A MEMORY BEFORE MEMORIES
In the fœtal position, arms placed crosswise
over the chest, right under left, thumbs inside
fingers, legs, too, half-crossed loosely with the thighs
up to elbows, and anklebones set a-twin
in the hollows beside them, the wrists a guide
for the chin, and eyes closed, ready to begin
the release into sleep, tucked in the cosy
womb, I find one thing that's missing: a pressure,
soft but firm, on my right ear, an uncanny
ghost reassurance — a small book placed under
the top blanket's edge does as neat artifice
of my mother's remembered, cushioned pelvis.
THE EARLIEST MEMORY
Is a ceiling with firelight flickering — our
bedroom, the fire behind a tall fireguard hung
with clean nappies for Sarah. I think the hour
must be seven or eight, and she has been bathed
in a bowl on the carpet, and has been sung
into sleep, curled up in Mammy's arms, all swathed
in a big towel, cosily. The shadows jump
about silently over my head, and heat
comes and goes on my cheek; the pillow feels plump
and the sheets feel so soothing. Draw up my feet
till I'm snug in a ball, and to sleep I'm tossed
in the foetal position, arms and legs crossed.
THE EARLIEST MEMORY (II)
As I watch in my earliest memory
shadows at play on the ceiling, the firelight
at its jumps flipping pictures haphazardly,
lantern slides jerked across each other of what
was itself never still, my mother in flight
through what of time was bestowed her in the plot
of our story to wash and dry her youngest
there on a 1930 evening,
I see now all these doubly random, farthest
images, images, there foreshadowing
in their shadows our cinema world, our day
in the night, our illusory, real play.
SECOND EARLIEST MEMORY
I am four. I am stepping down carpeted
stairs, only three, into the kitchen, with one
window, yet all its dimness now made splendid
by the flames' jerky orange-yellows waving
in the little old range. There's no direct sun
so very early. No one about, braving
the cool silence, I'd got up to find out what
home would be like when I was alone. But here
in the kitchen are Granma and Grandad. Hot
bacon is sizzling there on the gas. Such cheer
on their spectacled faces. Can't catch what they said,
as they gave me my favourite, hot fat bread.
THE THIRD EARLIEST MEMORY
Of a kitten that slid down the lobby floor
sideways with ears and tail upright. Always
I remembered its skating from the front door
on to the parlour door, turning slowly
like a skater, each time I saw one on days
long after. Kittens were always that kitten, closely
and obediently matching what it had done.
All of us laughed in the lobby, whoever
we were. Later we laughed just the same, the fun
matching obediently too, though we never
knew we'd learned how to laugh at threat that was not
threat, and fear not fear. Kittens know what is what.
THE FOURTH EARLIEST MEMORY
Daddy drove a grey ambulance. 'Ambulance'
meant that soft swaying and creaking, those rounded,
sort of plump corners, smooth, rubbery fitments,
windows all colouring the world mauve and green
like a thunderstorm's coming, and it sounded
funny, hurrumphing like a bus; the windscreen
with a line in the middle like a ship's bow.
Watched the long gear-lever wobbling, trying to
get back safe to a still place. And we're off now
to reach Bolton Infirmary, and I knew
those were nurses, all dressed the same,. Felt afraid
of this army, ready to give first aid.
'Beef tea!' Granma would call. 'Come to the kitchen!'
Beef tea was special. It was like tea because
it was hot, in a cup. Stirring it made it spin
little and shiny eyes of fat round and round,
and each one had the lamp in it. The taste was
lovely, not sweet but so warming that you found
it as good as a meal, all meaty and strong,
salty and soupy. It was Granma's present
and made specially for me. Was nice to belong
warm in a house where you'd more than one parent.
And I liked it because Granma gave it me,
and I liked her because nothing's like beef tea.
I can place it in 1932, so
early, it's one of the earliest. Grasmere
in a late sun. So, friend Wordsworth, does it show
mountains, that cirque where your raven flew so high
beyond sight, not beyond hearing? Or the sheer
disc of the lake, ripple-dazzling the eye?
