VINTAGE GEMS Rebbecca Ray

NWR Issue 90

Hyperreal

Jesus. A memoir piece. I’ve had some trouble with this I can tell you. I’ve had some false starts. For one thing, I write fiction and there are reasons for that. Serving up memoir feels like piling uncooked food onto someone’s plate. Not once in my life did I sit down to write with my own voice. I could never even bear it long enough to keep a diary. Also I’m not yet dead – and it’s pretty hard to write a memoir without sounding like you’re at the end of whatever you’re writing about, which happens to be your life.

I asked everyone what I should say in this piece. My mother told me I shouldn’t write about myself at all, but the time, the place, the culture. It sounded like a good plan for avoiding vanity but I can’t pretend it doesn’t rankle. These things, they’re my material: the time, the place, the culture, and my experiences of them, which I couldn’t extricate anyway. So memoir... not a little like masturbation. Here goes another kid.

It was my birthday actually, two days ago, and because he’s a great deal lovelier than I am, my ex remembered and called me. He lives in San Francisco now and has done for five years, but he doesn’t sound any different than when we were both eighteen. We spent three years together. The first three years I lived in London after I’d left home. He used to smoke forty to sixty Malboro Red a day but I would have thought he’s at least tried to knock it down to Lights by now. We bought Silk Cut specially to gut and skin up with. We lived in two different places while we were together. First, this half-derelict basement on Lawrence Street, just off Cheyne Walk. We used to stay up all night taking speed and walk a couple of minutes to watch the sun come up over the Albert Bridge in the morning. His father owned the building but he had some kind of property injunction against him, so all he could do was give it to us to paint scarlet and purple and play garage in all night long. I remember, this place was so wet that when we did the laundry it never dried. You’d wait days. Eventually it would go mouldy. We had two dehumidifiers five foot high that used to suck gallons of river water out of the air – as many gallons as you could empty out of their canisters in the back.

Like a lot of the time I lived in London afterwards – probably I got the taste for it and refused to give it up – we didn’t have any rent to pay.

In fact, where I grew up we also had none: rent or mortgage. I grew up on a smallholding near a town called Rhayader in Mid Wales.

That’s where I’m writing this now.

I’ve had a lot of luck, it has to be admitted. There haven’t been many times when I’ve been without a room of my own. Certainly then, the first six months maybe, was a very magical time. I went to London because I had a publishing deal, which, at that age, was just crazy enough to fit in with my normality. There were issues. There were things I hadn’t dealt with, but everything happened fast enough. I didn’t need to touch on them. Or more than that maybe – which is where memoir falls down – it was both magical and self-destructive.

I was writing – a screenplay I think. Nothing that ever amounted to anything. I used to write in the afternoons when I woke up. I could see the ankles of the mothers and kids on the pavement outside through the bedroom skylight. We repainted that room white but it fast became green. Lumps had fallen out of the masonry when I’d tried to paint the walls around that skylight’s frame.

I was writing but also working. I got a job in a video rental shop in Bayswater – I’d always wanted to work in a video shop. When they called me to say I could start I jumped up and down in honest joy- much more joy than when Penguin bought A Certain Age. The decision I’d made to write, and to try to succeed with my writing, was not as positively motivated as the decision to try and get a job at... I’ve forgotten the name, and how many times did I answer the phone with it? They went bust or got bought out. They had a neon pink colour scheme. Prime-Time. That was the name. They were all over London.

I don’t know if I should say a bit about the book, how it got written or sold. I sat down to write about London but it was the book I finished in my bedroom here in Wales that took me there. I’ve never regretted publishing it, as a reviewer once said I would, but I worked hard for years after it came out in an effort to acquit myself. At that time, in Lawrence Street, I think I was still riding the wave. I used to cut myself a lot. That was the time I made the largest of the scars I’ve since had tattooed into a pattern strangers often want to run their hands over. A magical, self-destructive time. I was riding the wave because I was swimming furiously. I’d take twenty or twenty-five Pro Plus before work and jump up and down behind the counter at Prime-Time like a jackhammer for an eight-hour shift. I drank vodka still then. I had this pretty, girlish white dress that my parents still have a photo of me in, and my arm – it doesn’t show in that shot – was bloodied from the elbow to the shoulder. It used to itch like nothing on earth as it scabbed. I wore my hair in bunches. I think I wanted to assault the world with myself.

