“Who am I? How did I get here from there?”
You want to see the shape of your life from the outside. Like a snail crawling out of its shell to see what it has made of its life and how that life has moulded its flesh.
You want to take this life off and stand naked wearing only the face you had before you were born.
“Who is this creature I call myself?” you say.
“What makes this patch of humanity tick?”
So you sit down and make a list of all the things you can remember (it’s not as long as you expected) and you gather together all the pieces of paper and the photos, and the cards, and the letters and you remember an old video someone recently remastered and send an email about getting hold of it.
And you think “I’d better start at the beginning, go about this systematically”.
- An internalisation of parental conflict
- A conflict between wants and needs
- A conflict between the need for nurture and the need for independence
And you google “Liverpool 1949” and find this old video:
And by now you are thinking: Yes there could be a story here. Maybe I could tell it. Yes I think I can see the shape of it. But how do you finish a story that doesn’t end?
So what is the first memory?
I am sitting in the sun in my pram waiting for Nana to come round the end of the hedge and through the gate. I know she is coming because I see her stick waving over the top of the hedge and hear her voice calling: “Yoo-hoo where’s Nana’s little darling?”
And then you realise this is ridiculous you can’t possible be remembering this. And you hear your mother’s voice telling it and realise it’s just one of the family stories about your life. And here’s another (It doesn’t quite fit with the first story, but whoever said families are rational places to grow up in?)
“You didn’t stop crying for the first two years of your life. The doctor even gave me phenobarb for you – I used to give you a quarter in a spoonful of jam but it kept you more wide awake than ever. In the end I used to give you a baby aspirin on the tray of your high chair mixed in with a handful of dolly mixtures and it worked like a charm.”
Hmmm…Phenobarbitone – the origin of my interest in ‘organic chemistry’. You can’t get it any more except for vetinary purposes. The preferred method of voluntary exit. Speaking of which, that brings to mind another family story, whether true or not I don’t know, and my father, who told it to me, is dead.
So the story is that my Dad was doing his residency after finishing his medical degree at the Liverpool University on a post-war Returned Serviceman’s grant and there was a guy on one of his wards who had terminal cancer and was in such pain that he begged my father to help him die.
This request was repeated consistently over a period of time and his condition was getting worse so finally my dad went around to all the different stashes of morphine in the hospital and nicked just a bit, until he had what he thought was definitely enough to do the trick.
So just before he went off duty he administered what he thought was a lethal dose to his grateful patient and went home to a sleepless night struggling with his conscience and, of course, the fear of discovery.
But, he needn’t have worried. As he went into the ward the following morning, expecting to see an empty bed, he was hailed by a cheery voice :
“Hey Doc whatever that was you gave me last night I never slept better in my life!”
I loved my Dad.
But to get back to the dolly mixtures – I’ve always wondered what they were – this was a story not a memory – although if I thought about it often enough I’m sure I could turn it into a memory. [Memories: stories we can ‘inhabit’ and which we believe to be true?] I know they were some kind of lolly, or ‘sweet’ as my mother would call them.
How many times does a thing have to happen in a family before it becomes a ‘you always’? I remember a family ‘you always’ of mine –‘You always burnt the potatoes.’
It all started when we used to have to take it in turns to cook the potatoes for dinner when we got home from school. We had mashed potatoes every day, pretty much, except when we had a roast on the weekend. Mum was working at this stage, going in to Dad’s surgery for a few hours each day to do the accounts and the cleaning.
So how the hell are you supposed to cook the potatoes without burning them? Stand guard over the pot or something? I thought I could get away with having a little read while they cooked, only to be brought back to reality, every time, by the smell of burning.
And that ‘little read’ still catches me out. What it is that makes some you alwayses stick and others fade over time?
And the verbotens how does that work? Of all the many verbotens I have come up against in my life the only one that went straight in and stuck was: “Darling you must never leave the wordrobe door open when you go to sleep – it’ll warp the hinges.” This, from my mother just as I was drifting off to sleep, and to this day, if I’ve left the wardrobe door open, I have to get out of bed and close it before I can sleep.