Or that daffodil-galaxy entering
memory, starring itself there forever,
giving bliss to your solitude? No, flashing
there on my inward eye in amber, never
changing, on a grassy slope below a moor,
horizontal sheep paths, each curve a contour.
'WHO DOTH NOT LOVE TO FOLLOW WITH HIS EYE
THE WINDINGS OF A PUBLIC WAY?'*
At Llanbedrog or Aberdaron, summer
morning, the year 1933, blue sky,
a few white clouds set high, and I discover
there for the first time what a lane that rises
to a crest will do, hiding the sea, and I
know I must run, for up there what surprises
will be waiting, what unknown, recognised
wonders in sunlight that a half-heard whisper
is now hissing about out of sight, disguised
as the sea. Wordsworth, Ruskin, picture
invitations to heaven thus. For Lacan,
it shows lack a fulfilment already gone.
* Wordsworth, The Prelude, (1850 version) Book 13, ll. 142-43
A TERRIBLE FRIGHT
On my way home from school once, when I was five,
passing along the dark cobbled streets called
Winter Street, Summer Street, a fear came alive.
Such was its power I cannot remember
getting home, only longing for it, appalled
deeper than I was aware. There was terror,
it would seem, in that caterwauling music,
bagpipes that brayed an unending cry, scouring
with its echoes the grey stone walls, fanatic
scream from a bulging bag with long tubes souring
a strange tune. But it was no bloated cushion
brought me fear. Was a man dressed as a woman.
THE TOWN'S YARD
I would play in the Town's Yard, though nobody
else could unless I asked them in through the door
in the spiked gate. The pile of pea-grit, pretty
pebbles like pearls and jet beads; the chimney-pots,
with a king's crown on each one; and the pipe store,
stacked like an army parading for us; lots
of clean bricks shaped like bars of gold; and shining
tar that would melt as if it were silver ore.
I would show pals all round the place, enjoying
being the owner of treasure. There was one bore,
though. We found we couldn't get out to the grass
'cause on top of the wall they'd put broken glass.
THE BROKEN GLASS ON TOP OF THE WALL
I would look at the broken glass. It was stuck
hard in cement. Something fragile like that, fixed
with such firmness. The throats of old bottles struck
into fanged crocodile jaws, thick seals with blades
at their edges, flat green triangles mixed
up with curved brown choppers, gougers and sharp spades.
There were waves like on shells, keeping how hard he'd
hit with his hammer, shining like liquid, so
smooth, but spreading to knives that would make you bleed
just by the touching, still as the wall below,
for you 'cut yourself', moving. You might have died.
That was why you'd to stay and be safe on this side.
MR. LANCASTER AND HIS DOGS
Mr. Lancaster would laugh and tell me again
how his two great danes one day were found licking
me all over, a naked baby. No chain
kept these dogs in, and my pram had been left out
by the front door. You'd see him with care slicking
their coats with special brushes. They'd stand without
moving, patient, obedient, yet looking
haughty and powerful, aristocratic,
their short fur rippling, one dun, one grey, shining
velvet he owned. Saw him work with ecstatic
concentration and cool professional skill.
Looked as though they owned him as they stood so still.
A LOST MEMORY
In a journal I kept for a year when I
went in the Navy, I find a description
of the Lancasters' house, next door to ours. My
memory, nodding, recalls there a weighing
machine, blundering dogs — there is the open
door and the long lobby. No problem seeing
them again over years. But then, suddenly
taken aback, I read on, of a living-room
that was office, dim, painted windows, fizzy
bluebottles, torn wallpaper, the steamy gloom
of a dining-room — none of this can I now
bring to mind! It is somebody else somehow.
On the wireless Sir Walford Davies would speak.
His was a soothing voice and he always played
music solemn and slow. A programme each week
Grandad would listen to, and I had to be
very quiet. From the fretwork loudspeaker, made
D-shaped by Daddy, would come grand harmony,
like that 'Largo' by Handel or the 'Trumpet
Voluntary'. Handel's 'Messiah' was special
and the 'Hallelujah' — Grandad would thump it,
hand on the sofa. Said was as if an angel
had inspired the composer. Would be my choice
when I was old enough for the angel's voice.
