I’ve had rather a heavenly couple of weeks in the company of two elegant, elderly women of letters.
I wrote about Emma Smith last week – a glut of reading her brilliant memoirs, followed by a delightful tea in her Putney cottage. Michaelmas daisies bloom in the front garden and, inside, the walls are covered with photographs of loved ones, shelves lined with interesting paperbacks. I drank hot tea, ate orange and almond cake while really feasting on our conversation – Emma Smith has a wonderful ability to turn life into a compelling story.
Emma Smith is ninety, astonishingly. Penelope Lively is eighty – I suppose a spring chicken by comparison. She launched and talked about her new book Ammonites and Leaping Fish last week, which I’ve been reading ever since.
You may have gathered how much I loved Moon Tiger from my post here a few weeks ago… you can perhaps imagine my excitement about meeting its author. She was every bit as inspiring and impressive as I’d hoped; what I wasn’t prepared for was how very funny she was! She regaled us with this episode from her book:
A couple of years ago, Izzy yearned for an old-fashioned manual typewriter: ‘Vintage!’ A Smith Corona was found off eBay, and she rejoiced in it until a new ribbon became necessary, and then no one could work out how to change the ribbon. I was summoned: ‘I can’t believe we’re going to Granny for technical support.’
She delivered this anecdote with perfect comic timing. We were all chortling over ‘Vintage’, and then falling about at the thought of her being the source of technical support. Behind this sharp wit, which glistens throughout the book, lie thoughtful forays into time, memory, life, books, things and more. Penelope Lively found, to her surprise, that although her mind didn’t remember how to change the ribbon, her fingers did. It inspires a reflection on:
procedural memory, that aspect of memory whereby we remember how to do something. How to ride a bicycle is the example frequently cited, but I prefer my typewriter experience…
And then we are off with Nabokov’s thoughts about his wrists containing ‘echoes of the pram-pusher’s knack’, before moving on to ‘semantic memory’. Complex ideas, but explained in a lively (ha ha) and anecdotal manner that makes them engaging, understandable, and of course has you rifling through your own memory for your experiences.
My favourite instance of procedural memory was its utter failure when I was twelve years old. My father and I were staying with some friends of his in America. We were supposed to be going on some kind of bike marathon, which involved wearing a special t-shirt and cycling in the heat all day. As a lazy, sulky and fashion-conscious pre-teenager, I thought it was the worst thing in the world and complained bitterly, but to no avail. The fateful morning arrived and we gathered in our ghastly t-shirts and prepared to cycle off. My father – who has always said he cycled all round Oxford as an undergrad and religiously uses his (stationary) exercise bike – got on his bike … and went nowhere. He had completely lost the knack of it, and after a good half hour’s perseverance was forced to admit defeat. Of course if he didn’t have to go, there was no way I was going to be made to do it. Procedural memory, or lack thereof, had saved me!
I digress. Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a string of pearls. Every few pages there’s one that strikes you as particularly thought-provoking, just right, gleaming and special, making you want to remember it, jot it down, or fold the page. Here are a few of my favourites:
On the joy of old age:
Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold … The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.
On the randomness of memory:
None of this is sought, hunted down – it just pops up, arbitrary, part of the stockpile. And each memory brings some tangential thought, or at least until that is clipped short by the ongoing morning and its demands. The whole network lurks, all the tirme, waiting for a thread to be picked up, followed, allowed to vibrate. My story; your story.
Except that it is an entirely unsatisfactory story. The novelist in me – the reader, too – wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights. Instead of which there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.
On the wonderful commonality of books:
Cultural community is shared reading, the references and images that you and I both know. Books are the mind’s ballast, for so many of us – the cargo that makes us what we are, a freight that is ephemeral and indelible, half-forgotten but leaving an imprint.
I could go on and on. There are such gems, and yet they are wonderfully scattered behind the everyday. Reading it feels rather like a conversation. It’s not off-puttingly difficult or dense, but easy peasy, a breeze to turn the pages, and then you’re caught off guard by the brilliance of a piercing observation.
There are also some very lucid accounts of history. The Suez Crisis is one of those things that’s so often referenced and of which I feel I vaguely know (big argument about controlling the canal in Egypt), but here Lively explains it all so clearly. I have always struggled with reading history. I find it is too often very like reading synopses – all these facts and things happening and crammed together so that the story feels fit to burst. Penelope Lively does it perfectly. The facts are there, but so are the interesting asides, like this:
Eden resigned in January 1957 (though he lived for another twenty years). The truth was that he had been ill throughout the crisis, following a gall-bladder operation some while earlier, and was heavily dependent on medication. It does seem that his condition may have had some effect on his state of mind, and his actions, during the crucial months of 1956. Certainly a number of associates were surprised by his responses, their bewilderment expressed in their language at the time: ‘gone bananas’, ‘bonkers’. His reputation never recovered – a tragedy for a man who had been a politician of integrity and a distinguished Foreign Secretary.
I’d never have known that so much of it boiled down to Eden’s gall bladder! And she tells us this with a novelist’s eye for character – and language. Please Penelope Lively, write us a whole history book!
Best of all – and the reason why Daphne is so fond of this book – is that Penelope Lively evidently loves tortoises. They come up in passing again and again:
When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hillside, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).
Oh tell us that story, please!
My mother had not been invited to Government House, and was staying more modestly at the American Colony Hotel, which I remember as having a lovely courtyard with orange trees, resident tortoises and amazing ice cream … The American Colony Hotel is five star now … I can have a standard double room tomorrow night for £175, or – if I want to push out the boat – the Deluxe Pasha King Room for £345. Are there still tortoises, I wonder?
Well there is still a tortoise at EmilyBooks, and Daphne’s library is all the richer for this rather idiosyncratic, intelligent collection of musings.