I encountered Perec years before I'd even heard of Brainard, the Channel being narrower than the Atlantic, at least geographically, and I've only recently caught up. After reading Brainard, however, I'm afraid my loyalty still lies with the Frenchman. Just as James Joyce rather than Christine Rose is credited with the development of the stream of consciousness method (even though she anticipated Joyce's technique in Ulysses by two decades), so Perec gets the kudos for Je me souviens over Brainard's I remember.
Rightly, I think, because it's better to perfect an innovation than merely to create it. Nobody would make great claims for the literary value of Rose's Pointed Roofs, despite its startling innovation. But I'm beginning to waffle.
Perec wrote Je me souviens between January 1973 and June 1977, and the memories he listed were, he said, mostly derived "entre ma 10e et ma 25e année, c'est-à-dire entre 1946 et 1961."
My own memories range between the early 1960s and last week. It's a work in progress. The stuff that follows, written over the past fifteen years, refer mostly to the increasingly remote twentieth century.
Ready? Here goes:
I remember hearing a possibly apocryphal story about the patrician novelist Anthony Powell meeting Victoria Beckham at a reception when the fame of the Spice girls had reached giddying heights, and politely enquiring: “Which Spice might you be?” To which she replied: “I’m Posh”. To which he replied: “You must be fucking joking!”
I remember first reading that the act of remembering is subject to a continuing degradation as what we remember when we remember something is not the thing itself but the last time we remembered it.
I remember the French word for dandelion is pisenlit – literally “wet the bed”.
And that the German word elster means “magpie”, and that Gavin Elster is the suavely sinister screen husband of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in Hitchcock's Vertigo.
I remember discovering an allegedly secret Masonic cry for assistance : "Will no-one help the widow’s son?"
I remember the attractive tartan moquette upholstery in Routemaster buses, and the pleasant yellow light cast by individual bulbs before they were replaced by cheap stripy fabrics and harsh strip lights in the 1990s.
I remember struggling to finish The Pickwick Papers, the first grown up book I ever owned, an experience which put me off Dickens until quite late in adult life.
I remember Roger Livesey and his camera obscura watching over the village in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death.
I remember a rather sinister illustration from a school science book from the 1950s showing the constituent chemicals making up an average human body, which contains, among other things, “enough lime to whitewash a hencoop”.
I remember the topographical historian Alec Clifton-Taylor’s elegant formulation “There is little (or much) here to detain us” when describing a particularly dull (or interesting) part of the built environment.
I remember watching my son, on his sixth birthday, collaborating with a group of small children to copy Uccello’s Battle of San Romano in the National Gallery.
And I remember that a “Uccello” was a standard measurement, based on The Battle of San Romano, introduced by the War Office for commissioning pieces from Great War artists like William Orpen. Hence “half Uccello” or “quarter Uccello”).
I remember my maternal grandmother having the same married name – Froy – as the elderly heroine played by Dame May Whitty in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
I remember that the English actress Nova Pilbeam was married to Hallam Tennyson, a descendent of the laureate, and that he died tragically young as an airman in the Battle of Britain. She appeared in Hitchcock's delightful Young and Innocent and made a handful of films before disappearing from the screen and, it seems, from public life. She may still be alive, and in her nineties.
I remember the clever double entendre written – or recalled – by Talbot Rothwell and deployed with fruity gusto and his trademark appalled expression by Frankie Howerd (as Lurkio) when addressing the Vestal Virgins in Up Pompeii: “It is a great honour that you do me”.
I remember that the Viennese writer Karl Krauss, an early critic of Freud, wrote that “psychoanalysis was the disease for which it claims to be the cure”.
I remember that one of the three men who banged the gong for J Arthur Rank was Bombardier Billy Wells.
I remember earache.
I remember marvelling at a concrete galleon moored permanently in the mouth of the estuary at Ballina in Ireland.
I remember such words as hooter, cake hole, bracket and lug ‘oles used in old radio comedies to stand for nose, mouth, throat and ears respectively. Also that the linguistic form for this kind of substitution is “radiant particularisation” and applies especially to the almost limitless number of euphemisms for the breasts and sexual organs.
I remember whistling.
I remember sparrows.
I remember the buck-toothed comedian Ken Dodd claiming to be “the only man in Britain capable of eating a tomato through a tennis racket”.
I remember being baffled by the two spellings of Harringay and Haringey.
I also recall noticing the variants Goldhawk Road and Gold Hawk Road on the two adjacent entrances to the Hammersmith and City Line station in West London.
I remember the first time I read W S Graham’s poem 'I leave this by your ear for when you wake'.
I remember admiring the title of Ian Hamilton’s first collection of poems: Pretending not to Sleep.
I remember the first English language word read aloud unprompted by my son was “Loftus”, a street name in West London which is also a doggy character in a favourite book. His first spoken word was 'conker'.
I remember my late friend David Brown’s dictum: “Art is complex because life is complex”
I remember “colouring-in”, and the type of “magic” books in which adding water to the page would reveal wishy washy rainbow colours.
I remember my son laughing almost continuously at Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert and repeating, after a second viewing, substantial chunks of the dialogue and in particular Oliver Hardy’s pompous and ponderous statement that “Ev-ery man should be the KING in his oooown (pause) CASTLE!”.
I remember first hearing that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a traffic accident and recall my combined surprise, real sadness and (as the days subsequently passed) growing indifference to the increasingly ostentatious scenes of public grief. Many years later Jonathan Meades pinpointed the reaction to Diana's death as apart of a creeping "Liverpudlianisation" of our public life.
I remember buying some chunky amber necklaces in a bitterly cold Russian street market and bearing them away wrapped in crumpled brown paper.
I remember my only visit to Swaziland, and a terrific storm there which blew the beautiful and delicate weaver bird nests from the tall palms.
