Autobiography 2: Earth, Air, Water and Blood
So my earliest memory was fire. Casting my mind back I have a sort of metaphorical sense of what memory is. It’s a concertina which, when pulled out reveals all that extra capacity that cannot be seen at the outset. Or like a set of books whose spines are all that is visible on the shelf, with vague titles which must be lifted out, one by one to reveal their mysterious substance. Memory is two dimensional for the purpose of retrieval and multi-dimensional once you get hold of it. Nothing is actually forgotten but it can take unusual circumstances and lateral purchase sometimes, to draw people, events and perceptions back into consciousness.
Since an autobiography, to be true and accurate in all respects, would be vast and never-ending, to embrace the span of a life, it behoves the writer to provide vignettes, fragments that suggest the whole like shards of a hologram, isomorphic representations.
After Leeds we moved to Shadforth County Durham. We lived for a few months across the village green, opposite the school. Here are a few flashes from that time. Becoming lost and eventually found in the neighbourâ€™s dogâ€™s kennel with my arms around a dog notoriously big and feared by the postmen. Going to the toilet just before playtime (not yet five) and using one of the girlsâ€™ outside toilets. Just as I flushed it the bell went and I had to barricade myself in by jamming the door closed with straight legs, as I sat on the seat, trouserless. I was petrified with anguish and embarrassment as girls hammered on the door keening that they knew a boy was in there.
Yet, not far away across the concrete yard was a lilac tree. It was here that my immersion in Zen began. I recall climbing it and reclining in its branches, curtained about by pale purple panicles, shutting my eyes and swooning in the heavy scent, my ears drowning in the deep buzzing of bees and higher pitched drones of other insects.
In that Elysium of nature, a stream ran close to the bottom of our garden. Above it swept down a hill of corn, hosting the electric blue of cornflowers, the golden fat yellow of buttercups and the powdery white branches of old manâ€™s baccy. Has my sight faded? This memory of colour is almost-trip-like in comparison to todayâ€™s perceptions. Perhaps my present eyes do not deceive but in that natural wild-foraging state of early childhood I saw the very essence of colour, its very spirit as one finds in Shintoism. All since has been facsimile, perfectly serviceable but without the power to truly burn the retina.
I dug deep holes on the little path that ran around the field and covered them in thin sticks and grass and leaves to trap the farmer. A gang of us trekked to a nearby quarry and stole a length of rope which we tied high above the stream so that we could swing down from the high bank on one side of it, screaming like our muscular hero in Edgar Rice Burroughâ€™s Tarzan And The City of Gold. We made dams. We tightrope walked the narrow concrete divides between the effluence tanks of the sewage farm.
The last snippet, cut from the cloth of that time, is of a birthday party. I must have been five, I suppose. Perhaps four or so boys had been invited. They brought presents. The only one I can remember was from a boy whose parents had no money, or so my mother informed me. He gave me a tin cow, a Guernsey I can now affirm. One leg had been broken off. I took the treasure and placed it on my shelf in the sideboard cupboard. I can see it now, just managing to stay upright, all on its own, lit by the searchlight of inexplicable pleasure.
It was when I learned that it is the thought that counts.