Monday, December 17, 2012

Petra's leap

It’s holiday time. The family are bundled into the Humber Hawk – ‘Snodge’. My dad always named his cars, and this big old grey car, with its huge leather seats (no seatbelts), its spacious boot and improvised roof-rack, was the perfect vehicle for transporting the family down the long and winding roads from North London to Devon. Petrol was 73p a gallon – an outrage! One day, my father mused, it would probably be more than a pound a gallon.

There was no M4 in those days, so the A4 was our favoured (and only major) route. The journey was punctuated by visits to different hostelries along the way and I am fairly sure that at the age of about six I could reasonably navigate myself across half of England via the names of different pubs along the way.

Petra, following me up a cliff on the beach

I looked out of the window watching fields spin past, sheep dotting the hillsides like fallen clouds, whilst pigs and cows added extra punctuation to the brown and green countryside. My brother, ignoring the world outside the window and whiling away the journey through immersion in comics (Superman, Batman, The Flash), would stop reading just long enough to argue with me over food, or to steal my comic (Sparky), or to look out the window cursorily at my mother’s insistence that we ‘enjoy the view’. Our dog, Petra, would alternately sit in the front with mother, or in the back with us. If we argued too much, Petra sat in the front and we were deprived of her warm, affectionate companionship.  She was, as my father described her, a ‘black and tan-ex’. A cute mongrel with a lovely temperament and an obliging nature.
One of our favourite stops along the way was the Pig & Whistle. Now for the life of me I can’t remember where this pub is, but I do know that it was by a bridge over a river – and from the road bridge there was a 20 foot drop down to the riverbank below. It was the scene, on one of our travels, for Petra’s spectacular leap. Petra was on the bridge with my brother, and I was below in the field by the river. The field sloped down from the pub to the river and was part of its garden. Though deep rivers and huge drops may be considered dangerous environments for kids today – for us it was nothing to play in such places without adult supervision.

I called to Petra – it was my ‘turn’ for the dog. Assuming that she would trot round the lane route and down into the field, I was aghast to see our lovely pet flying through the air as she took the quick way down – leaping from the bridge to join me below. The strange thing is, I remember this from a third party perspective, as if I am standing by the pub watching both the road and the field below, with me standing there as Petra sailed – perhaps gracefully – down to the ground. Amazingly she was unhurt; perhaps it wasn’t really a huge 20 feet drop – but it did seem incredibly high to a small girl, and probably higher to an even smaller dog.

Writing your childhood

I'm reading a book about going camping in the 70s (The tent, the bucket, and me). The writing is witty, bright and detailed. I'm sure that the author doesn't actually remember the details herself of events from when she was just four years old; there'll be a good dose of imagination as well, I'm sure, as familial interrogation.

So how do you write your childhood? Yes, you were there, but your perspective would be totally different at the time compared to how you may remember things in later life. I know, for example, that a lot of my stories from childhood are based around constructed memories: things that I know happened and have been recounted as stories. So are my memories from the events, or the retelling?

I'm not sure how it works, but I do know that it takes a good writer to make it feel genuine.

I thought, then, about how I might write something from my own childhood. For example, a family holiday, or a particular event. How would I collect the information that goes with the memory? Most of the people of my childhood are no longer around, apart from my mother.  I do need to talk to her more about her life - she has some amazing stories to tell. But I doubt if any of them relating to my childhood are particularly entertaining.

It's taken me a couple of hours, and I've written about 1500 words about my childhood, and I discover that my style is very wordy and not particularly amusing. I am caught up in detail, and one though leads to another so that the narrative is long and not very structured. But it's been an interesting adventure, writing with the thought of being read, rather than just writing for my own pleasure.

As a writer, I still have so much to learn, but I do understand that your own life isn't really interesting to anyone else, and to make it entertaining you have to be creative (not necessarily fictional) and apply your imagination so that whatever you are saying, there is a reason, pace and outcome to the piece. I don't think I've succeeded yet, but at least I understand what is needed. I'll post an excerpt, and then I'll revise it in future.