I Remember... by Jan Edwards

Recently (20th Dec) the author and editor Diana Athill was interviewed on the Today programme for her 100th birthday. Happy birthday!
One of the things Ms Athill mentioned in her interview was her first memory, which was of falling into a puddle and being hauled out again. It set me musing on my own earliest memories. I can think of several, and because we moved house two weeks after my 4th birthday I can accurately date them as being three or even two years old at the time.
Most of those images involved getting into trouble with Mother. And most often came out of trying to keep up with two elder brothers (then aged seven and nine) who did not want their tiny little sister to tag along in the first place.
Memory 1/ Throwing a monumental hissy fit because I could see my brothers building a snowman in the garden. I clearly recall standing in my cot and shaking the bars, whilst my mother stood at the sink washing up. (I was sick often and the kitchen was heated overnight by the Aga stove.)
Memory 2/ Crouching in the mud, with the younger of those brothers, at the edge of the duck pond; situated just opposite the farm cottage where we then lived. We were sailing little plastic boats that had been free gifts in cereal packets, and we were having a great time. But... going outside the gate was forbidden of course- going near the pond doubly so. When Mother caught up with us we were not popular. (Conversely Mother wasn’t too popular with us because we’d been having a lot of fun.)
Memory 3/ Standing alone in the grain store (another forbidden destination) in a thunder storm all alone. My darling brothers had left me there after first telling me that thunder was made by lions on the roof looking for somebody to eat. (Yup... that’s brothers for you.)
The thing that I have to ask myself next is how accurate are those memories? They are very clear in my mind. Not merely as images but also as vehicles for the emotions invoked at the time; anger, frustration and fear respectively.
Yet, as a discussion with another writer recently showed, our recall can be defective. She used a memory of her own the draft for a story in which her main character was listening to a particular record in a specific year. When she checked the dates for her final draft she realised it was impossible because that particular track did not appear for another two years. Not a false memory as such, more a case of the record being so evocative of an important period in her life that is felt like a perfect recall. The way in which music can and does evoke powerful emotions is another issue altogether.
Memory is a strange thing and often proves to be inaccurate. There have been many scientific papers in Scientific American and other publications on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts in trials and how people’s own background and biases can and do affect the way in which they process recall of events and perpetrators of crimes, which is something any crime writer needs to be aware of.
We all ‘think’ that we recall X or Y so vividly, but if it’s possible to check it’s often a memory influenced by so many other factors. Writers draw on memories a great deal, whether consciously or not, and those experiences are what make their fiction a far richer mix.
My own examples of recall are probably based on actual events but I have no idea how truly accurate they are from this distance. I have to assume they happened because I have no way of checking them.

And is there a point of all this waffle? Two in fact. ‘Beware of the false recall’ and ‘research is our friend’.


