Monday, 1 August 2011

Brilliant Frozen Moments

Booker prize-winning author Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger) lived in Egypt as a child during the 1930s and 1940s until the age of twelve. In her memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (1994), Lively reflects on her time in Egypt during the Second World War, with her devoted English governess Lucy, and tries to “recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood”.

This is not a chronological memoir, but rather like flicking through an old photo album with a friend who tells you random tales about the flora, fauna or furniture in each image. The result is the reader learns about young Penelope’s experiences with a snake charmer, visits by British soldiers to the Lively home Bulaq Dakhrur outside Cairo, car trips to Palestine, criteria for choosing donkeys to visit the pyramids, and her early interest in natural history.

Returning to Egypt later in life Lively is amazed by the changes in Egypt, especially in Alexandria where she has spent many summers on the beach, using gourds as flotation aids. Revisiting in 1988 Lively found the beaches replaced by “stark apartment blocks” and as such the Alexandria of her childhood “survives now only in my mind”.

I loved Lively’s conversational style and her ability to describe the child’s view of the world from adulthood. Whether she is talking about a settee she was not allowed to sit on, or children she could attend Brownies with but not invite over for tea, Lively reflects with great clarity through two lenses:  the past child and the present adult. She admits her vision of the past, while clear in her mind, is skewed. For example, she writes, “my Cairo of then is thus a landscape that is highly selective, entirely personal and only tenuously connected either to the reality of the time or the city that has overtaken it today”.

In the preface to Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively writes: “I believe that the experience of childhood I irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity.” I am so glad I had an opportunity to share these frozen moments.