The realm upstairs
At the top of the square Victorian house in which I lived for the first thirteen years of my boyhood was a large attic. Apart from one of the rooms up there, in which were trunks and kists and boxes, this attic was a kind of kingdom over which my brother and I had been granted the rule. It was here, more than anywhere, that we were fairly sure not to encounter adults. Or, at least, those who did come up the stairs, did so, as I saw it then, on our terms, not theirs. They were only visiting dignitaries paying homage to the two reigning monarchs (or telling them lunch was on the table). They were not unwelcome - though they were not expected to stay long.
They could throw a couple of darts at the board if they liked - just to show off their hopeless inaccuracy in the face of our superior expertise. Or, if they cared to, they could watch the electric train rattle once round its circuit on the ping-pong table, with my brother at the controls - gasp as it disappeared into the bakelite tunnel, sigh with relief when it came out the other end, follow it nervously as it picked up crazy speed along the straight, streaking, with its tender and four Pullman cars in tow, past tin cows and a horse grazing with unlikely relish on green paint. They could hold their breath as it hurtled into the bend at the far corner and commiserate melodramatically when, for the three-hundredth time that morning it came to grief in the Crash of the Century, because somehow we still hadn't perfected the points just past the signal box. . . .
At other times, invading adults simply had to wait in silence, on peril of their lives. Maybe we did have to change immediately and go down to the shops! Maybe I was due for yet another goose-pimpling session of cold-water torture at the Bingley Baths, where a Brute Instructor was reputedly teaching me how to swim! But just now it was three games all and match point - the Longest Rally of the Century - (the table had been cleared of rail traffic to become Wimbledon Central Court) and whoever put either champion off his stroke would know what unpopularity was!
A-a-a-ch! I muffed it. A fearsome tragedy, yet again. The victor behaved victoriously. I was not noble in defeat. Being four years younger is just not fair!
All kinds of memories attach to this attic - indeed to the whole of that house, and its garden, and the roads that ran past on three sides of it: I could fill a book with them, alive and vivid to me - though probably dead boring to anyone else.
Are such home-memories escapist nostalgia? Rampant self-indulgence? I don't think they are either of these. I don't long for a return to this past. I'm more than happy to be the present man which this remote object of parental affection and middle-class comfortableness, this peculiarly unconnected small boy, is supposed to have been once upon a time. Besides, I have found that my enjoyment of such distant fragments is unexpectedly increased in proportion to the security I feel now; so it isn't escape.
That child is just a patchwork of sharp and bright memories which I feel at liberty to cut out and restitch to the fabric of my today. The child lives on in the artist in everyone: expunge the child and we expunge the artist, and vice versa. Indulge the child and the artist is spoilt. But select critically, and then, surely, the man is making best use of the child, and is likely to produce art that is sharp and bright.
For whatever reason, I find that my attitude to ''memory'' is changing. I have been too rigorously down on it. Memories have seemed soft and unprogressive. But I suspect now that by throwing them out as so much bathwater I have at the same time thrown out a baby or two. To see freshly is not necessarily to totally abolish yesterday. Nobody rightly chooses to live in the past . . . but how cruelly should we abandon it?
In the attic of my childhood, I remember now a small room, not much more than a cupboard. It was windowless. I can visualize it as convincingly as a dream. Like so many spaces in childhood, so many rooms in houses once furnished as home , then emptied when you move, it is ''real'' still in the mind's eye even though it has not been like that for years. It would remain more real than the room - the home even - returned to later and found filled with the possessions of new inhabitants. . . .
That windowless room in the attic illustrates the way in which my memory of childhood has resolved itself above all into poignant experiences of space and color. If I could trap the vividness of these spaces and colours in my paintings now, they would be worth something!
It was this small room where we set up the rickety, whirring, eccentric-looking projector our two older brothers had bequeathed to us when they left home. The light it threw was weak and the surface its pictures flickered on was only a few inches square. But there was the greatest excitement in the darkness of this room and in watching this private phantasmagoria.
And my brother managed, I'm not sure how, to get some discarded strips of coloured film from one of the local cinemas. These were a great deal larger and much more impressive than our own black and white film. They couldn't be used in our toy projector of course, but their fascination as objects in themselves was quite enough to absorb my attention for hours.
They were shiny, and richly, intensely dark. How could light be powerful enough to pass through this deep blackness and produce brilliant colours, unknown and fiercely strong? How could this small image become the dazzling and vast picture on the screen at the Hippodrome? How could this repetition of apparently identical pictures be transformed into drama and wonderment? But it was the strange relationship between darkness and living, unforgettable colours which intrigued me most of all.
This sharp memory, colours first seen in the stuffy secrecy of the attic cupboard, seems to me now like an analogy for memory itself: a small realm of vivid child-discovery, out of bounds to adults.