Memoir First Pages

Return of the Native

Memoir

Leaving

2015

Bangor, Northern Ireland

 

May is 97, Ken is 75.  They are meeting for the first time in 50 years.

Maybe it’s jetlag, or nerves that he thinks he’s trained himself not to feel, but Ken has trouble with the dials on the front door lock of the tiny house in Church Street.  He’s been warned that May can’t come to the door, so he keeps fumbling, his fingers barely able to keep the dials separate.

A woman comes out of a house three or four doors away, one without a For Sale sign.  Ken picks up his backpack and hurries to her.

She is wary.

“Could you help me with a lock?  I have the code.”

She watches him, her face blank, finally signals him to wait and steps back inside the house.

The hall behind her, the room through the low window appear devoid of furniture: the most shameful thing that could happen to a family when he was growing up.

A youngish man appears, more comfortable with Ken.

“My wife doesn’t speak English.”

Central or Eastern European looks and accent.  Bangor has changed; Ken remembers only two foreigners in Bangor long ago: the Lucci sisters, Italian owners of the sweetshop on the sea front.  (Italian refugees during the war?  Why no rumors of prejudice?  Or is that the reason the shop is usually empty of customers even with the summer visitors?  Maybe too stylish, too European, too dear?)  In the summertime May helps out one or two nights a week for extra money—ten bob a night?

Before Ken can explain himself, a car has drawn up to May’s house and a woman is getting out.  When he’s sure she’s at May’s front door, he points to her, thanks the man and hurries back.

“I’m here to visit May.  From America.”

She’s sure enough of herself not to doubt him.  “I heard about that.”

They told him a health visitor drops by four times a day, probably free on the National Health.  He doubts there is any similar service in San Francisco.

“Come in.”

But May is almost blocking the front door from inside.  She’s heard Ken at the door and crawled a few feet along the well, balancing precariously, dragging one leg, a hand tottering on a walking stick.

They support her, clumsily, back to her armchair.  She’s like a sack of potatoes, Ken thinks, and notes his easy reversion to thinking like the Ulster boy of sixty years ago.  He drops his backpack and sits on the only other chair in the tiny living room, only a thin wall and a window separating them from the pavement.  Kenneth never lived here; he was brought home to the house in Dufferin Avenue, on the other side of the railway station.  This doll’s house, two up, two down, housed Maggie and Andy and their children when they were young: Smiley, May, David, Iris.

May and Ken observe each other across the top of a folding tray table, on it a half-eaten white bread ham sandwich and a half-drunk cup of tea.  May wears a pink housecoat, the color too pale to hide the grubbiness where she’s dropped food.  A pair of glasses diminishes her pixie face.

Ken has long prepared himself for this moment, at times regretting that he ever bought the plane ticket.  He has rehearsed acceptance, self-control, equanimity, anticipating how easily he could be drawn into the old family ways.  Having trained himself, he thinks he can train May.  And doesn’t believe it will be possible.

Her voice shocks him, deep and forceful from the tiny frame, the Ulster accent strong despite her years in London.

“Who are you?” she inquires politely.

 

 

Writing Return 1

I think I started the first draft of the memoir thinking that if it happened it must be interesting to readers.  Even this reader, when he reread those first pages, found the story less than riveting.  Putting life into the pages required a degree of self-reflection and honesty I hadn’t achieved even in my long life and even after my training as a therapist.

I hadn’t thought the book would force me to confront my past, but I found I had to do a lot of self-confronting.   For a time I fooled myself that I could lie by omission, leave out what shamed or pained me, which meant that I was more afraid of what writing hard truths would do to me rather than how it would affect the reader.

Then there’s the problem that every sentence I write raises more questions.  Is that really why that happened, why I did that, they did that?  I found I’d been telling myself big lies for most of my life.

Best wishes, Ken

Return of the Native — Memoir

I can’t believe it’s almost four years since I blogged.  They’ve been spent worrying away at the first book in a trilogy memoir about growing up in Northern Ireland, and what happened afterwards in England and America.  It’s been a rewarding, surprising and painful experience so far, confronting material I didn’t want to write about and radically revising my view of the past.  I’ll write more about the process in the months ahead.