Over the next two years I told interviewers that there was nothing autobiographical in the book and did so with much believability – I think – but, of course, that was bullshit. I’d vomited my teen sex life into a three hundred page manuscript and sold it, very successfully, to the highest bidder. I told interviewers later that – as a wholly fictional work – the key to the book’s success was its universality.

Back then, at the video shop or in our basement flat though, the book was still waiting to be released, I was still proofing it and I could be as blatant as I wanted with my issues; no one knew me and I was still ahead of the tide.

Despite all that, or because of it, it was magical. Technicolor. 4D. I wasn’t sad.

Two hundred thousand people know how I lost my virginity. There’s a reason maybe why sitting down to write a memoir piece fills me with a creeping sense of dread. I haven’t used the first person since, in
twelve years of writing. But I swear – Emma, that reviewer’s name was, she was a writer herself – I’ve never regretted publishing it. I’ve always told people things. I think I’d rather see how they react than have to find a reaction of my own.

Anyway, that’s where I was. I’ve strayed of course from time and place and culture. It was 1997. The book came out in 1998. We moved house. He and I were together for another two years.

The dotcom revolution was the culture. In Lawrence Street, he had been part-time office tech support for a company called Fortune City. Googling now, it’s hard to say if the Fortune City I can find online – which boasts activity since 1997 – is the same. It called itself then, if I can remember right, a Portal Homepage Provider. People at that time had email addresses consisting of forty-digit number strings.

He is a year younger than me. When we met, he was in college half the week but he aborted with no A Levels, like I had none. At Fortune City, at seventeen, they couldn’t function without him. He was too young to be on minimum wage – though I could be right in thinking there wasn’t one then anyway? Just before we moved out he went to his first proper interview. He wore his old school uniform with a new tie and got the job. That was at Lycos UK, a search engine, when I’d never heard of Google. He stayed there until we broke up.

Now, in San Francisco, I’m not sure of the name of the company he works with. They supply Apple. He moved into R & D and then into Technical Sales. He specialised in semi-conductors; microchips. There isn’t a day of difference in his voice. Definitely not ten years. At Christmas he goes to South Africa, to the Western Cape, to stay with one of the younger Rothschilds.

I could tell you about living in Canary Wharf where we moved after Lawrence Street; Docklands as the revamp was just starting. How he and I used to walk round Cabot Square at night, deserted but for us, sculptures being erected, lights left on in precincts that still had no shopkeepers to make use of the business premises. We watched those six clocks that the commuter crowds now flow around as they enter or leave the Jubilee Line go up; they appeared one night, all of them without warning, their slim pedestals symmetrically spaced on the paving stones, still nonfunctional at that time, like the rest of the Docklands; disengaged from the machinations of life.

That was the point I started my second book, a project destined to remain in progress through many subsequent changes of address, partner, lifestyle. It was the point that A Certain Age was published and took me from radio station to TV studio, arguing with Ann Widdecombe, drinking pink champagne cocktails beside Madonna or sitting in our thirteenth floor flat with my very first copy, sobbing and not knowing why.

To put it all down like this makes it seem obvious that a change would come, a drastic change I couldn’t have avoided. I could say something like, it all happened too fast or, I was too young. But I have a feeling that, whatever the speed, at whatever age, to sell your life for the consumption of an audience is indicative of a need you’re refusing to recognise. Needs like that eventually start making changes for you. See, even the second person feels more comfortable than the first.

I left Canary Wharf, the life I’d cultivated, and him – in that order I think. And by an improbable chain of events was introduced to an utterly different lifestyle. I became a squatter. Having been handed a
career so easily, there was obviously no reason for me to believe it either valuable or fragile. But it was more than that. Here’s the difficulty of memoir again; the conflicts that co-exist so easily in reality but on the page seem to be irreconcilable. Of course I was happy to have money to buy booze, drugs and pay rent if I needed to. Of course I was buoyed up by the tremendous interest shown in me by publishers, the media and so on. I also hated it. I think without realising I was suffused with hatred. I hated everyone who’d brought me success, myself most of all. Until Newfoundland, the second book, was published, no professional encounter could be the result of anything but the sale of the most intimate parts of my life.

