Already, we are edging our way into the third week of the month – the third week of the year – and normality has reinstated itself after the hiatus of Christmas. The tree is long discarded, the decorations put away and even the fridge is beginning to show signs of slimming itself down from its packed shelves of provisions (although personally I still have cheeses and chutneys to spare …) and the possibility of actually being able to see what’s in there for the first time in weeks.
The season of goodwill is also, of course, a season for remembering. For reading the messages that old friends have scrawled into cards and matching them with reassurances that we really will get together in 2023!
Memories are, naturally, the stuff of autobiography. And diverging from my usual obsession with reading fiction I have read two excellent and compelling autobiographies in the past couple of weeks. And yesterday, on one of my regular visits to an old school friend, cruelly and prematurely suffering from dementia, the past and the memories engendered by school days were the pre-occupation of an hour or so.
I took along with me the photograph of our Upper Sixth class, a professional photo of 30 or so 18 year old girls smiling at the camera, on the threshold of their adult lives. And as I sat with my friend and tried to name everyone ( I managed every forename even if my recollection of surnames was less secure) in an effort to prod her very fragile memory, I realised that most of these contemporaries of mine disappeared for me that July day when we left school for the final time. Only four have stayed and grown up, as it were, with me. I know nothing of the lives of the others – they have remained forever 18 years of age in my memory, their subsequent lives, fates and fortunes entirely unknown.
And let’s face it, most people’s lives are not extraordinary. Few become famous, infamous or celebrated and would not consider their lives worthy of an account in an autobiography. Yet why not?
When we reach a certain age, the past suddenly becomes far more compelling and fascinating. The lives of our grandparents and their parents, instead of being dull stories that we choose not to hear, become the focus of interest and attention. Yet it’s too late – they are no longer around to give us their first person accounts!
We could have listened and asked questions at the time. But we didn’t.
So instead we have to turn to the internet and census records and pay money to companies that will release details that we could have acquired first hand.
Perhaps we should all provide some rudimentary form of autobiography just in case future generations decide one day that our lives really were of interest to them!
As to those recent autobiographies that I have read this dark, winter month, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own is heartfelt, informative and haunting in its honesty and poignancy. Married to the journalist Nicholas Tomalin who was killed covering the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war in 1973, her life has seen both extraordinary suffering and tragedy as well as literary success. Anyone who has read any of her biographies – about Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, Katherine Mansfield among others – will know of her skill and brilliance as a biographer, but her autobiography reveals the woman behind the words and is a superb read.
For autobiographies are social histories. The recipe of the times in which the subject has lived is revealed through personal story and recollection – the living history, as it were, of what is was like to be alive at a certain point in the spinning world.
A belated Happy New Year – and I think one of my resolutions for 2023 has to be to read more autobiographies – I commend them to you!