BRANSBY WILLIAMS' SCROOGE
One of the records that Grandad had was Bransby
Williams' taking the part of Scrooge. At five
I had played it so often I was happy
chanting it with 'Christmas Eve, Dick, Christmas,
Ebenezer!', and then, 'Fezziwig's alive
again!', 'Better die than increase the surplus
population!', 'He said that Christmas was a
humbug!' What made my heart jump, though, was the bit
where the Spirit took Scrooge into a darker
place, the neglected graveyard, the last visit,
to the grave that was his. What stuck in my head
was, 'Am I the man that lay upon that bed?'
PLAYING WITH A RESONANT FREQUENCY
In the bath, if you waved your legs at the rate
of the waves, it would splash right over the side.
I asked Daddy. The water would 'resonate',
he said. Slower would only send it flopping
in a weary slump, however hard you tried.
Faster made your legs ache and sent it slopping
in your face. If you fell in though with the way
of the waves, they were quiet and powerful,
and they took you along with them in their play
and they kept you in time, a kind of cradle
or a swing, till you wanted it more and more
till Mammy screamed at half the bath on the floor.
THE SAILOR SUIT
In The Journal and Guardian they had my
picture. He'd liked my sailor suit. The ribbon
said 'HMS', but no ship. When I asked why,
Mammy said real sailors sometimes had no name —
'Never mind! — There's an anchor on the button!'
Rubbing hard polished it, and that was the same
as a sailor — their anchors always had to
shine for the Captain. I could salute as well —
Auntie Hattie would clap, and Daddy would do
one, just as if I was real. Could hardly tell
if I marched up and down it was really me.
But whatever I did wasn't going to sea.
SAILING OFF WITH THE MILKMAN
'Are you going away with me and never
coming back?' asked the milkman. 'Yes!' I would say,
and then Mammy'd pretend it was forever,
waving as we moved off like a ship. The horse
was a sea-horse. The milk-float began to way
like it was really floating. I'd check our course```````
on the milk-churn-top compass, grasping the rail
like I was steering. I didn't get sea-sick.
Was exciting to think I could freely sail
anywhere. I was the only one to pick
what the voyage should be. It was nice, but then,
at the end of the street I'd run home again.
THE RIGHT TIME
When I wanted to look at the bright silver
tinsel in Tyson's, Mammy pulled me away.
It was wrong to start Christmas in November.
There was that tune they called 'Eighteenth-Century
Drawing-Room' — Mammy switched it off. She would say
it had been stolen from Mozart. A pity
'cause it sounded nice and they only played it
properly in the morning at eleven
o'clock, but that was school time. And if you lit
bangers before November, off to prison
you would go with policemen. You should have known,
but a banger did sound so loud on its own.
Tar was marvellous. Glistening in release
from the ladle, it poured through its own smoke which
twined caressingly around it. It kept every crease
of my hand. Between setts in the sun it bled
its reflecting beads. I would finger the pitch
into shapes that I wanted, into the head
of a golliwog, who, fighting or pleading,
would soon loll into grief, into a cannon
that would not stay erect, but all this kneading
with a warm hand would melt it. Then with bacon
fat my mother rubbed me, and a pumice-stone;
cried, 'Why can't you leave that filthy tar alone!'
My old teddy-bear, Pooh, lost his eyes. When they
hung out, all spiky, they were too dangerous
and they didn't look nice and they wouldn't stay
in. He was blind for a while, with just a nose
and a mouth and his ears. He looked so helpless
no one would play with him. Was as if to close
his eyes meant he didn't want to see
what the other dolls saw, didn't want to
see them either the way they did. So Mammy
had an idea. 'He'll soon be your old Pooh
again!' Soon she was back with 'Here's a surprise!'
but his face was all changed with buttons for eyes.
Was a photo of me at three. I was told
that was the Warrilow garden far away
down South, Watford the place was. Now I was old,
couldn't remember any of it. Ivy
that went half up a wall, glossy in midday
sun, and a big sloping lawn, and some tidy
flowerbeds. I was snapped rolling a hose reel, so
I think it must have been rolling down the lawn,
and the sun made me frown. Why couldn't I go
back to that place? Why is it when you are born
you go on and don't stop, never going back?