I remember Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains, an enjoyable low-budget comedy film directed by Rob Reiner, the son of Carl, who was for many years a foil to Mel Brooks.
I remember my interest in the so-called Borscht Belt comedians like Henny Youngman (“Take my wife… please”) and the invariable “bedim…tschhhh” of an onstage drummer which punctuated every snappy one-liner.
I remember reading that Stalin was born with webbed feet and wondering how much or how little influence this had on his - for want of a better word - 'personality'.
I remember being tongue-tied in the presence of the radio presenter Robert Robinson and subsequently amusing friends with my description of our encounter.
I remember marbles, conkers, pick-up-sticks and blackjacks.
I remember Chipmunk crisps.
I remember my first watch – a Timex.
I remember electric blankets.
I remember Jane Russell’s notoriously sexy catwalk dance routine in The French Line.
I remember a convivial four-hour lunch in the Whitstable Oyster Fisheries on a cold sunny March afternoon.
I remember my pleasure at first hearing the word “clusterfuck”.
I remember the only time I ever slept on a park bench.
I remember watching Murnau’s Ordet for the first time at the cinema in the National Gallery and sobbing helplessly (along with my companion and the half-dozen other members of the audience) throughout the final reel. When the lights went on we left the auditorium like survivors of a ferry disaster. Nothing has ever moved me more.
I remember Barmouth biscuits.
I remember watching my son, aged seven, through binoculars pony-trekking across the sands of a remote estuary in West Wales.
I remember Whitbread 'Big Head' Trophy Bitter, “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”.
I remember self-consciously developing a taste for Worthington White Shield bottled ale, a vile and powerful brew recommended by a CAMRA writer.
I remember Charters and Caldicott.
I remember dominoes, skittles, shove ha’penny, cribbage and other pub games.
I remember first seeing the colossal disused airship hangars at Cardington in Bedfordshire.
I remember Bootsy and Snudge.
I remember “Wayfinders” shoes for boys, which had a compass concealed in a secret compartment in the heel, and the soles of which were embossed with animal pawprints.
I remember “Penny for the Guy”.
I remember All Gas and Gaiters.
I remember my French-speaking bilingual son asking me :”What is a Jew?” and mentally mustering a careful reply when I suddenly realised he was asking, theologically, “What is a dieu?”
I remember the portly television presenter Monty Modlyn.
I remember the Aberfan disaster, and subsequent anniversaries of this haunting event of my childhood.
I remember visiting a coal mine in Yorkshire and being impressed by the Morphine Safe set into the wall by the winding shaft deep underground.
I remember Dennis Price (Louis) seducing Joan Greenwood (Sybilla) in the sublime Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, and also that this matchless British comedy was based on a novel by Roy Horniman entitled Israel Rank. This title was allegedly deleted from the film’s credits as it was thought likely that Rank Studios would object.
I remember toffee apples.
I remember from summers in childhood pyramidal chunks of ice infused with fruit juice and called (I think) Calypso.
I remember such popular 1970s “eateries” as Tennessee Pancake House and The Golden Egg.
I remember the quip: “I drink as I dress – Chablis”.
I remember seeing a photograph of a huge and mysterious mass of decomposing blubbery organic matter which had been washed up on a South American beach and which didn’t correspond to any known living creature.
I remember Auden describing his face as “a wedding cake left out in the rain”.
I remember reading and subsequently re-reading Cyril Connolly’s only novel The Rock Pool. “Naylor was deaf again”.
I remember being close to a car bomb which exploded in New Oxford Street during an IRA campaign, and how the muffled blast set off alarms in nearby vehicles and buildings.
I remember the old Scala cinema in King’s Cross, and squinting in the darkness of the steeply-raked auditorium at their wonderful folded A3 programmes, densely packed with information.
I remember my son repeating, word-perfectly, a complete poem for the first time. But I can no longer remember what it was.
I remember first mixing a gimlet.
I remember visiting my friend Paul Neal in Barts Hospital when he was dying from throat cancer. Following an emergency tracheotomy he communicated for the most part by writing on slips of paper, (as did Franz Kafka in his last days). I asked him once if his condition was the result of smoking and he wrote: Yes. And booze too. Just to be sure.
I remember the funeral of Winston Churchill, and how the cranes in the Pool of London lowered their jibs as a mark of respect when the lighter bearing his coffin sailed by.
I remember, with other children, making slides in icy weather.
I remember the joke about a certain Tory cabinet minister, popularly regarded as a lady-killer – “He’s not gay of course (pause) but his boyfriends are”
I remember enjoying the sight of my son feeding swans on the Round Pond in Kensington Palace Gardens and how charmed I was when he gave some of his supply of bread to a much smaller and breadless boy who was watching him.
I remember being angered by a noisy, inept, crass and vulgar National Theatre production of the great Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death, and composing a long and nasty letter to the director of Kneehigh (the troupe responsible) which I would never send.
I remember meeting Jack Cardiff, the great cinematographer who had worked on several Powell & Pressburger films and, no less admirably, slept with Sophia Loren. He enjoyed close relationships with many screen goddesses, and put tis down to the trust they had in lighting and camera operators to make them look their best. Cardiff claimed, with complete professional objectivity, that he could tell from her eyes when an actress was menstruating.
I remember rather pretentiously thinking it would be amusing to write a poem entitled 'On First Looking into On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer'. Also wondering whether any author has considered writing a serious literary sequel to Ulysses, perhaps set on 17th June 1906, and picking up where Joyce left off. It could be entitled Twolysses.
I remember reading a promotional brochure for Belfast’s refurbished and gentrified old docks, to be branded the “Titanic Quarter”, and that it would become “a spot where pleasure, profit and memorialisation meet”