In the past ten years or so, I’ve moved house five times and now it won’t be long until I move again. Several of those moves have involved significant downsizing and each time I’ve pruned my worldly goods a bit harder. But now as I edge into a new phase I’ve become even more ruthless. Unless an object is useful, beautiful or of genuine sentimental value, it goes. I’m trying to rid myself of delusions about what I will use, wear, read, watch or listen to in the future.
Fantasies about what we might be or do are a justification for holding onto things but so is the need to leave a trace. Without tangible reminders then there’s no proof that we ever existed. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since my friend, Helen, told me a story. She was helping one of her friends to clear some space and found a whole room full of memory boxes, each labelled with a different year. “Let’s look at this,” said Helen, lifting the lid on the one marked ‘2002’. At the top was a Motorola manual. “Have you still got the phone?” asked Helen. “No,” was the answer “but it might come in handy. I’ll keep that”. Then came several dental appointment cards. There were cinema tickets, too. The name of the film had faded past recognition but the fact that they’d been part of an Orange 2-for-1 deal was still legible. “I’ll hang onto those,” said the friend grabbing them, protectively. Next out of the box was a leaflet for the sexual health clinic. “You surely don’t want that, do you?” enquired Helen. The answer was inevitable.
I’ve found a different way to prove my existence to myself; I’ve written a book. Four and a half years ago I set out to have sixty treats before I was sixty. At that stage it was just a way of reconnecting with life. Many things had been on hold while I’d raised children and dealt with a few tricky blips. Each treat sat in the wings of my list like characters in a play and I didn’t know when they would step on-stage. But very soon after the first character, ‘Tate Liverpool’, spoke up, I realised that these were going to be rich experiences. Each was valuable because they were all things I’d longed to do, and I wanted to find a way to pin them down before they slipped back into the dark corners of the wings from which they’d come.
Three hundred years ago, young aristocrats on their Grand Tours of Europe would commission artists to record what they saw. Today we rely on photos. But that was never going to work for me as I’m a haphazard photographer. And even when I remember to point my camera in the right direction, they’re only a partial record. Photos can’t recount stories of the people I met, the information I discovered, the smells and tastes I experienced, and the unscheduled branch lines I darted down. Only words can do that. I mostly eschewed souvenirs too. That’s just a further route to ‘stuffocation’. So, what I did was to make some notes.
Then after six months something unexpected and devastating affected my world and I was thrown off balance. It was a great support to have family and friends but I knew that ultimately I had to create my own path through the chaos. So I turned to the characters who were waiting in the wings and like the best of friends, they revealed hidden depths in a crisis. ‘New York’ was a sassy friend who took me out and provided stimulating distraction. ‘Italian cookery’ cajoled me to eat when everything tasted like cardboard and ‘Riding’ provided a moment when the sheer physicality of being on a horse counterbalanced the unhappiness and I tipped into joy.
Throughout all of this I kept jotting down notes and gradually those notes became a few chapters. And somehow by a miraculous process, those chapters grew into a book. We all have certain things that grate on us and mine are the words ‘feisty’ and ‘suited and booted’. I’ve avoided those. Nor have I said anywhere that I’ve ‘been on a journey’ unless I have physically moved from one place to another. And I’ve been authentic to the best of my ability. Blagging only gets you into trouble as the novelist Ruth Rendell discovered. When she was a young journalist she filed a story about a local tennis club dinner and said that everyone there had thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem was that she’d failed to attend and therefore also failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had collapsed and died half-way through the speech.
Now, at last after many stages the book is finished and next week I’ll receive the first printed copy complete with illustrations by the talented artist, Jo Dalton. I’d be delighted if some of you would read it when it’s published in May. And if you do then I hope that you’ll find something you can relate to from within the mixed hoard of stories.