I can’t remember what I had for breakfast.
Not today … my memory’s dreadful, it’s true, but I’m not at the level of forgetting this morning just yet. No, I can’t remember what my breakfast of choice was as a newly-married youngster back in 1981.
I shared a favourite text with my life-writing group last week.
Called ‘The Day of the Year’ and printed in an old bulletin of the Leicester Archaeological and Historical Society, it’s a memoir by C S Dean about 14th November 1902 – a day in his childhood. In it, he walks the reader through a 5 am-start dressing in lamplight to fire lighting and water-fetching, kindling-collecting in hedgerows and feeding the pig. Listening out for cart wheels on the road outside and – for the girls of the family – seaming stockings at home for a local factory, to add pennies to the scant family budget.
Already nostalgic when it was written in the ‘70s, the piece in 2020 tells of a way of life long gone – as indeed, its author must be by now.
That’s what drew me to it when I found it – that I could hear his voice so clearly, still, from beyond the grave. That so much history is conveyed in the simple goings on of an ordinary family in an ordinary place. It’s one of the things I particularly love about memoir.
Reading it to the group last week I chuckled, remembering that metaphorically speaking, I’m in the ‘November’ of my life.
‘And unlike the seasons, I’ll not return to my spring again, will I?’ I said.
‘You should think yourself lucky you’re not in winter, like some of us!’ one of the writers said.
Usually in workshops, I use this text to prompt writers to recall their own childhood Novembers – bonfire nights and conker gathering and the fair.
But this time, I used it differently, focusing on how daily life has changed for us over a period of time. It’s painful to think of ourselves as ‘history’, but we are. Things move on so quickly that even the youngest of us have aspects of life that have changed enough to be recorded. Life-writing is an excellent way to capture those changes.
First, I asked the group to write about their day so far, how they’d woken that morning and at what time, what they’d had for breakfast and so on, their small daily routines up to the point that the group had begun. This level of detail would generally be too much in our writing, but the details here were the focus of the piece rather than there being ‘a story.’
In reading round, we commented on things that are commonplace to us now but different from how they’d have been in our pasts: the digital alarm rather than the ticking wind-up clock; google maps on the mobile where once we’d have used a sat nav, or before that, a map; strawberries on breakfast cereal which, not so long ago, weren’t available to buy in November. Once we began looking, it was surprising how many little changes we were able to tot up.
So, for our second piece, I asked the group to write a morning routine from their past.
‘Can we write about ourselves?’ I was asked.
‘I guess so,’ I said, though I was suddenly unsure childhood memories would contrast very well, given we’d just written about ourselves as modern adults, not children. ‘Or you could write about your mother or father’s routine as you remember them, to see how it would compare to now?’
‘Some of us are so old we can write about long ago and still have been adults!’ came the reply, and we laughed, because actually, though I may feel 27 in my head, that was true for most of us, including me.
‘Do we have to go so far back?’ someone else asked, and thinking about it, I realised that no, we don’t have to delve very far back to find evidence of change. In fact the writer asking went on to contrast her ‘today’ routine of getting up and working from home under lockdown with a day from just a year ago, when ‘going to work’ actually meant moving further than the dining room. Some parts of her routine were exactly the same – the alarm, the cup of tea delivered to her by the other half – and some were very different indeed.
Heard together – first today, then a year ago – the two pieces really underlined the impact the pandemic has had on her life. They were fascinating to listen to now and will be an excellent reminder in years to come when – God willing – this crisis is over and we have returned to our regular lives.
As for me, I stole the first writer’s idea and jumped back to an earlier – but still adult (just!) – version of myself, to 1981 and the newly-married youngster living in the first home of her own. To carpet offcuts and second-hand furniture squashed into a new-build council flat, to fog-filled picture windows and Fat Larry’s Band on a transistor radio on top of a rusty old fridge, and to standing at the kitchen sink to eat breakfast so as not to be late for the bus.
But no matter how hard I tried to picture it, for the life of me I couldn’t recall what on earth that breakfast would’ve been.