With no reel, no lawn, could only feel a lack.
THE BRAN TUB
At Victoria Methodists' Christmas night
twopence would buy you a chance in the bran tub.
Was a barrel with bran in, dry and light,.
Down went your hand deep inside, sort of bouncy,
and you felt about blindly, hoping to grub
up a fine present, but they had cleverly
put the presents in boxes so you couldn't
tell what they were, but you couldn't help feeling
all the same what their shape was so you wouldn't
end up with toffees, a tin car or something.
It was no use. 'Oh, hurry!' you heard them shout,
and you had to put up with what you pulled out.
TWO MEMORIES OF YORKSHIRE
On one day in 1933 Daddy
drove across England to Scarborough to collect
Grandad. Two sights alone remain: a tunny
fish of such size it was on exhibition,
and the walls of the city of York. Effect
both of them had. The great fish's condition
was not fresh, and this bloat, stinking, staring
mass, a Charles Laughton of a fish, stickily
wet, and slumped on a slab, imprints a glaring
death. And the long, white, sunlit walls, dizzily
high, are setting for Conisburgh's, Camelot's
Minas Tirith's, and Troy's, and Mount Zion's plots.
Didn't know how to take the Dorans. Mrs.
Doran was friendly, smiling and motherly,
very big, with loose clothes, full of warm kisses
given to Kathleen. She seemed made for children,
very quick to serve tea, never crotchety,
knew where the toys were, was cleaning the kitchen
or was down on her knees, scrubbing hard, what all
mothers should do. But he was so fierce, it seemed
she had tamed him. He smiled as if to her call.
You couldn't speak to him on your own. He beamed
oh so mildly at tea. You still felt a doubt:
any time you might think he'd suddenly shout.
With his coat off, in braces, sitting at tea,
I would see Sergeant-Major Doran, eating,
smiling, making jokes, as not what he should be.
There were the sharp twisted points of his moustache,
and his hair pasted over his head meeting
hair on the other side, on his cheeks the harsh
gritty stubble that looked blue in the distance,
but none of the smiles showed the clockwork soldier
of the high-ceilinged guardroom, the importance
shown by the rifles' organ-pipe array, the
stripes and crowns, the bright buttons, for what you saw
there was him all prepared for the real thing, a war.
SERGEANT DORAN'S GARDEN
When you saw Sergeant Doran's garden, you were
up on the first floor looking down, for
it was like in a box. Kathleen called it her
garden — her father, though, never allowed me
in. Its white walls were high. You could see the door
but where the other side was you couldn't see.
Such a special and secret place. It was hard —
I could see all of it: the climbing roses
made of velvet; blue forget-me-nots were starred
thick in a green sky down there; lovely posies
to pick. But couldn't get down or even fall,
so it seemed not a place in the world at all.
THE DARK LAWN
At the bottom of Longworth Road a garden,
rather, a lawn, with a rose-trellis as fence
down one side, and black railings. Was a heaven
shut and complete, close to the street, but severed
by those railings, an open, teasing pretence
that a mere looking would suffice for laggard
children never to enter. Was always in shade,
prim and dark green, with no one there, so cool, so
still, but magically secret. Was strange — to invade
such a remote, private sanctuary, to go
in to play, I just couldn't imagine it.
As in Dorans' fine garden, I didn't fit.
"See — it makes a chair!" Mammy said. She put me
among tussocks of grass. After that, I found
chairs everywhere in what I'd taken to be
grass. And Daddy showed me how to lay the rails
on the rockery. After that, broken
ground revealed routes for trains over hills and dales
(with some cuttings, enbankments). And Uncle Jack
told me that Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave', the tune,
said, "How lovely the sea is!" But the drawback
was, with the melody, after that, I soon
couldn't hear it without the words, so the waves,
though they struggled away, they sounded like slaves.
THE MILKMAN'S JOKE
When our milkman came, every day he would say
'Who said you could play?' His face was smiling,
but his voice sounded fierce. 'Who said you could play?'
Mammy laughed so I knew it was all right.
How he could every day go on surprising
me like that wasn't strange. After all there might
be a man you must ask, like a policeman,
or a bogeyman, tall and black like a priest,
who would let you play, not because a lesson
had just finished and you were at last released,
but because you should know before you could move
play was something of which he didn't approve.
