The Responsibility of Memoir

Last week, my cousin brought a photograph to my attention. A friend from Gowriehill Primary School had posted online our year 5 class picture, dating from the early 1990s.

Although I hadn’t seen it in years, I remembered most of my classmates’ names, not to mention a number of memories that came flooding back. I recall how the older pupils would act as servers for the younger ones in the lunch hall, or how we would be allowed on the football pitch only on non-rainy days, or the poster telling us not to tip skipfuls of rubbish in public places – as if a ten-year-old could do that.

But when writing about people who are still alive, where does an an anecdote become an invasion of privacy?

It’s probably safe to tell you that Steven Narey was considered the fastest runner in our year, or that at one point we had two Kenneth Sampsons in the same class. By contrast, Mrs Towell probably wouldn’t be happy with my personal view that she looked and acted like Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby from Bad Girls.

In some types of memoir, such as those by TV personalities, it’s almost expected that the writer will drop in some juicy gossip about their contemporaries. But there is always the risk of legal action if they go too far.

Last month, Edward Snowdon and his publisher were sued by the US Department of Justice because they didn’t submit the text for approval. However, a comparable British case in 1988 was rejected by senior judges, so the spy Peter Wright could safely publish his memoir Spycatcher.

In 2016, The Huffington Post published a useful guide to avoiding a lawsuit, with five pointers to avoid or stave off trouble at the earliest opportunity. So if I ever want to write a candid account of life at Gowriehill, I’ll do my best to avoid seeing Mrs Towell in court.

I’m With You In Rockland.

WordPress informs me that I’ve been writing on this site for exactly a year now. Thank you very much for joining me over the last twelve months. I’d like to start today with a little more recent history.

Two weeks ago, I watched a TED lecture about the techniques anyone can use to improve their powers of recall. It seems that humans are kitted out with excellent spacial and visual memory, and it’s much easier to remember something when it’s associated with a journey or the layout of a building. TED lectures themselves are traditionally delivered without notes.

You might remember that I discussed plausible and implausible coincidences, but it so happens that I was walking home that evening when I decided to listen to Allen Ginsberg‘s iconic poem Howl for the first time. His recordings are available on Spotify.

I’ve read it several times but that is the first and only occasion I’ve heard the recording so far. Yet a fortnight on, I can recall the journey.

Allen Ginsberg cropped
Allen Ginsberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember where I was when
I heard the best minds of his
generation destroyed by madness.
I remember where I was when
the saintly motorcyclists appeared.
I remember where I was when
Moloch! appeared over and over.
I remember where I was when
I was with him in Rockland.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad by the bed for good ideas. I’ve done this for years and I can still count on one hand how many flashes of inspiration I’ve had at 2am. What works for me is being active, particularly going for a walk.

I think the spatial memory concept is part of the reason why walking works wonders for ideas. As you amble, the brain is observing everything around you, which makes associations and triggers off memories. Please do ask for a second opinion about that theory from someone who’s qualified in these matters.

One of the great elements of being a poet – or indeed a prose writer – is that you aren’t normally expected to memorise your work. A rock musician doesn’t look at the chords as he’s performing to Wembley Stadium, a dancer on the West End stage doesn’t refer to the steps in her hand, but a poet is permitted to read from the page.

I have seen poetry recalled successfully from memory many times, but the occasion that stands out most was Alan Bissett. He not only performed two or three pages of a play without prompting, but acted out both parts by just the tone of his voice. Last place goes to Labour Party leader Ed Milliband MP, who forgot to mention immigration or the deficit in a recent speech.

I know only one of my poems by heart, but it’s the manageable length of eight lines with eight syllables each. My longest poem is a 120-line free verse piece called Anatomy of a Party.

In the first draft of this post, the last sentence of that last paragraph was, I could, and probably should, learn it using the Memory Palace technique as described in the TED talk, but there seems little point as I’d usually have it in front of me. But then I took a second thought. There’s an event on Friday where I plan to read Anatomy of a Party and two much shorter pieces, time permitting. I wonder whether I could memorise one of the shorter pieces for that day.

I offer no guarantees, but I think I’ll make an attempt. I’ll report back next Monday.