Tuesday, July 19, 2011

IMPERFECT RECOLLECTIONS


As no one else is likely to write my biography, I have done it myself. It’s there in black, white and even colour, all 200-plus pages of it. Hardly anyone except perhaps the family (who may come across it one rainy day when they are trawling through the Collected Works) will read it. However, writing it has been an absorbing, self-indulgent occupation that has taken, on and off, years to complete. And I keep adding to it, expanding it and tidying it up.

Biographies are usually about the great and/or famous. They give us access to vistas of experience, a world of ideas, all the knowledge there has ever been. An old friend, keen to make up for an indifferent education, agreed. He refused to read fiction because education, he said, could only be based on facts and real events, not the fairy tales and imaginations of fiction writers. He didn’t accept that novelists could describe truths about people and the human condition as well as, and often better than, historians. Once, over some very good merlot, we discussed this. Unwisely, we suggested that biographies and histories were full of inventions, false memories, political spin or downright lies. He got quite huffy.

Biographies of ordinary people have some value as historical documents. At the basic level – family readership for example – they tell us how people worked and played, how they managed their lives, how they coped with everyday dramas, how they saw the world they inhabited. That world would look very different to those reading about it two or three generations down the line. I wish that my forebears had written their stories and saved me having to scratch them out from the meagre resources of the past – although that’s an addictive, tantalising occupation in itself.

Having just handed over my autobiography to a friend who expressed an interest in reading it, I am nervously aware that whoever said that he preferred “the autobiography and the memoir, prone as they are to exaggeration, imperfect recollection, blatant prejudice and unashamed untruths” knew what he was talking about.

Alright, I might have exaggerated a bit, here and there. As my mother declared, you have to tweak things to make them more interesting. She was a firm believer in narrative embroidery, and every time she told a story, the details became more fanciful and improbable.

Imperfect recollection? Very likely. It is never safe to assume, in books purporting to be about facts, that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has been told because the chances are they haven’t. Not because the writers mean to lie but because memories are fickle.

Blatant prejudice: almost no one will admit to being prejudiced about anything. Opinionated maybe, but prejudiced - never. Unashamed untruths? I haven’t knowingly told lies, ashamed or otherwise, but sometimes I have slithered around the facts, skated over the details, drawn a veil over a secret or two.

But it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Errors and omissions excepted. At least my grandchildren won’t have to listen to me in my dotage babbling on – they can read it for themselves if they want to.

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