When Alice wakes up from her dream at the end of Through the Looking Glass, she wonders whether the Red King was part of her dream, or whether she was part of his. I’ve often felt that way about memory. I’m never sure whether a memory is truly mine, or part of some collective consciousness. Some good memories, especially, feel like they belong to a universal wish list.
Holiday decorations are memories materialised. The hanging pair of silver skates I bought on December 1 this year, are souvenirs of skating on a frozen pond, one Christmas long, long ago. But whose memory is it? And is it a memory at all, or some collective Winter fantasy? My favourite skating memory didn’t involve skates at all, but was a spontaneous glide in my boots, across a frozen stream in Potsdam on New Year’s Day, while my 6’7 friend threatened to crack the ice.
But I’d recently seen a black and white film of fleet-footed ice skaters c.1900, carving mesmerising figures of eight, across rinks fringed with firs. The slender, silvery decorations, sourced among the foliage of a Primrose Hill florist, reminded me of the celluloid ice rink’s sparkle and the fluid delicacy of its skaters. I bought into it, this memory that was half mine. It seemed authentic and hopeful.
As for my own precious memories, a lot of them are shared with others. One of them might be on loan from my mother. I remember watching The Great Gatsby in my English class, aged 15. There was the scene of Gatsby’s party, and then this Charleston music started, with lyrics that went something like ‘Yes Sir, that’s my baby, No sir…’ I’ve danced to that, I suddenly thought- in my great grandma’s lounge, when I was about 5, and I think there was a ginger cat there, too. Dancing to my great grandma’s piano playing is one of my happiest childhood memories, and every time I revisit it, something appears differently. Realistically, I don’t think I could have danced the Charleston, because where would I have learnt it? At 5, my favourite dances were the twirls and leaps I copied from cartoon princesses and their animals, or simply spinning until I got so dizzy, that I fell on the floor.
My mother always used to tell me that she danced the real Charleston in my great grandma’s lounge though, with her dad, who taught her the steps. He was a good dancer, and I adored him up until the age of three, when he died, and I immediately forgot him. To this day, I can’t picture him, though I sometimes dream about him. Mum says that my great grandma did play the piano for me, but she can’t be sure about the Charleston, and there was no ginger cat. I think I stole him from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
And then, in an old, undated, journal, I came across something from a day I can’t remember. There’s this sketch of a girl, armless like the Venus di Milo, in a cone hat and long flowing gown, escaping from something. The barely legible caption beside her reads ‘as much as it kills you walk, fly, three-legged-race if you must, away from false (k)nights engaged in onanist (sic) pursuits.’ On the diary page, she’s between another girl in a cone hat, warning her not to be a Damsel in Distress, and a picture of two guys with what appear to be light bulbs on their heads. One wears glasses, the other does not. Neither looks especially predatory.
I think the girl represents me- a sublimated alter ego in Medieval princess garb, but I really can’t identify my two male tormentors, I don’t know what caused me caused me to draft this little scenario, but the brackets around k in (k)nights indicates a pun: I could have been angry at being slighted and deceived by a guy I was now accusing of self-pleasuring, and worried that I myself was pining away in nights of lonely fantasy. My urgent need to escape, though indicates that I might have received unwanted attention. The possibilities are endless, because I can’t remember what led to this hurried, hysterical sketch, which seems more fairy tale than fact.
The word onanist, by the way (a noun, used incorrectly as an adjective), shouldn’t be taken too literally. I had probably just come across it, and was trying it out as a more damning, dramatic version of ‘daydreamer.’As for the medieval get-up, I can only say that I have always liked cone hats, and found it easier to mediate my feelings through fantasy. Weirdly enough, the one thing I can vaguely remember, is sketching the princess, and consciously deciding to leave her unembellished, so she could look like anyone.