THE FRUIT-MAN'S JOKE
When the fruit-man had stopped outside, he would say,
'See — my back wheel's going round!' He made you look,
but it wasn't. You knew it wasn't. To say
'Mister, it isn't' was just what he really
liked you saying — he'd say it again. You took
him to see, put his hand there. It was easy —
even children could tell. His hand stayed where
you put it. The tyre stayed still to his fingers,
didn't shift them about at all. You could stare
hard at the hub and the rim and the stringers
but the road was as still as they were. I found
even Mammy would say, 'It is going round!'
We'd make houses of plasticine. At first, warm
from the hand, it was soft; in summer, sticky.
You could pinch it with ease into any form
you could wish. Print your hand, and see the wrinkles
come the other way round, with your destiny
like a natural leaf. Squeeze, and the crinkles
will be matched to your grip, so you can check then`
what your grip was by putting it back in your
hand — you have to grip in the same way. When
we had stuck all the walls up, we could immure
a fly, see it go peering through all the barred
windows, helpless. The plasticine now was hard.
STEALING A MOUSE
In a nest in the hay the friend of a friend
showed us mice, a new family, but furry.
Noses twitched, keen eyes blinked. My hands could defend
with its bars this light quick life that did not
suspect fingers, but was wary at my mercy.
To be carer of such seemed to be just what
would perfect my uncaring, so dependent
on me I must be master. Later I stole
to the hay alone, stole a mouse. Violent
heartbeats, mouse's and boy's. Told a rigmarole
to my mother, but 'Outside!' she cried. 'Outside
with that vermin!' So, during the night, it died.
When the Jubilee came, I wondered about
'Jubilee'. Was a funny word 'cause it made
all the people go happy. They'd sing and shout
when it arrived, like some kind of secret force
in the air made you drunk. There'd be a parade,
parties for everyone in the street. Of course,
there were streamers, and, when I looked at them, they
made me feel drunk, for the lovely reds and greens
in triangles and squares on the special day
fluttered like jungle birds for the King and Queen's
anniversary. What made it specially nice
was that everyone played! Was like paradise!
THE SILVER JUBILEE (II)
We all sat on the school field when the Silver
Jubilee came. Everybody got a spoon
with a medal on top and a cup with a
picture of King George and Queen Mary. One boy
had a gold pencil set. I had a balloon
showing their faces sideways. I had a toy
crown that fitted on Pooh's head. Vale Avenue
had to have longer strings for flags because we
were so wide: it was better to have so few
'cause you had more across. What did 'Jubilee'
mean? I knew — it was decorating the towns,
getting spoons, pencil sets, and wearing toy crowns.
FIREWORKS BEFORE FIREWORKS NIGHT
There were boys who would let off fireworks before
Fireworks Night. Not only daft, I thought, but wrong
somehow. Not because there was some strict law
saying you couldn't, but because there was no
point. You wasted the fun. Bangs didn't belong
there on a day when they meant nothing. They go
off, but nobody's oo-ing. You might as well
boo. It's as if your Little Demon was wet
and won't light. And the bang?— a dustbin lid fell
down, or a door slammed by chance. Or if you set
off a rocket, it just turned to nonsense, bar
a spark from a tram, or a shooting star.
There were sweets that were peas, potatoes and meat.
Jelly babies were always good. You could see
through them. Chocolate money was always sweet.
When you sucked at the stick of rock, the writing
stayed the same all the time. Eggs were not sloppy
inside when they were Easter eggs; exciting
when you broke them — not chickens there, but toffees.
Sugar mice never smelled, except of sugar.
When your bubble-gum popped, you blew more. Lollies
got like tongues. Candy-floss looked much woollier
than wool — no one would spit it out though. Until
you had eaten the chocolate watch, time stood still.
'AUF WIEDERSEHN, MY DEAR!'
Children sat in the middle of Blackpool Dance
Hall just while Reginald Dixon played. Was odd
they called organists 'Reginald' — Kind of chance?
