inexorably towards the pool of life on the caravan window-sill.
So, how do you even start to decide what to put into an autobiography? How do you determine which memories are real and which are ‘received’: instances you only ‘think’ that you remember because you’ve heard them discussed so often. ‘Remember the time that you…?’ until eventually you do. Even if you didn’t. Memory is a mirrorball and wherever it is viewed from its reflection is different – particularly if it’s at four a.m. in an Ibiza nightclub. It is a goal in a football game: for some it is a work of genius; for some a bit of a fluke; for many it is unjust and for others it never happened. Some see the clarity of every move, whilst others see nothing beyond the centre circle because of the fourteen pints of pre-kick-off lager that are buzzing across the frontal cortex and casting the kind of fog that stops aircraft taking off.
Obviously there are things that you know you remember: school reports, test certificates, marriage certificates, birth certificates, scars and unrequited loves that never fade, but there are also so many things that you know that you don’t remember… possibly. Ask anyone to tell you a story of a time you have spent together. If they begin with ‘Do you remember when…?’ then you won’t remember. If you have to look it up in the local paper, then it really doesn’t count. If you have kept a diary for the whole of your life, then an autobiography is a viable option, but otherwise, you are relying on a threadbare memory and the embroidered recollections of others. The camera may never lie, but it seldom tells the absolute truth. Look at your passport photo: the customs officials will be immediately alerted if you do not look deranged. If you are looking for the truth, then read a biography, preferably written long enough after the events to mean that there can be no other ‘first hand’ recollections of events, suggesting not only that your account is wrong, but just possibly stolen straight from David Niven*.
Nobody writes an autobiography in order to be hated. Autobiographies may tell unpleasant stories, but they will never leave the author in a bad light. “OK, I mugged the old lady, but you have to remember that there was no love to be found at home. We came from a one TV house. Every day was a battle between one of our five-a-day and a Sherbert Fountain. The old bag had a smart phone that she couldn’t use and all I had was a pay-as-you-go Nokia: she deserved everything she got…”
I’ve never kept a diary. I don’t think that I’ve got a story to tell. If I wrote an autobiography it would be 90% fiction – so, in that way, no different to any other autobiography – my life as I would have liked it to be: high on redemption, but light on historical accuracy, like ‘Braveheart’, but without the tartan. But not now. In a few years maybe, when I am much closer to death: when I can hint at the possibility of senility rather than egotism. For now, I’ll keep my memories to myself – and I’ll let you have them only when I’ve properly made them up… So, gin anyone…?”
*David Niven wrote two wonderful autobiographies ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ and ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ both of which were ripping yarns of the highest order, but were notoriously filled with many misappropriated recollections and apocryphal tales – like a chat with grandad, but without the rum.