My friend Priscilla, visiting recently, said that my memory was remarkable. This is only partly true: I can never remember how to get into my online banking account and dread the mandatory six-monthly tussle to open it, a necessary process to stop the bank from discontinuing access via my chosen password (that I also can’t remember); I never know which of the buttons on the dashboard of my car releases the locking petrol-cap and have on at least one occasion had to resort to asking a complete stranger, the obliging but clearly exasperated man waiting behind me on the garage forecourt, for help; and, somewhat to my shame, I admit that I can’t turn on my own television. I hasten to point out that, in our household, this isn’t a simple case of clicking one button and then a channel number on a remote: my husband, who is practicality personified, insists that its performance and picture are better if the controls are run through the DVD player. This involves pressing manually a button at the back of the set and using the controls of two separate remotes in the right order to bring up a channel. On the only occasion that I have managed to switch it on, all but a two-inch border at the edge of the screen was obscured by a giant bright green rectangle, as if the programme had been censored by a Martian.
However, Priscilla, who was my flat-mate and closest friend during my university years, is correct that, when it comes to people and what they wore and said, even decades ago, my memory tends not to let me down. I can remember, for example, almost all the clothes that she owned at that period: the turquoise reversible cape; the beautiful green and black floor-length dress she wore to parties the year that everyone turned twenty-one; the red belted sweater that she was wearing on the day that we first met (out of character, this – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wearing anything else in red); the pink checked Marks and Spencer shirt that she took home for her mother to repair when she ripped the sleeve and many other of her garments.
I’m not sure why I have this kind of selective memory. It’s certainly not something that I’ve tried to cultivate. It may have something to do with the fact that, from a young age, I’ve always intended to write and have therefore sub-consciously filed away a ragbag of material (this is not a pejorative representation of Priscilla’s student wardrobe, I hasten to add!) that might come in useful one day, whereas it’s highly unlikely that I shall ever want to introduce into my novels the mechanics of online banking, filling the car with petrol or turning on the television; yet I think it might also be related to the way that the two generations before my own spoke and behaved. I grew up in the last few years before the half-generation ahead of mine decided that it was a good idea to ‘let it all hang out’. My childhood was dominated by my grandmothers’, rather than my parents’ generation, simply because there were so many of them: one of my grandmothers had six sisters and a brother and the other four brothers (and both had had other siblings who had died in infancy). By contrast, my mother was an only child and my father had one sister, who emigrated while I was still at primary school. There were many family gatherings and I also spent quite a lot of time with each of my grandmothers on her own.
People of that generation – the last to be born before the First World War – didn’t tell you what they thought in so many words, particularly if it was something disagreeable. You had to figure it out for yourself. For example, I very clearly remember standing on the landing of my father’s mother’s house – it had a big oval window edged with squares of coloured glass in blue, red and green, and the sunlight was streaming through it – while my grandmother folded sheets and stowed them in the linen cupboard with the deft efficiency of an automaton. Standing on the windowsill was a black and white photograph of my parents on their wedding day. It was very familiar to me: the same picture, in various frames, adorned mantle-pieces and windowsills in the homes of all my great-uncles and great-aunts, my other grandmother and, of course, my own home. My father was wearing a dapper double-breasted suit; my mother, slightly taller than he in her white platform soles, a drooping full-length white dress (it certainly wasn’t a meringue) which looked as if it might originally have had quite a low neckline but had been primly filled in with a layer of net that almost reached my mother’s chin. Her hair was parted in the middle and almost concealed by the heavy headdress that anchored her floor-length veil. My father was grinning from ear to ear, but my mother wasn’t quite smiling. On the spur of the moment, I asked my grandmother whether she thought my mother had looked pretty on her wedding day.
My grandmother pursed her lips.
“Different folk thought different things. It was all a long time ago, and I’m not going to drag it up again now,” she said, folding the linen ever more ferociously. I was astonished at this remark, but I knew better than to pursue it further: I’d simply have been ‘put in my place’ and certainly would not have elicited a more enlightening comment. However, I still ponder what she said and wonder what it meant. Did my grandmother not like the dress? Was it she who had insisted on doing something about the ‘immodest’ neckline? Did she think my mother should have worn flatter shoes, so as not to emphasise my father’s shortness? An outsider might think that it was just a typical bitchy mother-in-law remark, but my mother and grandmother always seemed to get on well together: in fact, I observed that often they were allies and knew that my grandmother was naturally a generous, not a spiteful, woman.
For a writer, though, these two sentences are like gold. It’s been worth filing them away in my memory for more than four decades. I still enjoy working out possible solutions to the puzzle that they represent. I may even base a whole book on them at some point, whereas I’m unlikely to get much mileage (sorry!) out of a petrol cap. But the man who helped me with that, now, he’s of an entirely different ranking in the memory stakes: he was thick-set, slightly balding and wore a Huddersfield Town shirt with grey jogging bottoms. He had a Barnsley accent. “Now, lass,” he said ….