What was it that made that prohibition stick, when even the threat of hell-fire wasn’t glue enough for all those others?
Of Family Trees and Famous ancestors
In his autobiography ‘Dear Me’ Peter Ustinov says:
|I remember with pleasure and a shudder a reflection of that great advocate Clarence Darrow in his memoirs. He always regarded the chapter of accidents which led back from his birth into pre-history as utterly extraordinary, and therefore had the same feelings about his presence in the world as though he had won a lottery against staggering odds, and moreover added, not without an element of self-pity, that if any one of thousands of people had been late for an appointment with destiny, he would not have been born at all. I have at least as much cause as Clarence Darrow to entertain such a thought, without having the originality to conceive of such a terrifying speculation. |
My own attitude to the possibility of such non-existence is more laid-back; it seems to me to require a certain ‘great man’ complex to take the whole thing that seriously. After all one could simply have been someone else and what, ultimately, would be the problem with that? In fact one may well, according to some sources, have been an infinite variety of other ‘me’s, whose happiness depends less on outward circumstance than we have been led to think.
Ustinov goes on to point out that each one of us has no less than 16 great-great-grandfathers and presumably, in these days of gender equality, the same number of great-great-grandmothers. An astonishing fact to one who has never had more than one grandparent in her life and then only briefly, which leads one to speculate about that certain point in history when the planet was populated entirely by ones own ancestors.
Here is my family tree as far back as I can reconstruct it at present, but leaving room for expansion in either direction
As a descendant of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne I think it only fitting to start with him.
|Charlemagne c. 742 – 28 January 814), also known as Charles the Great (Latin: Carolus Magnus or Karolus Magnus), was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans (Imperator Romanorum) from 800 to his death in 814.He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800.His rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. |
We don’t have much in the way of family mementos of him except for this coin which shows a rather chubby looking fellow not unlike my Uncle Des, Mum’s brother.
Another of my illustrious ancestors.
|Katherine FitzGerald was the daughter of Sir John FitzGerald, second Lord of Decies in Waterford, and Ellen Fitzgibbon. She was probably born at Dromana, in County Waterford. In 1529, she married, becoming the second wife of Thomas FitzGerald, 12th Earl of Desmond (1454-1534), “her cousin german once removed.”|
Katherine’s main claim to fame was in the length of her life and the manner of her death. Family tradition puts her longevity down to a determination to outlive Sir Walter Raleigh to prevent him getting his hands on Inchiquin Castle and its lands in which she had only a life interest.
She died at around 120 years of age falling from a neighbour’s apple tree stealing fruit. The only memento we have of her is this 1806 engraving of an earlier portrait.
She looks as though she’d rather be out climbing trees, than stuck indoors getting painted, don’t you think?
According to Lord Bacon she had something of a miraculous way with teeth: in his Sylva Sylvarum of 1627 he writes that she did “dentire twice or thrice, casting her old teeth and others coming in their place.”
I hadn’t realised until now that I was upholding a family tradition when I chose a man to father my child who had the same surname as I do, although he spells it the modern way with the small ‘g’, whereas mine has had the large ‘G’ since my father changed it in boyhood.
Despite the difference in the spelling, I decided the choice would ensure an intelligent child – I can’t exactly remember the rationale – and my naive stab at eugenics seems to have worked, although she has complained of not having longer legs. I tell her that at least she got her nice big lips from his side, and lips will get a girl further than legs any day.
My brother has since gone even further and embraced the two-seperate-words-version ‘Fitz Gerald’. I get the impression that this is something of a tradition too: messing with the spelling of the name. My sister, who has no children of her own has threatened: “No one with the small ‘g’ will inherit my fortune.”
Over time my family has rather ‘come down in the world’ – we no longer have to stay indoors when we don’t want to. For a start we got out of castles and, after some considerable time, moved to a better climate. But, of that, more later.
More about family trees.
Have you ever tried to draw one? It’s quite tricky.
For a start it took me three or four goes to work out that you have to have a very large piece of paper and start at the bottom with the last generation. And then: how much of those tricky sideways bits do you put in? And do you include children adopted with now estranged partners who say they never felt part of the family? No big deal really, neither did I a lot of the time.
