Thursday, 21 August 2014

Je me souviens Georges Perec

A palindrome five thousand words long?

Georges Perec of course, and here it is in the original and untranslatable French. I've been thinking of Perec and his Oulipian peers while reading the forthcoming English translation of Zone, a novel by Mathias Enard. This is over five hundred pages long and consists almost entirely of a single sentence, heavily punctuated but without a full stop (which comes at the end, as you might expect).

I happen to like this kind of ludic writing (and ludic, of course, is the root of 'ludicrous'); and the elective constraints under which Perec chose to write.

A favourite Perec is 'Je me souviens', a series of hundreds of random memories, most of them trivial but all of which, he felt, deserved setting down as they would otherwise disappear entirely. I have for psalmist fifteen years been making up my own list, prompted by the birth of my son. There are thousands of them by now, and here's a sample, all dating back to the beginning of this century:





I remember holding my new born son, not yet named, for the first time.

I remember cod liver oil tablets.

I remember accidentally-on-purpose lighting a gas tap (which should rightly have been attached to a Bunsen burner) in the chemistry lab at my high school and watching a brilliant sheet of flame arc across the room.

I remember FABs, Mivvies, Zooms and Sky Rays.

I remember a humid Sunday afternoon in 1977, walking alone along the tracked of the abandoned railway line heading southwards from the old Central Station in Manchester, and coming to a halt at the unfenced boundary of a tall iron bridge from which the rails and cross members had been removed leaving a giddy drop of perhaps fifty feet to the wasteland below. The space between the remaining girders was about five feet and I briefly considered attempting to cross the bridge by leaping from spar to spar.

I remember reading as a child the Uncle books by the Rev J.P. Martin. Uncle himself being a fabulously wealthy elephant who lived in a grand castle called Homeward and was at constant loggerheads with his enemy, Beaver Hateman. Other memorable characters were the one-armed badger, the Old Monkey and Jellytussle, a quivering blue ghost.

I remember the Irish Olympic medallist Mary Peters.

I remember the urbane ventriloquist Ray Alan and his “aristocratic” dummy, Lord Charles.

I remember the wallowing motion of giant Seaspeed hovercraft as they surged up onto the slipway in Dover, and the not unpleasant sense of trepidation felt by passengers as they trooped out of the terminal building into the noisy blare of the propellers. I recall that on the French side of the Channel, at Calais, these curious machines (named after various Royals) would careen onto a sandy beach near the windswept railway siding which housed the Paris turbotrain. At that time, and before the introduction of the Channel Tunnel link (or the Chunnel as it was briefly known) it took the best (or worst) part of a day to travel from London to the French capital by sea.

I remember first reading H.G. Wells’ The New Accelerator and thinking it was the very best story ever written.

I remember my grandfather’s liking for heavily-fortified domestic wines like Wincarnis and Sanatogen.

I remember the time Peter Sellers and Liza Minnelli announced their engagement to a group of journalists in a London park.

I remember asking my grandmother for Black Beauty as a birthday gift and being mortified when she gave me the book by Anna Sewell when I had expected a model limousine (of the same name) driven by a popular comic-book crime-fighter named the Green Hornet (and his oriental sidekick, Kato).

I remember asthma.

I remember planespotting.

I remember picking dry scabs from my knee as a child, and the little rhyme (unrecorded by the Opies): Pick it/lick it/roll it/flick it..

I also remember this macabre verse from my father’s Mickey Mouse annual of 1938:

     Said teacher Toby Tortoise
     To Goofy in his class:
     “I’d like to ask a question if I may –
     A skeleton: what is it?”
     Said Goofy (silly ass):
     “Bones from which the bloke’s been scraped away!”

I remember Tove Janssen’s fictional Moomintroll family, and especially the meerschaum tram in which Moominpapa kept his smoking utensils, although I’m still unclear what exactly meerschaum is.

I remember a time when strawberries were available for just a few weeks of the year, and when all fresh foods were strictly seasonal.

I remember the passion and protein man at Oxford Circus, with his home-made placard, blaming all the world’s woes on sitting, and his quietly monotonous semi-ecclesiastical incantation of the phrases Ladies are you pyoower? Brides are you pyoower?

I remember the comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise in bed together, and the way Eric would crunchily eat a bright green apple while making commonplace but hilarious observations about his friend with the “short, fat, hairy legs”.