Best, Ken

Money

Socialite Elizaveta Stackenschneider was a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky, a frequenter of her Peterburg salon, but in her diary after his death she called him “a petit bourgeois … the most profound thinker and a writer of genius … he will always regard 6,000 rubles as a vast amount of money.” At the time 6,000 rubles was enough to buy a year of decent living in Peterburg.
Based on what it bought for me, the most money I ever earned from writing was the £100 advance I earned on the British edition of Aubade, less 10% agent’s commission. Five years later I earned more for a few days’ part-time work on the pieces I wrote for the London Sunday Times Magazine, and it was never enough. But everything in my life followed from, depended on, that first £90. Without it I would probably have gone mad.
I once mentioned to a university lecturer friend how that first advance had bought me sanity. He didn’t approve of the way my writing had evolved or of the superficial man he judged I’d become, and thought my contribution to literature would have been greater if I’d stayed in Northern Ireland. (I doubt if misery and lack of insight would have been an easy sell.) “I can see nothing of Aubade in you,” he sniffed. I told him I’d take sanity any day.
I can see why an 18-year-old equated success with money: with, for example, enough to eat. And I can see now why I had no hope of achieving the modest financial success of British authors who managed on a book club sale here, a BBC adaptation there, once in a blue moon maybe even (a house!) film rights! The best bet was a staff job on a newspaper with novel writing on the side. Nobody spelled out to me the basis for my limited financial prospects, why I wasn’t going to sell book club or film or foreign rights in Catholic countries: I’d written a book about a subject that was too disgusting for the mass public to even mention, that described a relationship that was illegal, feelings you should be ashamed of even if you admitted to yourself that you had them. And how could anyone get their head around the book being written by a 16-year-old boy? What were the publishers thinking?
Very few of my readers were primarily seeking literary fiction (even those a small group then as now). My readers were closeted queer men desperate to have their feelings and identity validated or their existence at least acknowledged. I heard from only a handful who dared to write me carefully worded letters. The sad thing to me now is that I wasn’t able to think this through, to feel validated myself because I’d given a gift that meant a lot to strangers. I was too busy scraping a living.

Tattoos and consequences

One of the reasons I have eleven tattoos is my need to remind myself that behavior can have irreversible consequences. It was a time when I seemed headed for serious trouble. The first tattoos were an attempt to right myself; the others reminders that I wasn’t out of the woods.
A few months after Aubade was first published in 1957 I received a letter in an airmail envelope forwarded from my publisher’s office, addressed to “Kenneth Martin, Author of Summer Holiday.” The enclosed letter from a U.S. fan, though it didn’t mention a book title again, was about Aubade, months before the U.S. edition was published. It seemed the British edition was being sold under a different title, probably under plain cover by mail or in big city dirty bookstores. (I once asked the proprietress of one of these London holes in the wall in the Charing Cross Road, where Aubade was displayed prominently along with heterosexual porn, how it was selling. She was wary about my motives, so I plucked up the gall to tell her I’d written it. “How could you write a book like that?” she asked, eyes bulging righteously.)
I showed the letter to my agent Julian Jebb, and he pointed out that it didn’t mention “Summer Holiday.” “Would you like to see the envelope?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. I admitted that I’d thrown away the envelope. I’m not sure he believed me, though he told my publisher, who said I must be the first author to be pirated across the Atlantic since Dickens. (The firm had been Dickens’s first publishers.)
I’m not sure Julian believed much of what I told him, including the story of my secret adoption which I’d just uncovered. “Kenneth, is this true?” I remember him asking more than once. Maybe he thought I wanted attention. The publicity over Aubade in England had died down, and I’d realized how little impact my book, or a half-page newspaper feature about my split personality, accompanied by a double exposure photo, had on the memory or even initial attention of the great British public. (Even though I gave good copy.)
I should have kept the envelope, documentary evidence that I wasn’t lying. Why didn’t I? I’ve always had a blithely indifferent disregard for cause and effect, consequences. And “You don’t care what people think” I still hear time and time again. Well, I think I do, but apparently not as much as most people. Perhaps because there have been plenty of times when I couldn‘t afford to care what people thought. Evidence has built up that my luck is terrible, that time after time a chain of unlikely coincidences will ensure that I’ll be found out in every evasion or lie. But I never learned. Which is why, at an advanced age, and even when the stakes are great, I need help reminding myself that behavior has consequences.