Memory and forgetting

Pete, who commented last time, is at Manchester doing postgrad Psychology and trying to work out what his dissertation should be. They’ve been given various options….. one of them is about mapping how memories are laid down. Well, there’s a thing, and what’s strangest is what you consciously or subconsciously choose to forget and the pin-sharp flashes of those things you would like to forget, but can’t.

Don’t you think a lot of it is about trying to forge your identity, some kind of coherent identity, out of the muddle of jigsaw pieces life has handed you? My father was a very skillful artist; he could draw or paint anything and bring it alive on paper in a few fluent strokes, but he came from a background of poverty in the East End and when he was young and trying to make a living as an artist, his girlfriend’s rich and sophisticated family refused to let her marry him because they said he would never make it as an artist. That brought him to a shuddering halt. He couldn’t get past it; that memory stood between him and any piece of canvas he tried to paint on. (The girlfriend believed her family rather than believing in him; a humiliating memory etched in acid….) He worked as a potter, throwing cups and saucers, and that was fine, because it was what a working man who would never be an artist might do. The only times he managed to paint was if someone outside himself set him an absolute deadline: he painted the scenery for the local am dram society and on the last night before the dress rehearsal, usually about 10 or 11 pm, he would suddenly throw himself at the job and dash off some beautiful scenery or sketch out vividly coloured portraits for the walls of a stately home – whatever was wanted. But his ability to construct an identity in his own mind of himself as a worthwhile artist, to be taken seriously by others, was gone for good.

Funny old world, isn’t it?

This is a poem about him, called “Stroke,” from which you can tell what happened, when he was 87. We never did get him home from hospital, back to the house where we’d been living next door and looking after him for 11 years. He died before we could move him.


He looks wrong

most essentially, he smells wrong

– But he is still my Dad.

His hands defined him.

Straight-grained as the beechwood,

broad- knuckled as the oak,

strong and supple as the subtle ash.

Now, one like a water-swollen rubber glove,

a shiny, fisted pale balloon;

the other shrunken to a claw like a pitifully small lobster’s.

He looks wrong

for the man who was many skilled, lived by the work of his hands;

most essentially, he smells wrong

but he is still my Dad.

His voice defined him.

Cockney vowelled and deep brown, speaking in rushes

as the ideas formed in him,  a rough, passionate man,

swear words salting every smoky utterance,

till his thoughts were seasoned like a ham hung from a beam;

quick, convinced of his rightness

however wrong he was, nasal and clear as Bow bells

opinionated, funny, strong of wit.

He sounds wrong

– silent, he cannot speak – cannot make the words;

most essentially, he smells wrong

but he is still my Dad.

I want to take him home.

Yes, Doctor, that’s what he wants too.

How can I tell? Many ways –

the shift of his head when I speak of it; the sigh;

the shaft of a milky eye under the creased lids.

When I was a child he knew what I wanted,

knew from a tug at his hand or a shoe sidling round the door.

And he is still my Dad.

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