Thursday 10 March 2016

Last memories

March 7th (last Monday) would have been the 80th birthday of Georges Perec, who was born in 1936 but left the party early in 1982, aged 45.

If my modest blog has two godfathers they would be Perec and the late Gilbert Adair (who as it happens translated Perec's novel la Disparition, in which vowel 'e' is never used and which Adair quite brilliantly - and with a hint of exasperation - re-titled A Void). They are both great losses.

Perec as a novelist an Oulipian theorist has been an inspiration for years, and when recording my own trivial memories I've shamelessly adopted his approach in Je me souviens (1978). Perec had in turn shamelessly adopted the method of the American writer Joe Brainard.

I've published two clutches of Perecian memories here and here, and what follows, by way of tribute to GP, is a third and final collection:

I remember the jaunty playground song from a television advertisement promoting Cadbury’s Finger of Fudge: "A Finger of Fudge is just enough / To give your kids a treat . . .'

I remember 'Put A Tiger in your Tank'.

I remember Uri Geller on the telly bending spoons and not believing for a moment that it was anything more than a party trick given a sort of spurious weight by his earnest description of what was happening. Jis performance (not without a certain gauche charm) was deemed newsworthy , the nation held in thrall.

I recall being completely speechless with wonder and surprise at a  magic trick performed by a casually elegant professional magician at a friend’s house one summer evening which involved a banknote, an egg and an orange. The banknote was mine, and signed by me, and at the end of the trick I peeled the orange to reveal an unbroken egg. I cracked open the egg and there, inside….

I remember “Knock Knock” jokes in general, but none in particular.

I remember Chinese burns and dead legs.

I remember dire predictions that British motorists crossing the Channel via the (then) soon-to-be-opened Channel Tunnel (or 'Chunnel' would be involved in endless crashes as they tried to adapt to driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

I remember growing pains.

I remember back in the 1990s marvelling at the way digital clocks would, just before eight o’clock, show the year of my birth (i.e. 19:59) and the frisson I’d get of watching this click over to the millennium year (20:00). I also wondered whether (say) German commuters felt downcast when their station clocks said 19:45.

I remember wondering why, outside the main entrance to the British Museum, there always is (or used to be) a vendor of greasy hot dogs who appears to be unlicensed and wholly unofficial and who must  make a substantial income from sales. I like to think that the site was awarded to the vendor’s forebears in perpeturiyu for conspicuous gallantry in some long-forgotten Imperial war.

I remember the very attractive 1950s “Neo Elizabethan” tourist information centre adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral which was demolished and quickly replaced by a strikingly ugly razor-edged construction in 2007.

I remember my son inventing a joke: “Why is an artichoke called an artichoke when it isn’t art and doesn’t make you choke”.

I remember my son Edwin laughing almost continuously at Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert and repeating, after a second viewing, substantial chunks of the dialogue and in particular Oliver Hardy’s pompous and ponderous statement that “Ev-ery man should be the KING in his oooown (pause) CASTLE!”.

I remember first hearing that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a traffic accident and recall my combined surprise, sadness and (as the days subsequently passed) indifference to the unfolding and ostentatious public grief..

I recall my intense (and well-founded) dislike for a person I worked with and subsequent shameful relief when he was killed in a car crash.

I remember buying some amber necklaces in a bitterly cold Russian street market and bearing them away wrapped in crumpled brown paper.

I remember my pleasure at reading Ford Madox Ford’s account of how, when editor of The Transatlantic Review, he “discovered” D H Lawrence and declared him a genius after reading in manuscript just the first paragraph of The Odour of Chrysanthemums.

I remember borrowing a bicycle very early one morning near Fleet Street and cycling back to my home in Fulham. I recall guiltily cycling back the following day, with a crippling hangover, to return the damn thing.

I remember my irritation at the mispronunciation of the word “research” (i.e. wrongly accented on the first syllable, a useage which became almost universal in the 1980s, a golden age for management consultants and their ilk) and my relief at the realisation that it was actually a useful and almost invariably accurate way of predicting foolishness in a speaker’s subsequent remarks.

I remember my first and only visit to Swaziland, and a terrific storm there which blew the beautiful and delicate weaver bird nests from the tall palms.

I remember Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains, an enjoyable low-budget comedy film directed by Rob Reiner, the son of Carl, who was for many years a foil to Mel Brooks.

I remember my interest in the so-called Borscht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman (“Take my wife… please”) and the crisp “brrdmmm…tschhhh” of an onstage drummer which punctuated every snappy one-liner.

I remember Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, Anthony Julius, who wrote a book about T S Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which met with mixed reviews. Julius seemed to suggest that Eliot’s anti-Semitism, however ghastly, was a quality and not a flaw, which of course is a view derived from Henry James’s note about favourite writers. I remember wondering whether 'antisemitism', 'anti-Semitism' or 'anti-semitism' would be the best way to express a hatred or intolerance of Jews. The idea that there is a 'semitism' (or 'Semitism') that can be opposed is itself troubling and contentious.

I remember reading that Stalin was born with webbed feet (or webbed toes, rather) and wondering how much or how little influence this had on his what I suppose we have to call his 'personality'.