I became a squatter. I broke into long-derelict buildings with new friends, burnt wood collected on Hampstead Heath, took food from the skips behind supermarkets. I broke off contact with my publishers completely, maintained only minimal contact with my agent. I continued writing Newfoundland but in every other way happily embarked on the process of career suicide. In fact, as a pseudo-romantic saga-soap approaching one thousand pages in length and set in a remote Welsh village, Newfoundland could have been construed as the crowning piece of my professional implosion.

But as I said, I’d been given a career so easily.

I left him. I remember him puking chicken salad in Soho Square after having eaten nothing for three days. We met – I’d been in Wales, back here, hiding – and we met for the first time since I’d taken my laptop and a small bag of clothes from the flat. I hadn’t even known I was leaving him. I’d just known I couldn’t carry on. I’d just got on a train. He’d been drinking vodka and eating nothing and he told me so. We sat on a bench there and he begged me to come back to him. He used the word ‘synergy’ – or ‘symbiosis’ – I can’t remember which. And we both cried, and I remember wondering how it could be that in a city full of people living their lives the streets weren’t full of couples on benches, holding hands and crying, dragging themselves away from one another.

There’s nowhere to hide in memoir is there. I left him. By an improbable series of events I became a squatter and flushed my life away. And a crazy thing happened – the strangest thing – I became happy. I sat on the street corner in Archway for months. It’s still my favourite place in London. I finished the second book. It took six years from start to finish. Begun in 1998 or 1999, it came out in 2005. I lived in South End Green and then in Willoughby Road in Hampstead, then in Lewisham, Hither Green. I lived in Holly Lodge in Highgate, even in Mill Road in Cambridge briefly, where we barricaded the doors against the man who owned the house – which was utterly derelict but which he still cared enough about to threaten to burn us out. After seeing my then-partner pick up a claw hammer while the door was smashed toward us and heaved back and smashed toward us, only able to hope that the police would come before he got in, I made a pact to give up squatting. I quickly broke it. I lived in Manor House and in the Holloway Road, in abandoned theatres and blocks of flats and other flooded basements I shared with crackheads, party promoters and 10k rigs. We took ketamine on Wednesday nights. I became a long-lost teenager again. They were magical and self-destructive times, all the years I lived in London really. We filled up a Mini from the Marks and Spencers skip in Golders Green and fed twenty people on ready-made prawn cocktail.

One time that skip was full of potted orchids. Seven or eight of them, the pink variety, but orchids are such a bastard to take care of.

Where have I got to? I lived in London for seven years in total. I lived a wonderful, crazy, dire spectrum of a life. I wouldn’t regret any part of it.

My happiest point: that junction in Archway about which I have subsequently written a book. As it was the happiest part of my life – watching the world go by and drinking with the people who spent every hour of every day outside the flow – it’s also the best of my fiction. It has not been published though. Whether that’s the result of the slalom approach I’ve used for my career choices or a reflection of the industry that was never so happy with me as when I was dismembering my adolescent sex life it’s hard to tell. I send the book, which is called The Answer, out by email to anyone who would like to read it: rebbecca.ray@mindless.com

My saddest point: I find this harder.

Anyway, at the end of it all, I met my husband. If this has been an incoherent or indulgent piece, I’m sorry. If memoir’s possible with no such flaws, I’m not the author for it.

I live – my husband and I live – back on the smallholding where I grew up in Wales. We go occasionally to London for an odd weekend, a party. I often pass by places that I lived, there were so many.

I should’ve stuck with the time, the place, the culture – but in reliving it all of course those aren’t things that stand out most vividly. What stands out vividly is the moment. Each moment – hyperreal, technicolor – that can’t be pinned down in a single storyline or a single emphasis or even in a wealth of conflicts. What stands out is the sensation of living. Maybe that’s the joy of memoir.


       


previous vintage gems: At the Inquiry
next vintage gems: The Poet I Might Have Been



 
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