The other day I found this letter, which I wrote to my mother in June 2005 after she had suffered a stroke that caused her memory to dissolve. Mum died in hospital of a so-called super-bug of the type that has numbers for a name, on 20th June 2005. I never finished the letter.
Tomorrow, 24th September 2009, is Mum's 77th birthday, so this is for her. Happy Birthday, Mom.
Isn't memory a curious asset? We have it from birth, but the early part, the part when we're still displaying L-plates, all but disappears under the weight of subsequent memories. Perhaps it's because, as a baby, we can't really make sense of stuff - of weather-vanes and zebra crossings, hairnets and nests of tables, mangles and window-sills, souvenirs from Sant Pol de Mar and slide-viewers. It's only later that we can sort and code and label. And, of course, that automatically means we muddle our memories, as we superimpose later images onto baby stills so we can actually claim to own them.
For example, I'm almost sure I remember Papa Lawson as being the man who lived in the flat opposite ours. I remember his presence in my earliest days, but apart from a vague recollection of sitting on his knee in a 'parlour'-type room with dark, perhaps green, curtains, the strongest memory I have of him is knowing who he was and of loving him to bits. I think he had a son, an adult son, and either Papa or both he and his son worked in a shirt shop down the hill and round the corner. There is a vague suggestion of a chocolate Santa Claus, or a chocolate Easter egg, a gift from Papa, apart from the book of poems.
I can sit here in the dead of night, with a dog making its presence felt a few houses away, and let one memory take me to another, backwards, forwards, who knows which. It's fun. It's as rich as an intricate, peacock-threaded embroidery, unpredictable. It's like eating dark chocolate and floating away. Stories, clouds of pictures, faces, colours, smells, voices, all bursting to ping out into the open.
That's what memory is. And it just takes a quick short-circuit, a neurological firecracker, to wipe it all or suspend it out of reach. I can shuffle or tint my stories as I fancy, so they look better on the paper, turn my life into a glorious Technicolor saga of yellow curtains and wooden clothes-horses sharing the buttercup morning sunlight with a spinach-green carpet, of shelling fresh peas while sitting on a small lawn, surrounded by blue-purple grape hyacinths, hollyhocks and lupins, lobelia and alyssum.
Another curious thing is Glasgow itself. Rundown, boarded-up, extravagant, decadent, industrial. Staunchly Presbyterian, radically Catholic, wildly Buddhist, Calvinist and Bohemian, haggis and tofu. Famous for shipbuilding, Orange marches, Ian Brady, St Mungo, Taggart, Sauchiehall Street, Kelvin Hall, the Barrowlands, hard humour, head-bashing, alcoholics, the University, Charles Rennie MacKintosh, toughness, tenement buildings, Celtic and Rangers, solid, serious, significant architecture, rainmates, and Glaswegians. Genghis McCann and ice cream. I nearly forgot the ice cream and the fact that a Glaswegian is just as likely to be called Angelo as Alistair. Until relatively recently, "I'm from Glasgow" was a fairly threatening claim which might include the tag "so watch yersel'". On a curriculum vitae, it was almost a liability. No. Strike the 'almost'.
Even the Glasgow names tell a story; they seem to be in harmony with the Glaswegian accents, which range from guttural, rasping thug to gently abrasive, crystal streamwater. Cowcaddens, the Gorbals, Kirkintilloch, Pollockshields all share city boundaries with districts that could easily have been christened by Stevenson or Scott: Drumchapel, Kelvinside, Broomhill, Anniesland, Rutherglen.
Like you, Mum, I find expressing some memories difficult; the words are not always there, nor the mental glass-eye to make sense of the images. Glasgow. Glasgow is a feeling. It is colours, moments of light and darkness, the sounds of Beetle windscreen wipers and cars in the rain, the taste of coal-fires in the mouth, the smells of adhesive fabric eye-patches and leaded petrol on puddles. The yellow of daffodils and the sullen black of the leafless, naked, winter trees near the university.
It is the height and protection of tall, dirty buildings carved from Industrial Revolution rock. It is the stark, terrifying concrete slabs built in curves that make up the mad, urban motorway system that took us to visit Granny and Grandpa Munn on alternate Sundays. It is lemon chiffon pudding eaten in a treasure-trove house by a depot of rotting green and sunflower bus carcasses. It is the lion, the cage, the lion, the cage, now put the lion into the cage. It is the New Seekers and Ken Dodd without the Diddymen. Sleeping Beauty at the ballet and dominoes with Aunt Madge in her image-perfect flat of a thousand textures. It is Papa Lawson.