I remember being tongue-tied in the presence of the radio presenter Robert Robinson and subsequently amusing friends with my description of our one-sided encounter.

I remember marbles, conkers, pick-up-sticks and blackjacks

I remember Chipmunk crisps

I remember my first watch – a Timex.

I remember electric blankets

I remember Jane Russell’s fabulously sexyburleaque dance routine in The French Line.

I remember a long and convivial lunch in the Whitstable Oyster Fisheries on a cold sunny March afternoon.

I remember my pleasure at first hearing the word “clusterfuck”.

I remember the only time I ever slept, having no alternative. on a park bench.

I remember watching Murnau’s Ordet for the first time at the cinema in the National Gallery and sobbing helplessly during the final scenes (along with the other dozen or so members of the audience).

I remember Barmouth biscuits.

I remember watching my son through binoculars pony-trekking across the sands of a remote estuary in West Wales.

I remember Whitbread Trophy Bitter, “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”.

I remember self-consciously developing a taste for Worthington White Shield bottled ale, a vile and powerful brew recommended by a CAMRA writer of my acquaintance.

I remember Charters and Caldicott.

I remember dominoes, skittles, shove ha’penny, cribbage and other pub games.

I remember first seeing the disused airship hangars at Cardington.

I remember Bootsy and Snudge.

I remember “Wayfinders” shoes for boys, which had a compass concealed in a secret compartment in the heel, and the rubber soles of which were embossed with animal paw prints.

I remember “Penny for the Guy”.

I remember All Gas and Gaiters.

I remember my bilingual son asking me :”What is a jew?” and mentally  mustering a careful reply when I suddenly realised he was asking, theologically, “What is a dieu?”

I remember Monty Modlyn.

I remember the Aberfan disaster, and the regular anniversaries of this haunting event which seemed to punctuate my childhood.

I remember visiting a coal mine in Yorkshire and being impressed by the Morphine Safe set into the wall by the winding shaft deep underground.

I remember whistling.

I remember Dennis Price seducing Joan Greenwood (Sibella) in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and also that this matchless British comedy was based on a novel by Roy Horniman entitled Israel Rank. This title was allegedly deleted from the film’s credits as it was thought likely that Rank Studios would object.

I remember toffee apples, and their square sticks.

I remember, from summers in childhood, pyramidal chunks of ice infused with fruit juice and called (I think) Jubblies.

I remember Tennessee Pancake Houses and The Golden Egg.

I remember the joke “I drink as I dress – Chablis”.

I remember seeing a photograph of a huge and mysterious mass of decomposing blubbery organic matter which had been washed up on a South American beach and which didn’t correspond to any known living creature.

I remember Auden describing his face as “a wedding cake left out in the rain”.

I remember Guerlain’s Vol de nuit.

I remember reading, admiring and subsequently re-reading Cyril Connolly’s only novel The Rock Pool. “Naylor was deaf again”.

I remember being close to a car bomb which exploded in New Oxford Street during an IRA campaign, and how the muffled blast set off alarms in nearby vehicles and buildings.

I remember the old Scala cinema in King’s Cross, and their wonderful folded A3 programmes.

I remember first reading that the act of remembering is subject to a continuing degradation as what we remember when we remember something is not the thing itself but the last time we remembered it.

I remember my son repeating, word-perfectly, a complete poem for the first time. But I can no longer remember what it was.

I remember first mixing a gimlet.

I remember visiting my friend Paul Neal in Bart’s Hospital when he was dying from throat cancer. Following an emergency tracheotomy he communicated for the most part by writing on slips of paper, (as did Franz Kafka in his last days). I asked him once if his condition was the result of smoking and he wrote: “Yes. And booze too. Just to be sure”.

I think I can remember the funeral of Winston Churchill, or at least a later television transmission which featured this event, and in particular how the cranes in the Pool of London lowered their jibs as a mark of respect when the lighter bearing his coffin from Westminster to Waterloo Pier sailed by.

I remember, with other children, making slides in icy weather.

I remember the joke about a certain Tory cabinet minister, popularly regarded as a lady-killer – “He’s not gay of course (pause) but his boyfriends are”.

I remember enjoying the sight of my son feeding swans on the Round Pond in Kensington Palace Gardens and how charmed I was when he gave some of his supply of bread to a much smaller and breadless boy who was watching him.

I remember laughing at the crumple-faced Northern comic Les Dawson – his oddly lyrical monologues and tuneless piano playing, and his version of Norman Evans’s “Over the Garden Wall” sketches.

I remember being angered by a noisy, crass and vulgar National Theatre production of the great Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death, and composing a very long and nasty letter to the director which I would never send.

I remember meeting Jack Cardiff, the great cinematographer who had worked on several Powell & Pressburger films.

I remember rather pretentiously thinking it would be amusing to write a poem entitled On First Reading On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. Also wondering whether any author has considered writing a serious literary sequel to Ulysses, perhaps set on 17th June 1906, and picking up where Joyce left off.

I remember reading a promotional brochure for Belfast’s refurbished and gentrified old docks, to be branded the “Titanic Quarter”, and that it would become “a spot where pleasure, profit and memorialisation meet”

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