For reasons of diplomacy, I ended up considering one of those cute family trees with photos of just the nuclear family stuck up in the branches of an apple tree and then I thought why not just stick with that early photo for now? No one can get cross about that.
So here we are. Us kids. One sister still unborn. The photo is from very shortly after we arrived in Australia. I am the one on the right looking like she’d rather be outside…?
I have always had an ambivalence about photographs and at one stage, when my daughter was about six I guess, I threw all the photographs I had in my possession into the rubbish bin. Later in the day I changed my mind and rushed home only to find the rubbish had been collected and my photos were gone forever. My daughter, who featured largely in the collection is naturally resentful of my strange behaviour.
But I can understand what I did – it has something to do with the fact that photographs steal the present moment and embalm it as a dead thing – and I have never been all that good at recognising the consequences of my actions until they punch me in the nose.
Susan Sontag appears to have had a similar distrust of the photographic process and in an attempt to redeem myself for behaviour which still, periodically, demands acts of contrition I appeal to her for justification:
“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in ones own.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” 
So where were we up to about me?
Ah yes, family story number two: what a ‘difficult’ baby I was – apparently my behaviour had far-reaching consequences for one of my father’s friends.
This friend was, as I ‘remember’ it, a lovely bear-like man; he used to come round to study with my Dad, who as you may recall, was doing a degree in Medicine at Liverpool University. The story is though, that he mostly ended up cuddling me, to stop me screaming, so my Dad could study – Mum having, presumably, given up on me.
So as a result Charlie failed his exams. It turned out fine though because, as a result, he met and married a very wealthy woman. Somehow I got the credit for that, which as you can imagine, I badly needed.
Telling my story now gets tricky: you see I’ve written a short story based on the next part of my life and I no longer care to tease out fact from fiction.
The story came about because I heard Osho say that although the biblical story of original sin and the expulsion from the garden isn’t literally true, it is a great insight into human psychology.The idea being that we all start off in paradise but around the age of three or four we expel ourselves from that happy state – and by an act of choice. We ‘sell out’ in the face of our own powerlessness before the adults in our world.
I decided to examine my own life to see if it was true about me and the short story, And So it Was, is about what I discovered.
And now I am going to let you in on the secret of why I am a monarchist.
You remember how Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, visited Liverpool the year I was born, to say “Hi!” and check it out – I told you about it in Chapter 2 – you’re not going to believe this – but two months before we arrived in Australia – exactly a fortnight before my family left Tilbury docks on the SS Otranto – that very same lovely woman, now Queen Elizabeth, was doing an extensive tour of Australia just to make sure everything was in order in time for our arrival. It’s hard to believe that she would go to so much trouble for us, but she did. That family connection through Charlemagne, distant though it is still meant something.
Here is a photo of the ship we came on, it was also the one that Spike Milligan and his troops sailed on to Tangiers, to help secure Hitler’s downfall. Renovation of the captain’s cabin was complete by the time of our journey as there was definitely no-one sleeping in the life-boats Of course it had been well and truly tarted-up for our journey with a swimming pool and every imaginable luxury to make the journey just so, which it was.
- Tree graphic is adapted from free clip-art by Phillip Martin.
- Ustinov, Peter (1983) Dear Me, Penguin Books UK
- Quite Interesting, Synopsis of Series G – Greats (Topic three)
http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/7/10/(accessed 22.01.12, 13:36)
- Wikepedia. Charlemagne.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne (accessed 22.01.12, 16:15)
- Wiseman, Nicholas Patrick. The Dublin review, Volume 51 (page 51)(Google eBook)
http://books.google.co.uk/books?vid=05Yjnroz9rr3sL7hhv&id=xWnqaPtA0AoC&pg=PA51&printsec=4&dq=%22dublin+review%22&as_brr=1#v=onepage&q=%22dublin%20review%22&f=false (accessed 22.01.12, 16:36)
- Wikepedia. Katherine FitzGerald, Countess of Desmond
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_FitzGerald,_Countess_of_Desmond (accessed 22.01.12, 17:10)
- Sontag, Susan, On Photography (1977) Picador, USA