I remember that in otherwise “realistic” BBC dramas of the 1970s, branded goods visible within a scene would be crudely disguised with matt black masking tape.

I remember the heavy glass soda siphons which were once to be found on every pub counter and seem now to have completely disappeared.

I remember the endless brouhaha surrounding the three secrets confided by the Virgin Mary to peasant children at Fatima in Portugal, which were sealed in a box and which, it was widely assumed, referred to the end of the world. As it turned out the revelations when made public were pretty feeble, apparently alluding to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the enduring role of the Church of Rome and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. But I recall reading with mixed wonder and scepticism about this and other startling Marian visions that occur sporadically throughout recent history and which are, to all intents and purposes, miraculous.

I remember that the former Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont had to go to court to evict a prostitute from the basement of his house who traded unambiguously under the name of Miss Whiplash. I recall several of this Chancellor’s embarrassing indiscretions, the most resonant perhaps being his purchase of 40 Raffles cigarettes and two bottles of cheap red wine from the Paddington branch of Threshers off-licence. The proprietor of the store (Mr Joshua Ononugo, I think) enjoyed a brief fame in the pages of Private Eye after he was sacked for passing the receipt for this transaction to a journalist.

I remember standing next to another vaguely disreputable ex-Tory minister, in this case the former Home Secretary Michael Howard (described memorably enough by a hostile colleague as having “something of the night” about him), and noticing what amazingly small shoes he was wearing, so small in fact that his entire lower torso seemed to taper to a pinpoint, rather like a Spy caricature.


I remember the opening sentence to Samuel Beckett’s first published novel Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” The embedded proverbial source eluded me at the time and for many years thereafter (“there’s nothing new under the sun”). Even more recently I discovered the biblical source.

I remember a television documentary about a young boy suffering from Tourette’s syndrome and who, to make things worse, lived with his family in a small strait-laced Scottish town where his affliction (a lavish repertoire of uncontrollable tics, shudders and breathtaking floods of involuntary foul language) stood out all the more. I recall laughing helplessly at his plight and feeling ashamed afterwards.

I remember the sharp fresh smell of Anais Anais.

I remember being given, at the age of three or four, a toy bus conductor’s ticket puncher made of thin tin which made a “ping” sound when used. It was embossed with the letters LTC (perhaps standing for London Transport Company?) and had a narrow red plastic strap. Any play value was pretty much limited until one summer afternoon when my mother took me on a bus and allowed me to wear the now wholly wonderful – as purposeful - object. The conductor, using his own far more complex version of my toy, flicked a switch and unfurled a seemingly endless streamer of blank tickets which I happily “punched” for the rest of the journey, to the amusement (I recall) of the other passengers. I also remember the real conductor adopting various comic poses to suggest that he could now relax and let me do his job, and my feigned absorption in the task.

I remember, before the advent of automated cash dispensers, going to the bank on Fridays to withdraw money, and budgeting quite carefully in advance for the weekend up to and including the following Monday lunch time.

I remember “It’s Friday…it’s 5 o’clock…and it’s Crackerjack!” And I remember the portly, pompous, brylcreemed comic Peter Glaze and his “talks” which were regularly interrupted by a succession of gormless stooges, including one Don McLean. “Mclean? Yes, I had a bath this morning!” 

I remember my breath steaming up a glass case containing Roman coins in the British Museum.

I remember an entertaining science-based television programme for children called Tom Tom, and the painstaking recreation of famous Grand Prix victories using Scalextric racing cars. The presenters were Jeremy Carrard and John Earl. I think it was Raymond Baxter, a former Spitfire pilot, who provided the commentaries to the races.

I remember the busman’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which begins: Our Father, who art in Hendon… and includes forgive us our Westminsters, as we forgive those who Westminster against us. It concludes.. for thine is the Kingston, the Purley and the Crawley, for Iver and Iver, Crouch End.

I remember that the late Ian Dury’s band, before the Blockheads, was called Kilburn and the High Roads. Also that there was a brief vogue for this type of band name – Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators, for example. My own favourite was Duke Duke and the Dukes.


2 comments:

  1. Nice post. I thought of Perec in the context of Zone too. Also love the (Perecian?) autocorrect "psalmist" in your fourth para.

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  2. Thanks JC. Glad you liked the post. Should I amend the 'psalmist' to read (as intended) 'the past'. Mneh. Stet, I think.

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