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‘The eye reads forward as the memory reads back’
WS Graham, from The Nightfishing (1955)

‘tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are’
Marc Augé, from Oblivion (1998)

There are many versions of my mother’s life. Contradictory drafts scored and scarred with a palimpsest of revisions. She was both the author and not the author of these rewritings; texts that in some senses un-wrote us all. And here is my suspect telling, the version of this moment, as it comes to me today.

Mum & two of my elder sisters, continental Europe, 1950s. Damaged 35mm slide.

Mum & two of my five sisters, continental Europe, 1950s. Damaged 35mm colour slide.


… was known by name to the head barman at the Cipriani in Venice (where she drank Campari and soda – no ice – poured as she walked through the door)
… wired oranges to the apple trees to turn Staffordshire into Italy
… drove an MG Spitfire and made her own cocktail dresses
… cooked extravagantly and spectacularly
… made of my life a fearless and fabulous adventure
… was publicly vivacious, expansive and warm

… was privately cold and perplexing
… despised those she saw as stupid or incapable
… was capricious, spiteful and belittling
… was jealous of her own children, often telling me she wished we’d never been born
… mocked us if we struggled
… resented giving care
… made my life a desolation of fear and self-loathing

I loved her.

When she died we found her birth certificate, where we discovered at last her place of birth. No city or town was given, but a boat: ‘The Imperitor’. So many secrets. Born on a working coal barge in 1919, into extreme poverty, at a time when to be a ‘boatie’ was to inhabit an untouchable caste.  When she was seven, her little brother became ill from the damp, cold and coal dust of the barge, and her mother carried him for sixteen miles trying to find a doctor who would treat him for what little money she could afford. She failed. He died. (This was the reality of the links between class, life and death before the creation of the NHS). Following her mother’s subsequent nervous breakdown, she was sent away to live with grandparents who had left the boats to settle in the Black Country. All this obliterated, erased, to clear the page for the story of the sophisticated woman in green silk evening gloves, who never worried for money, who was once photographed with a peacock under her arm. But here and there a subtext of shame and pain and penury and rejection showed through, expressed as a seething contempt and bewildered savagery exacted on those whose state-of-being-a-child (of being a girl) reminded her of her own. Perhaps. These are the facts as I choose to remember them.

The List

December’s reading list is intended to foster my current interest in exploring the ambiguous spaces between fiction and memoir in written and visual practice, of a practice that can somehow perform its subject. The language I need to talk about this is evading me, my thoughts unformed and inadequate. A few of the texts are old friends, but a daunting number are not. Among the new discoveries is Rootprints: Memory and life writing, an extended interview with the French-Algerian feminist writer (poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic, rhetorician, novelist and theorist) Hélène Cixous (born 1937), by Mireille Calle-Gruber and translated by Eric Prenowitz, with appendices from Cixous and Jaques Derrida.  At only twenty pages in, I am entranced…

‘I did not follow you about the word breaking. Here is the end of language; it is a word that does not fit what I feel. Because in breaking I sense: irreparable. But there is wounding. The wound is what I sense. The wound is a strange thing: either I die, or a kind of work takes place, mysterious, that will reassemble the edges of the wound. A marvellous thing also: that will nonetheless leave a trace, even if it hurts us. It is here that I sense things taking place. The wound is also an alteration. Breaking, for me, remained in the domain of a less fleshy material. I see a stick being broken… of course, one can also break one’s bones, but then the sticks of the body repair themselves, and there is no scar… I like the scar, the story.’ Cixous

Marc Auge. Oblivion (1998)

Andre Breton. Nadja (1928)

Mireille Calle-Gruber and Hélène Cixous. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing (1997)

Cathy Caruth (ed). Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995)

Hélène Cixous. A Portrait Of Dora (1976)

Sarah French. Re-imagining the female hysteric: Helene Cixous’ Portrait of Dora. (2008)

Sigmund Freud.  Dora, Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905)

Sigmund Freud. Überdekkerinnerungen (Screen Memories) (1899)

Mark Fisher. Ghosts of My Life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. (2014)

W.S. Graham. The Nightfishing (1955)

W.S. Graham. Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970)

Sharon Kivland. A Case Of Hysteria (1999)

Neil Lebeter and Bob & Roberta Smith. How to Let an Artist Rifle Through Your Archive (2013)

Yves Lomax. Pure Means (2013)

Claire Potter. Mental Furniture. (2014)

Sharon WillissHélène Cixous’s “Portrait de Dora”: The Unseen and the Un-Scene. In Theatre Journal Vol. 37, No. 3, Staging Gender (Oct., 1985), pp. 287-30