'I have fallen twice in the last five years..once on the pavement near home, having apparently slipped on a squashed tomato, and once on a treacherous staircase in France (U'ne chute d'escalier,' I heard the A & E nurse say, in a bored tone - they were shunted in daily, I suppose). I was lucky both times - no broken bones, though the staircase had my back raging for weeks...both events shook me up, and made me realise that from now on any kind of fall was potentially disastrous...'
I'll go to the foot of our stairs is an expression I often use when surprised, a moment when the unexpected or the unpredictable happens, and when I read this passage in Penelope Lively's wonderful and latest episode of her memoirs Ammonites & Leaping Fish - A Life in Time (there are several others, Oleander, Jacaranda. ... A House Unlocked) my stomach gave a bit of a lurch and an involuntary churn.
All over again...
... because I was actually at the foot of those very same French stairs, with four other people, when Penelope Lively took a swifter trip down them than she had meant to.
Those of you who have been visiting here for a long time may recall that about five years ago I took the blog, at the invitation of Ways With Words, across to France to attend their memoir writing course with guest tutors Penelope Lively and Julia Blackburn. I learned a great deal about memoir writing and about myself and it was on my return home that I made the final decision to leave the NHS. I wrote quite a few blog posts about it all but made no mention of this particular episode because it seemed personal and confidential to someone else's life and medical history, not mine... but since Penelope Lively has now mentioned it...
The stairs were indeed treacherous, dark, bare wood and an unforgiving solid stone wall at the bend in the stairs where Penelope landed, head first and very awkwardly into a confined space. I'd like to think it was all that nurse training and updating that assisted through the initial assessments, the talking and the reassuring, the decision to immobilise completely but especially her head and neck (I held it for what seemed like a year...time doesn't go fast when you are waiting for help ) pending the arrival of the 'pompiers' who then called more 'pompiers' with a spinal board, ..but I suspect I also learned a high percentage of it watching Casualty. I seriously remember fearing the worst, it was a crashing fall that ended with a resounding thud that would surely do damage, and it took the pompiers at least forty-five minutes to extricate a safely-strapped and remarkably calm Penelope from this predicament. Such a fall would have serious repercussions for a much younger person let alone someone in their seventies, but the trip to A&E for Penelope Lively (an ambulance-chasing drive across what seemed like half of France for the rest of us ) revealed no immediate damage, just bruises and shock, and in the ensuing days I assisted Penelope where and however I could until her flight home.
The only thing worse than having the accident yourself is watching it happen to someone else and it took me quite a while to 'recover' too. For weeks afterwards I kept thinking about what could have been and about ageing too, and when does a 'trip' become a 'fall' because there is a subtle age-related difference. I've just finished reading Anne Sebba's biography of Laura Ashley, which made me very nervous as the 6-0 birthday loomed. The fall down the stairs, mistaken for the door to the bathroom on the night after Laura's sixtieth birthday, was fatal and makes for tragic and very sad reading. I remember the singer Sandy Denny suffering a similar fate, so you have no idea how relieved I have been ever since to see a successsion of brilliant novels that show Penelope Lively remains at the top of her writing game, then a Damehood and now this superb memoir.
Ammonites & Leaping Fish is a view from the lofty heights of being eighty (Penelope Lively is actually very tall, another reason something should surely have broken during that tumble... the Gods were looking down on her alright) and it is a book about ageing and being old. A report from the Front, the gentle battle that is being eighty and though, by her own admission, vision may be failing, Penelope Lively has 20/20 insight wherever she casts her eye, whether it be Feminism, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, her own childhood, or her life as it is now.
It is a life that, as anno domini strides on, has had to come to terms with losing or giving up much that it has held dear, with the compromises to health and joints and general inconveniences of increasing age, but steadfast in its midst are books... a lot of them, along with six very special objects that create a wonderful arc across time and history, and through which Penelope Lively weaves her own distinct memories.
Along the way are priceless gems of observation...
On the novel...
'You start reading a novel wth no idea where this thing is going; you should finish it feeling that it could have gone no other way.'
On the steady march of time and change...
'An upheaval neatly slotted into my lifetime, so that I grew up to the backdrop of one set of assumptions and sign off in a very different society.'
On why History should be taught in school...
'If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context.'
And off at a tangent I was thinking about how carefully we now create a Life Book for babies and children going for adoption, a relatively recent innovation and for that very reason, to give them a history, a narrative to their lives, a context.
There is much about reading, about favourite books... The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors by William Golding, What Maisie Knew by Henry James.I have read half of one of them but now have them all off the shelf.
And about the reader as participant, a book inviting judgement, complicity, becoming its confidant, and books that encourage a leap of the imagination, and it is that leap, the arc of history and memory interwoven that Penelope Lively invests in her objects.
I was enthralled by each and every one and the stories they held, the duck kettle holders, the ammonites, the Jerusalem Bible. Penelope Lively a self-confessed agnostic with five Bibles who 'relishes the equipment of Christianity', the stained glass, the music, a Church visiting addict who can't subscribe...and I am guessing many of us would understand that. There is a replica of the Gayer- Anderson cat housed in the British Museum, an object which sustains wonderful memories and connections, the sampler and then there are the sherds...
'There is something highly evocative about sherds - the detritus of the past...this vivid, tangible reminder of people who have been here before, making things and using them and discarding them... I have a large cake tin of sherds. Personal archaeology; garden archaeology, from the two old houses in which I have lived... blue and white willow pattern china in quantities...pretty green and white fluted sherds with a floral design...some glazed earthenware...silent testimony lying in that richly fertile soil....'
And there I was back at the foot of my metaphorical stairs looking on with incredulity at how closely this mirrored my summer of digging and findings now displayed in a glass vase (thank you jzzy for that suggestion), there for me to see and constantly think about..
'The past is irretrievable but it lurks - it sends out tantalizing messages...'
Don't miss Ammonites & Leaping Fish, it is a book of wisdom from one of our very best living writers; a book to hold tight and re-read, replete as it is with affirmation and optimism. The past might be a foreign country for each of us, and ageing may hold fears unknown, but less so with writers like Penelope Lively to help us find ways to make sense of it.