How does the self write about a self it no longer remembers; may never have remembered? How does the writing self produce the written I?
Imagine from the image two girls. They are on holiday with their parents at the seaside in Blackpool. Perhaps it was a hot summer; the swimming costumes suggest a day on the beach playing in sand. The smaller of the two girls has a mouth covered in sand. She has been eating it all day. It is odd that neither the parents nor the photographer cleaned her mouth. May be they thought it looked cute. For years afterwards and to the present day the photograph is presented as “this is the holiday when you ate sand all the time.” The photograph is proof that it happened. The photograph along with the parent’s memories are all that exist of that day, that time, that holiday. The small girl with sand around her mouth remembers nothing. She has been constructed and narrated by others. Yet this unremembered self is still a story resurrected from the rubble of other peoples’ memories. It is not a tidy or an accurate story, but then memory is neither of these things. In fact the story is unreliable on a number of levels. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the writing self here and now should be narrating an unremembered self. There would have been a time when I remembered. Maybe ten minutes after the photograph was taken I was back on the beach or walking the prom holding my mother’s hand thinking about having had my photograph taken. Maybe when my sister and I were posing I wondered what the finished photograph would look like. Maybe none of these things happened and I was still too young to perceive a world beyond my own control. Perhaps I had yet to realise that I was not the centre of everything. Almost certainly the photograph captures my pre-linguistic days since I refused to speak or grow much hair until after the age of four. How would I be able to distinguish a world abstract from myself without the language to construct it? How would anything have any meaning beyond experiential immediacy?
My sister would interpret grunts and inform my parents what I wanted. Apparently I usually helped by pointing at certain objects to at least give the grunts some context. No doubt there was much grunting and pointing that holiday as the family of four walked along the prom at Blackpool. This was the town when it was still a highly sought after holiday destination for working class Northerners. In the mid-1970s amid instability and unemployment in my ex-mining hometown, families saved all year for a week in Blackpool. In the rows upon rows of guest houses and B&Bs with gongs that sounded for breakfast and plastic flowers in vases on the tables in the dining rooms, families took refuge from the routine of daily life for a week by the sea.
Of course, my writing self is already merging its own later memories of other holidays where my sister and I were allowed to sound the gong for dinner and the week I would eat nothing in front of strangers and had to be taken outside for breakfast facing the sea. This could have happened in Morecambe, another family holiday destination; my memory is too messy to tell the difference. There is no chronology, no strict narrative of what happened and which year we went there. That only came later when I kept a “holiday diary” but even reading that years later parts of myself are still unremembered.
Self-narration then, one’s own store of memories seem no more or less reliable than anyone else’s. If my mother can narrate my unremembered self who ate sand and grunted, why should this depiction be any less reliable than if I remembered it myself? Why would her interpretation of the little girl be any more or less of a construct than if the little girl herself could speak? As soon as we begin to narrate ourselves, as soon as we use language, perhaps we begin to tell a story, one of an infinite number of versions. Sometimes we change the narrative ourselves over the years, sometimes we perfect it to a story that we like or that makes us laugh or feel safe or nostalgic. But the self seems essentially a story, a created, fictional, unified whole that we like to shape and set neatly into a chronology. To be a series of unrelated vignettes and half-remembered anecdotes perhaps diminishes our sense of importance and stability. By creating continuity through self-narrativisation we can comfort ourselves that we really do exist with a past and a certain amount of future. There is assurance and familiarity.
Yet I only know that the little girl in the picture ate sand and grunted because I have been told stories about her. The girl in the picture is ‘me’ and yet could well be some one I have never met before. The unremembered self is the equivalent to the stranger in the street. Even the remembered self seems a fiction, a patchwork of false, unreliable narratives tentatively strung together to form a whole. Although the memories themselves may seem abstract, as if existing in a vacuum with little concept of order (both in the storage and the retrieval), they are nevertheless culturally and historically embedded.
Look closely at the photograph of the two small girls. The style is typical of photographers who set up their seaside booths for professional holiday photographs. The fake background, the style of the swimming costumes unmistakeably 1970s. There is something a little more timeless about the two girls whose faces would not be out of place in a Dickensian street scene. The smaller girl is not looking at the camera, but off to the right, perhaps at her parents. This is a pose she often repeats in family photographs, or sometimes the older sister is the object of the younger child’s gaze, as if the camera was not there at all, or did not matter.
Why was this photograph taken? Certainly as a memento of the holiday, possibly even to capture how the two girls looked after a day on the beach. In the 1970s, the sea front was littered with outdoor photography studios – sometimes with false backgrounds of blue skies, palm trees, and green sea as if mocking the slightly muddy sand and sluggish waves reflected across the road. Photographers would try to entice you to have a photograph taken. Sometimes, as in this picture, they would have a monkey that would sit on your shoulder and groom your hair. Sometimes the studios had cartoons of caricatured men and women with holes cut out where their heads should be. When you placed your own head through a hole you suddenly transformed into a large woman in a polka-dot swimsuit or a man in a string vest and baggy shorts.
My parents must have paid what for us would have been quite a lot of money for the photograph. It must, therefore, have been important for them to record and capture that moment. I am tempted to think they were persuaded into it by a keen photographer, but equally I know my mother would not do anything she did not want to. So it was probably their decision to spend a lot of the money we didn’t have to capture their children at a particular moment on that particular holiday. A picture for the family album or may be for a short time the mantelpiece at home in the ‘front’ room, or the china cabinet where the best glasses were kept.
The two little girls in the photograph would have no idea that their holiday destination was less than two hours drive from their front door. As a child, Blackpool seemed to me as far away and exotic as Africa and Egypt. I romanticise the seaside working class holiday, of course. People who worked hard and saved all year for a week playing slot machines, building sand castles, and hiring stripy deck chairs. Nostalgia grieves for this time when neighbours from your hometown might be staying in the guesthouse next door, and people would say “it’s a small world” and it certainly is when you never travel more than two hours away from home. There is a longing for that sense of community and a ‘proper’ working class – a time before so many individuals became atomised consumers and Thatcher’s Britain gradually eroded away the working class identity. “There is no such thing as society” she said and the two little girls in the picture grew up under Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation, the destruction of the trade unions and grassroots movements, poll tax riots, a war in the Falklands, and increasing unemployment. “Get on a bike and get a job,” said Tebbit who never once saw my father’s face as he arrived home from yet another fruitless visit to the Job Centre. “Something will turn up,” my mother used to say.
Maybe it was those times that made holidays so special. A sunny day by the sea, all troubles temporarily forgotten, with two slightly grubby children and a photographer to capture the moment.
The self is unremembered but I know that it was happy.