Was it like 'Reverend'? The organ was lit
up in stained-glass. You saw him press, twist, bend, nod,
dance with his feet, and the big music, the hit
of the day, came like groaning out from somewhere,
all the controls like a cockpit in a plane
of Imperial Airways. We joined in the blare:
'Auf wiedersehn. my dear!' we sang again
and again. When the war came, bothered me much
that we'd joined in that song and liked it so much.
'Look out! — Nell Scratch!' A witch she must have been,
passing by with no word, with eyes so inward.
All the boys knew she was. Knew she was unclean.
I asked how, and they grabbed my fly. She watched me
without looking, put all my life in hazard
with her dumb spells. Though she shuffled away, she
was in haste to get you. Even the boy who
threw the horse turds would hide. Her windows were green
and the webs were like nerves. I did not want to
look in. Those who did, of what they had seen
would say nothing. Not safe — for she might make you
sick. Don't peer into fear that sticks to taboo.
PRESSING MY FACE IN THE SNOW
Pressed my face in the snow. If I closed one eye,
saw me as solid, not hollow. Struck me how
very funny it was that, if I could spy
from inside, I'd be hollow too. If I could
be a little man, hid inside, I'd see how
my head fitted my school cap, how my skin hood
kept me in, how my tongue was a kind of sack
you could stuff with words. Lips were rubber borders
you could stretch to make air go buzz, bang and smack
just as they did. Would my looking at them show
just the same, their face pressed into the soft snow?
'WHAT ARE LITTLE GIRLS MADE OF, MADE OF?'
Didn't like that old rhyme that asked you 'What are
little girls made of?' because the boys were made
out of frogs and from snails. Such a lot of blah.
Calling our tweens a puppy-dog's tail was rude
too, but nobody seemed to notice. Girls — they'd
dress in those fancy clothes, but years ago you'd
have seen men all in colours. Why we could wear
silk if we wanted to! All the men's money
goes to pay for it anyway. Didn't care
who wore those ribbons and strap things. Is funny
everybody can only be kings or queens.
Boys are warmer in winter around their tweens.
Mammy showed me her vaccination marks, four
pale circles high on her right arm, just like mine.
It was 'cowpox' they gave you. It made you sore,
but you were suffering a little so that you
wouldn't suffer so much later on. Was fine —
didn't take long, for in time you hardly knew
there were scabs on your arm, and at last they went,
leaving four patches like bicycle wheels or
a cut orange. Was a sign like a badge: it meant
germs couldn't get you. Was like school for
it was painful but proved itself a good thing.
Why then sixty years later do they still sting?
ESCAPING THE ROBBER
I would think if a robber came up to me
holding a gun, saying 'Do you want to be filled
full of lead? Hand it over!', he wouldn't see
that a bobby was just behind him. I could
have got hold of his gun before he had killed
anyone, changed all the bullets for blanks. I would,
too, be wearing my bullet-proof vest. I'd show
him that my pockets were empty as well. He'd trip
up and fall and drop the gun — it would go
flying off and slide right down a grid. I'd skip
off and run down an alley. I'd even feel
on my wrists how the handcuffs felt, just like real.
MY HANDS AS MY SLAVES
You could think that your hands were your friends. After
all, if you wanted a sweet and it was deep
in a pocket, a hand would kindly push a
couple of fingers in and get it for you.
You could call them your slaves. Didn't have to keep
telling them 'Do this!' and 'Do that!' — No, they knew.
They'd unwrap it and pop it in your mouth so
quick you'd have thought that they really wanted to eat
and not you. But I'd think, the nice taste would go
sliding away, but what happened to the sweet
when I'd finished my swallow I couldn't see —
so I thought, did my hands make a slave of me?
'HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY-BUSH!'
Singing 'Here we go round the mulberry-bush!'
we were dancing round no tree at all. We shot
from our fingers' ends as we lay in ambush
there in full view. Our bullets killed them without
bodies having to die. Our horses would trot
with our feet. We would ride on the roundabout
when the fair was away. We would sail on land;
we would fly on the ground, make the sun grow dark,
the night shine. We would build our houses of sand,
and our castles in air. Our bite was our bark.
So we danced on without heeding the warning
of waking on a cold and frosty morning.