Penelope Lively is, among other things, a memoirist who does not like to write memoirs. She considers her most recent book, the delightfully named Dancing Fish and Ammonites, “the view from old age”. In 1994, when Oleander, Jacaranda was published, she was equally coy about calling it a memoir, choosing instead the typically cautious and thoughtful “A Childhood Perceived”.
Born in 1933 in Cairo, Lively spent the first twelve years of her life in Egypt. So much of Lively’s fiction revolves around history and memory but in this case it is Lively’s own history and her own memories that she examining. And examine them she does, contrasting the vivid memories of childhood with what her now adult mind realises must have been the reality. She can be a harsh and unsympathetic judge at times but is never anything less than an extraordinary gifted and articulate writer.
Lively may have been born in Egypt but there was nothing in her upbringing to tie her to that country:
… I was growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by all the signals of another. Egypt was my home, and all that I knew, but I realized that in some perverse way I was not truly a part of it.
With her parents on the perimeter of her daily life (her father was bank manager while her mother enjoyed a rather active social life), Lively was largely raised by her staunchly British nanny-cum-governess, Lucy. Lucy sounds like the prototypical middle-class nanny, full of patriotic zeal, a distaste for foreigners, and pithy aphorisms. Between Lucy and school, Lively grew up with the knowledge of the supremacy of a country she belonged to but where she had never lived:
England was pink. I knew that from Bartholomew’s atlas. Pink was good. And there was plenty of it, too, a global rash; lots of the rest of Africa, and India slung there like a pear, and New Zealand and Australia and Canada and much else. I learned history from a book called Our Island Story, much approved by Lucy. It had glossy romantic pictures of national heroes, with potted accounts of the finer moments of the nation’s rise to pink glory. Boadicea and King Arthur and Sir Walter Raleigh and Kitchener and Queen Victoria all somehow rolled into one to produce essence of Englishness. The atlas reinforced this triumphant digest of the Whig interpretation of history. Up there at the top is brave little England. Britannia rules the waves. Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square. This sceptred isle. John Bull. The white cliffs of Dover. I imbibed it all with a whisper of unease: did I truly have a claim to all this?
I look back in dismay. There has been a lot of unlearning to do. And can it all be unlearned? Is there perhaps deep within me some unreconstructed layer which believes pink is best and that it has been uphill all the way from brave Boadicea to good Lord Kitchener?
That last paragraph leaves me unsettled, or at least perturbed. It is a very politically correct reaction, especially for 1994, but it feels perhaps too much of its time. I look forward to reading Dancing Fish and Ammonites to see if she still feels this way now, twenty years later. To me, this seems an exhaustingly guilt-ridden overreaction, one that allows only for absolute truths (which rarely exist).
Despite her thorough schooling in Britain’s past glories, Lively’s childhood identity was that of the outsider. In Egypt, she grew up in the ex-pat community, a community bound together by the shared “home” that Lively barely knew. Sent to England at the age of twelve (following her parents’ divorce), she experienced an upsetting disconnect from the England she had imagined and found herself once again the outsider:
This was England, then. But it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the hazy, glowing nirvana conjured up in the nostalgic chatter to which I had half listened back in Egypt. Back in the real world. Nobody had mentioned the cold. Or the rain. Or the London dirt which was not the aromatic organic dirt of Egypt but a sullen pervasive grime which left your hands forever grey and every surface smeared with soot. In my mind I had created a place which seems like those now out-dated advertisements for environmentally destructive products like petrol or cigarettes – all soft-focus landscape, immutable good weather, gambolling animals and happy laughing folk. I had never seen such advertisements and I suspect the image was based on Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations spiced with Arthur Rackham and Beatrix Potter. Certainly I would not have been surprised to find toadstool houses and the odd gnome, or people wearing poke bonnets and pinnies. I might well have felt on home ground then – I had grown up with that kind of thing, in a sense.
In Egypt, European society was strangely flat: like most ex-pat communities or outposts of empire, it was homogenously middle-class. It wasn’t until British soldiers began arriving in Cairo during the war that Lively had her first introduction to the British class system – a system she had not quite mastered by the time she had to move to England:
I was in something of the same position as the average Egyptian. I too had known only one kind of British person. Now I too discovered that English is spoken in many different ways, and that there were apparently mysterious gradations of Englishness which appeared in some perverse way to mirror Lucy’s definition of degrees of non-Englishness. It was bewildering. My previous indoctrination had been that English was an exclusive club. If you spoke English you were a member of the club, and that was the end of it. Now I discovered – slowly and incompetently – that things were quite like that after all. It was more complicated, and bafflingly so. I was quite devoid of the innate social perceptions of any home-bred British child. I had not acquired them by the time I came to England in early adolescence, and was to continue to commit what were seen by my relatives as solecisms and gross errors of judgement.
I finished the book desperate to continue on with Lively, to know what happened when she went to university (where she discover that, despite what her teachers told her at school, other young people did like to read and had in fact been doing quite a lot of it) and how the rest of her life went on from there. It is fortuitous timing that I waited until now to read Oleander, Jacaranda since I now have Dancing Fish and Ammonites to move on to – with great joy and anticipation!