Collecting Memories

Collecting memories. Something I have been doing for a few years now. I think my whole body of work is about memory. Family Album my first full collection of poetry was all about my family’s history; the stories that I had retained in memory, the narratives I had been told and the ones I choose to pass on to the next generation. There have been times in the past that I have felt as if I’ve been using or exploiting my family histories to produce writing. There have been times that I have been ashamed about it as if that was all I could write about. But I’ve gotten over these feelings now as I give myself permission to explore this subject area further.  I have unfinished business with my memories. There are areas that I have not even touched upon, areas that I have neglected.

For example I have a Great Nana Rosa who grew up in the West side of Newcastle in the small villages of Throckley and Newburn. She was born in 1894 and became a dancer. I’m not sure how they met but she married a Ghanaian stoker in June 1914. Their first child, Amber came in 1916 then followed Quessy in 1920. I’m interested in the years 1914-1920 and what life was like for this little ginger-haired white woman bringing up two mixed-race babies on the outskirts of Newcastle upon-Tyne.

She has only featured briefly in my writing so a far under the heading of ‘White Women’. I think I am now ready to explore this part of my heritage, my memories to create maybe a fuller picture. I know I cannot create the whole picture. This in a sense mirrors how memories are shaped, as memories are not filed away neatly in a filing cabinet and can be accessed through an alphabetical system. Memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person’s head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else’s viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like. Charles Fernyhough.

I see memories like butterflies. Many butterflies are amongst the most beautiful, gorgeous creatures on earth. They enjoy such glorious colours and a kaleidoscopic assortment of patterns. Just like memories can be. And just as butterflies can adapt their appearances, their colouration for camouflage, defense and protection so can memories depending on who’s doing the remembering; when , where and with who else. But where the characteristics of butterflies and memories merge is in their flight. The mere movement of a butterfly, the fluttering motion here and there emulates the reconstruction of memories; their elusiveness, their movements and their attraction. Both butterflies and memories are popular among collectors. In my opinion a collection of memories like a collection of butterflies is more than just a selection of examples or creatures for scientific study; they are a thing of beauty in themselves. Pinned out butterflies in drawers and cabinets, provide a scene of regimented symmetry, which satisfies some inner demand for orderliness. Yet these constructions by their very nature are artificial and only half the story. Memories are not and should not be pinned out in a row as then they lose their elusiveness and vitality, just like dead butterflies.

Last week I was lucky enough to meet  a few women of Dunbar and to listen to their memories. It was fascinating to learn about how they worked hard in bringing up the children, keeping house but also having to go out and work on the land in times of harvest. Potato picking was a fond experience that they relived in the telling. They didn’t so much enjoy the work, more so the part of being a community, the social aspect of working together and working close to the land.

One lady, who had 9 brothers and sisters, took great joy in talking about working in the cafe of Dunbar. It would come alive during the summer months, when all the best looking lads would come in and she was at the centre of it all. Always worked since leaving school at 14. Never had an interview for a job until she was 50  because in those days you got a job through your mother, or father vouching for you, setting a job up for you and you just went along and worked. All her wages ( along with every body else’s wages in the family) were handed over to her mother, who looked after the house.

It was such a honour and a privilege to talk to these women and I look forward to meeting up with them again and finding out why they love living in Dunbar so much.