Memory

Goodbye“There is such pressure to remain true to the facts, and it seems so important somehow, so vital to preserve events and people as they really were. But he knows how memory can make a shattered dream come true. Sometimes he loses the strength and vigilance to stand up to its forces, and thinks he would do just as well to let it transform the past as it wishes.” (Harvey p127)

I had the joy of reading recently Samantha Harvey’s novel ‘The Wilderness’ (Random House 2009). It is the humourously melancholic story of a man experiencing Alzheimer’s in his later years and the increasing liquidity between what is real, what is remembered and what is fantasy as the disease erodes his ability to deal with the reality of presence. It is tragic but Harvey explores so beautifully the themes of memory and what could be real or even fabricated.

I never think you can trust memory, it is fluid, it changes; things are lost or found. As the ages increase it is no longer possible to retain years of information and experiences.

Jane Boyer wrote and interesting introduction to the Core Gallery Open Exhibition Catalogue reflecting on how many artist selected are grappling with ideas around memory and the distortion of time and space. “…These works speak of fractured and fragmented experiences; the search for meaning between the two selves; private/public; a bombardment from technology and media images; place which is no longer actual but has become a representation, a symbol, an icon; a preference for constructed memory because real memory has become suspect…… Constructed memory becomes as defence against an invasive barrage of technology.” (Boyer 2011)Run

It is increasingly hard to engage with the present when we are communicating with numerous people on line, being subject to thousands of images, sounds, personal stories, expectations and demands for our time. If we cannot be aware of our present how can we possibly have a consciousness of our past? Our minds are powerful things and our ability to create, fabricate and believe is incredible. Why would we not want to create for ourselves a more romantic, interesting, intelligent, fun and care free past?

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Absence within Presence

I have just finished reading Marie Darrieussecq’s ‘My Phanton Husband’ (Faber 1999). An exceptionally rich and absorbing short novel about a woman emotional turmoil resulting from the unexplained disappearance of her husband. It brought me back to the themes that ran through my MA thesis entitled “Framing an Absence: An exploration into how artists and practices work with absence to create a presence.”

Had I come across this novel then I am sure I would have referenced Darrieussecq also. Below is an extract that reiterates the notion of how the presence of objects can illuminate an absence.

“The emptiness around me was starting to settle like a paving slab, like cement stiffening and becoming firm, with a certain quality to the air, to the shadows, to the silence, the way the walls stood still, the way the doors stood up straight and the windows. The lampshade we had chosen, a fake tortoiseshell lampshade that went with the wicker furniture and the yucca plant, hung from the ceiling like a drop about to fall, pure concentrate of catastrophe hanging over my head…… It wasn’t a question of my husbands taste or my own, but the angles of furniture, the reflection of the bulb, the hollow walls, the sheen of the television, the smoothness of the skirting boards, the tortoiseshell, the carpet: the simple presence of these things, the empty space they defined. I am not talking about shared memories, or about the connotations of certain objects; I’m talking about the solidification of empty space.” (Darrieusecq p76)

Somehow her words take me to the still life’s of Giorgio Morandi. The way she uses the description of tangible objects to create a gaping absence. With her word Darrieussecq paints the negative space that surrounds the material world and draws us in to see the void.

Silvertown – Melanie McGrath

I had the pleasure of recently reading ‘Silvertown’ by Melanie McGrath. It is a book that gets under your skin and lingers in your consciousness. It is the story of a Jenny, based on the writers grandmother, who was born in the early 20th Century and grew up and lived in the East End of London.

“Mum, where’s the End in East End?..The Docks…the Docks is the End…But Mum, where’s the Beginning then?….But it’s harder to say where the Beginning is. Aint no east Beginning s’far as I know. There’s only an East End” (McGrath, pp11-12)

jenny lived through two world wars, experienced the flourish of the docks and witnessed their decline. It opens up an personal history of East London that is fascinating, brutal, absorbing and poignant. A history of many women’s struggle to survive on so little. It is a story that reminds us to be grateful for the prosperity we live in, a Christmas dinner consisting solely of boiled cabbage is far from our doorsteps, yet was a reality for many in this country only 70 years ago. Thankfully no woman has to now face the butchering of a back street ‘dentist’ pulling all her teeth out at the age of 17 to ensure that she is less of a financial burden to her future husband – no future dental bills.

Jenny is of my grandmother’s generation, a generation that witnessed fathers and uncles disappearing in the first world war, had the threat of illnesses like TB and pleurisy knocking at the doors, had their children evacuated and saw their cities flattened in the second world war. A generation of women that had their teeth removed. They were the survivors that paved the way for our comfort. How far removed are two generations.

East London intrigues as well as frustrates me. It holds a rich and multi layered history, one that has often fascinated me and caught my imagination. I remember many years back spending many hours researching the Chinese population of Limehouse at the end of the 19th Century.

The constantly changing populations in fluxing and exiting are as frequent as the tides. Much of the history has been buried under wars and redevelopment, the 1960’s post war estates, the 1980’s Docklands development around Canary Wharf, the stylish conversion of warehouses along the river fronts of Wapping and Limehouse, the A11 & A13, and more recently the Olympic development between Stratford, Hackney and Leyton. But when you look there are traces of earlier times in the remaining old buildings, pub and street names echoing the memories from previous inhabitants.

I read ‘Silvertown’ soon after reading ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd. Another book I loved every page of. A history of a man born at the beginning of the 20th Century into very different circumstances to Jenny. Logan Mountstuart has the privilege of education and travel behind his story. He, like Jenny, lived through the two world wars and the excruciating heartache of experiencing a home and city demolished. Something I hope I will never experience. This book is one that I know I will re-read many times, it is so rich that I am unable to know where to start to write about it. What has captured my attention and imagination is how both these novels have opened up a century rich of history on a deeply personal level. It is a history that was experienced by people and the contrasts of these experiences is widely different; one is a history of a woman with limited choices and opportunities and another is of a man with substantially more freedoms; and yet the echos of their stories are eerily similar in the way they witness the unfolding of the twentieth Century.