Chris Longmuir said…
Interesting post. As you indicate memory is a strange thing and I firmly believe we can all remember at a far earlier age than we suppose. The problem is being able to date it. I have memories from the age of 2 and the only way I know this is because we were in England at the time and I left there when I was 2 years old. My first memory is actually a rather embarrassing one. So here goes:
Memory 1: Sitting on my potty in the lobby of a council type house. It was a small lobby with stairs leading up and the door to the living room open in front of me (told you it was embarrassing).
Memory 2: Being pushed in my pushchair past the local swimming pool. It was an open air one surrounded by a high wall but you could hear the splashing and laughter as you passed by. I remember tormenting my mother so much because I wanted to go inside.
Memory 3: Inside the swimming pool. It was in two parts and you had to pass the larger part where all the swimmers were to get to the smaller pool for the kids. I remember sitting on the edge terrified to go in. I never did take the plunge.
Memory 4: Different house, in Trowbridge. A small cottage, one of several, with attic windows in the roof and a massive garden that stretched behind it, probably not massive but that's the way it looked to me, and at the end of the garden was a shed where I used to sit with my grandfather. I loved that.Unfortunately, my mother and grandmother had a massive row and my grandmother threw all our clothes out of the window. I don't know what it was about but we never saw them again. It's strange, but I have a picture of my grandfather in my mind, but none of my grandmother.
That was the last time I was in England as a child which is why I can date it. Without that, I would probably have believed I was older when these events ocurred.
I would lay bets that a lot of us have memories from that age.
Lydia Bennet said…
Gosh Chris, did you never find out what the row was about, that's a huge event! my first absolutely dateable memory is my new baby brother arriving home, I vividly recall my mother who had disappeared for a while and then suddenly she was standing in the doorway with 'my' baby, I firmly believed, in a shawl and a blue and white knitted hat. I was two years nine months old. My brother 'brought me' presents, of which I can remember a cream and yellow Dinky toy caravan, and I think a xylophone and a few other bits and pieces were involved - they'd have been second hand. My mother was very advanced for the time and didn't want me to be jealous. But I remember things probably before that, just not dateable beyond doubt.
Susan Price said…
Lovely stuff!
To support Chris and Valerie, I also have a memory of when I must have been somewhere between two and three.
It's dark, cold and snowing. I am with my Dad - being held by him, in fact - while he stands on the lamplit steps of a grand house with wide stone steps and grecian columns.
All very Dickensian. I had this memory for years and could not place it. I could not think of any reason why my Dad would be outside such a house.
Finally, when I was an adult, a conversation with my aunt pinned it down. My grandparents lived, for a time, in a 'coal-master's' grand house. It had been split up into apartments, but the grand entrance hall and the frontage had been left untouched.
My parents lived nearby and used to visit every Sunday. They'd stay late to watch my grandparent's television (they didn't have one of their own.) I usually fell asleep before they left, so my Dad would carry me home. My guess would be that the cold and snow woke me up and this memory was fixed. -- Yet I have no memory at all of going to the coal-master's house on the many other occasions I must have been taken there. No memory of what it was like inside. Just this single image of the steps and pillars on a snowy night.
And that has woken such bitter-sweet memories of my loving parents, both dead now, who were then less than half my age now.
Enid Richemont said…
My earliest is sitting on a potty, but shimmying around with my feet and telling myself I was dancing. My great ambition was to become a dancer - it never happened.

Diana Athill is a treasure, and local to me, too, as she lives in Highgate. I went to a lecture she gave, in a local church, and will never forget her walking down the aisle wearing an amazing kaftan, all purple and gold, and then talking without any reference to notes. Fragile then, she came with a carer, but intellectually she didn't need one. I wanted to speak to her afterwards, but was too shy, so didn't. An amazing woman.
Fran B said…
I remember getting spanked by my father: a wee lad called Colin, who was my buddy, and I drew 'a picture', using a long nail we had found. My father had not long finished painting the woodwork in the kitchen. Under the hanging kitchen towel was a wooden panel, freshly painted, nice and soft. After we had finished, we carefully hung the towel back to cover our artwork. When asked later if I had done it, I denied it. Of course, he knew it was me. He said the spanking was not so much for desecrating his handiwork but more for telling a lie. Looking back, I'm not so sure!
Umberto Tosi said…
I remember helping my grandmother's black cat, Nero, into her refrigerator where he could help himself to some leftover salmon, then running to hide in the pantry at the sound of footsteps. I remember hearing the the door of the fridge click shut. I waited what seemed a long time for my grandmother to leave the kitchen so that I could let Nero out. As fate would have it, however, at that moment my grandmother opened the refrigerator herself to start on dinner. Yeeoooow! Nero screeched out across the kitchen. The salmon dish clattered to the floor behind him and my nonna screamed! "Nino!" (That was my childhood nickname! She knew this was my work.) I was four years old. It was 1942 on a snowy winter day in Boston, Massachusetts.To this day I think of Nero when I hear an icebox door close.
Susan Price said…
Umberto, lovely as the other memories are, I think you may have taken the prize! Had me laughing a long time.
janedwards said…
Thank you for all your memories. Always fun to hear!

Umberto - I and my siblings always knew the depth of trouble we were in by the way we were summoned. First name only = not too bad. First and last names = trouble in the offing. First middle and last name = time to start running!

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