In January I began a memoir writing course, it has dwarfed my expectations. Each of my talented, compassionate classmates is gestating a towering story, in some cases stories, and we lucked out with our tutor, the inspirational Gillian Slovo.
It’s been the best of learning experiences, and has yoga-flexed my mind. The toughest posture to bend my head round has involved Truth. The naïve literalist in me was inflexibly rigid with a preconception, that memoir is the truth, and nothing but the nitty-gritty truth, accurate down to the minutest pinhead detail. After all, memoirs sit on non-fiction shelves, right?
It freaked me out that it’s legitimate to manipulate Truth with Photoshop alacrity, that you can fictionalize Truth to texturize its impact: If the light and sky was dull when a life-changing meeting occurred, it can be brightened, or if you know a conversation took place but cannot remember the wording, make it up.
After resuscitation, I was blue-lighted to another hospital. “I feel a blast of chilly air, and a window of cloudless blue sky passes overhead as I’m wheeled from the ambulance …” It irks me that someone might think I painted in that sky.
Perhaps this aversion to Truth tweaking is linked to my photographic habits, that I tend not to open Photoshop or make invasive changes to a picture. This is partly because if I photograph something, I like to show how it is, not how it isn’t, and partly because I am Photoshop inept, the digital darkroom is a different art medium for which I have zero ability.
But the course has revealed my assumption to be riddled with holes. Embarrassingly so. It’s been demonstrated for example, that places seen through childhood eyes have often shrunk when revisited with our adult lenses, but it does not alter the bigger Truth of that childhood recollection. And I’ve been thinking about painting, of Hockney’s purple roads winding through East Yorkshire, and of The Impressionists. Emotional truth is ripe with the implications of colour, subjectivity and perspective; it’s a chameleon.
And what about train journeys or queues when I Snapseed away the time, arting up images on my phone?
Gillian gave us an exercise, to find a landscape and write notes, en plein air. Hockney would’ve approved. Fortuitously, I was able to do my homework on a recent trip to France. Along with a notebook, I had my camera:
When I wrote up the notes, I decided to apply my newly flexible Truth muscles. You can play Spot The Differences:
I stop mid-way down the hill to take off my jumper. Sunscreen hadn’t occurred to me; my forehead’s ablaze. It’s only the first week of March yet the sky is a deep summer blue; forget-me-nots look watery in comparison.
There’s a solitary cloud, a perfect comma, its tail tickles a tree on the horizon. Designer-stubble cornfields merge into fields combed through with budding crops, they’re not hemmed in by English hedges, the landscape just rolls on and on. Stereo birdsong in every direction, kyow kyow, each tree a sound system, playing New Life up high.
A breeze stokes green flames, flickering grass rustles and crackles.
This landscape is oxygen; my mind a lung, it inflates with wellbeing.
At the bottom of the hill I branch right, a stream chatters alongside the lane.
A Buzzard hovers overhead in the big blue, like a circling Great White.
Low persistent hum, louder and louder, a drone. Bees. Where? I stop.
Above, I see inky vascularity of leafless Poplars, arachnid branched and silhouetted against the sky.
There’s a veil of Pussy Willow, flowers have burst through silky catkin cocoons into a red and yellow gauze. Now I see them: crowds of stamen, nobbled with grains of pollen, proffering themselves to a frenzied mob. Their fix has sent the bees crazy, like shoppers on the first day of the Sales; no carrier bags, but their legs are laden, coated with layers and layers of the precious yellow dust.
A narrow, slab-ugly bridge rips into this Chinese ink wash.
“Hey! Heavy-handed construction for a gentle brook, donchya think?” I say accusingly to the absent culprit, trainers scuffing the concrete.
I cross over into a field occupied by a regiment of Poplars. They’re youthful and lanky, smartly planted, uniformly distanced from one another, bar four trees that have accommodated a cabane, clearly built before this plantation. Looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine it had ever been a shelter of any kind, or even built, perhaps assembled would be more accurate. From the lane it was obvious that the facing wall was missing; my imagination had soared down and devoured this tasty morsel – like the still circling buzzard might have done- it was definitely a prime location for The Killing, perhaps harbouring a grizzled corpse. So, it isn’t just the nettles that have rendered my stride tentative.
The corrugated iron roof is shades of brown and orange, thinned and mottled by rust, its ridges highlighted with gold-leaf lichen. Tendrils of ivy have snuck under the roof and cling to the plank walls in draped garlands. I get the feeling that if a passing giant poked a curious finger at one of the surviving walls, the cabane would collapse as easily as if it had been built with playing cards.
Inside, it’s dark; broken planks, their tips dipped in moss, are propped together, trussed and strangled by resident ivy. I wade into the sea of nettles and weeds. Diamonds of blue sky glint in the roof from where elaborate spider webs hang, like chandeliers. Cracks in the slatted walls let in shards of light like the cutout slits of paper lanterns I made as a child. One such shard seeps brighter and longer than the rest. My eyes follow its beam to the darkest recess of the hideout. No dismembered victim, but there, resting on the rung of a ladder is the fugitive: the spotlight shines on peacock-eyes, swirls of blue purple bleeding into mauve, skull outlined in black, on the canvas of rusty red flickering wings, a butterfly. One of its hind wings has been torn off mid-swirl as if someone has caught it between their thumb and forefinger and pulled. Its antennae twitch.