I’ve been reading some great memoirs lately. Too lazy here to do proper reviews, but here are two extracts.
From Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing
‘I hated my mother. I can remember that emotion from the start, which is easy to date by the birth of my brother. Those bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands: I was afraid of them and of her, but more of her unconscious strengths.
I was six when I ran away for the first time. Running away in the middle of the bush is not like some escape in a big city or a village. I ran in the middle of the night down the track to the bigger track to the station. There were animals in the bush, leopards and kopjes, and snakes. I was crying and noisy with fury. I had no money. I knew that when – if – I got to the station, they would not allow me on to a train. I was afraid and went meekly back home and into bed without anyone knowing. I did it again. This was a cry for help, like cutting one’s wrists or taking an overdose. My mother’s way of dealing with it was to ring up the neighbours and, with fond laughter, tell them of my exploits. ‘She got as far as the Matthews turn-off. What a silly child.’
It would never have occurred to her to think that she might be at fault. And this brings me to a really vast subject, not, I think, much acknowledged. There has been a change, an enormous one, in medicine, drugs, but a greater one in popular consciousness of ordinary psychology. The words ‘a cry for help’ are part of ordinary knowledge in parent-child interaction. I am sure they had ‘problem children’ always, even problem parents, but not understood in the way of ordinary advice in newspapers, or how any run-of-the-mill parent is judged.’
From The Gatekeeper by Terry Eagleton
‘Some of them seemed as immune to physical pain as a stove-pipe. They could endure any amount of punching and caning, not least at the hands of a teacher known as Miss Arseole, whose real name I can now retrospectively reconstruct as Miss Horsehall. You could have crushed their testicles in a vice and they would not have whimpered, but they howled inconsolably if they ripped their shirts in a fight, since this meant confronting the wrath of parents who had no money to replace their clothes. I was the only child who wore a coat to school, on account of my delicate health, which marked me out as sinisterly as if I had arrived at school in a Bentley with a caviar lunch tucked under my elbow. The coat made me a target for violence as surely as flaunting some obscenely taunting slogan on my chest, though it also signaled that I was a kind of moral cripple, and so inhibited the aggression it provoked. It was like a wolf offering his throat to a rival in the course of a fight. There was no cloakroom in the school, since there were no coats apart from my own. The playground lavatory was a stinking, festering affair that a Bombay beggar would have thought twice before using. Even if you did use it, there was nowhere in the school to wash your hands afterwards. Hygiene was as alien to us as Heidegger. For holidays some of the boys went off to what was known as the bread-and-jam camp, since that was the only food they got there, and to warm their beds in winter they used a brick heated in the oven. We were one of the few families to have a bath, though it was too rusty to use.
It was the kind of school where most of the pupils probably never encountered more than three trees at a time until they were well into their twenties. Even then, we had the conviction that once you had seen one tree or flower you’d seen the lot. Most of my relatives found real flowers something of a come-down after artificial ones. There was not much Nature in the city. There was a river, but not even canned fish could survive in it. News of Nature, of a world not fashioned of blackened brick, filtered through to us from time to time, but it seemed as remote as Sussex or Jupiter. It was hard to say what Nature was for. Even if it had jumped into our laps we would not have known what to do with it. On the whole it seemed a bit of a waste. You could spend ages waiting for it to do something.’