In an autobiography, a thousand memories must begin with one
Writing an autobiography represents a worrying collision of two gropes of thought. I am not talking here of the autobiographies of those who have jumped to fame on the serendipitous back of media-enhanced celebrity and deliver their usually ghost-written accounts of their first years of fame. I am more concerned with autobiography as the summing up of a life, a kaleidoscope of events and characters, memories, dreams, reflections and might-have-beens which together comprise the vaguely stable core at the heart of the ever changing mist of what has been experienced by the author. The two ropes of thought, at least for me, comprise firstly a superstitious fear that writing it might have the same import as a will and may somehow mark the end of my imaginative writing. The second is that if I leave it too late then the record of my life will become too faded, my ink drying in the pen and the very tool of my imagination, the carefully wrought word and phrase may give way to something so prosaic it has none of the character of my writing when all my faculties are present!
With autobiographies, timing is all. It must be got down before the brain is more colander than crucible.
So, beginning at the beginning, I have no memories at all of India where I spent my first four years or so of life. Suffice it to say that India has still been a dominating motif, affecting my sense of self, a background like the foundation glue an artist uses to prepare a canvas. No, despite being bilingual, nothing remains of those early naked-running native years in Dehra Dun. My first images come from Leeds, a cold northern city where we stayed for a few months with my father’s mother, not the most gracious of individuals I am told. It was there, or in some subsequent accommodation that I took my father’s cigarette lighter and hid behind the curtains, flicking it on and off. I seem to recall the mystery of this fire-maker but have no vision of the burning curtains as they exaggerated that tiny spurt of flame into an ascending line of fire and thence to the Christmas decorations.
It was the only time in my life that my father came close to hitting me, if I am to believe my mother who I am sure would not have lied about such a traumatic early event. I am assured that he did not, instead sending me to my room. The fact that he did not strike me is surely the perfect education for a son. After all, a room going up in smoke is among the worst of scenarios. I have not hit my own children and I am sure they are the same with my grandchildren. Scientists now believe that genes can be switched on and off during a life. I have displayed on occasion the willingness to battle, to use fist and foot, so the warrior gene can burn brightly if the button is pressed – but not within the fomenting confines of familial relations.
I realise, writing this, that it is possible that autobiographies might delineate more exactly the characters of those around the author than the being of the author himself.
My father will, no doubt, not be immune from this.
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