Going back

I took my husband back to my old university last weekend for an alumni reunion. We stayed in a nice hotel in Clifton - the Victoria Square Hotel - and spent the Sunday doing a boat trip round Bristol harbour; it was fun and fascinating. In the run-up to last weekend I remained a reluctant alumnus ( -a?) and avoided the formal dinner and speeches that were also on offer on the Saturday. I know that going back to one’s youth often yields regrets and the rueful acknowledgement that one could have done ‘being young’ much better. But my return to Bristol proved happier than I could have imagined: the sun shone, the hotel was excellent, Bristol is a great and historic city and the few contemporaries I did see - well, it was just so good to see them again. I didn’t really have any time for introversion. Still, I suppose to write a good memoir or evocation of one’s early youth, one has to do precisely that: revisit old haunts alone, equipped with a notebook and camera; sit quietly in an empty room and sketch out in one’s mind old thoughts and feelings; claw back or even re-enact those distant daily rituals, familiar places and significant events; talk with contemporaries about the past that you may have shared and even their perception of how you seemed to them back then… Well, I wouldn’t do it! It makes me greatly admire those who do write a memoir: the self-knowledge and mental discipline required can make any such undertaking a daunting task. The memoir writer can hide behind comedy, of course, like David Niven, or just concentrate on ‘events’ as many old soldiers do, but what the reader wants is something more like Pepys’ diary: the smallest detail, no holds barred, searing honesty, the writer at the centre of his own story. But you have to be brave.

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