I’ve been reading A Life Discarded – a biography by Alexander Masters. I haven’t finished it yet: 84% through, according to the Kindle.
I think I’ve mentioned this before. Masters’ friends, Dido and Richard, happen to be passing a skip in Cambridge one day and discover 148 discarded diaries, some randomly scattered, many packed into an old Ribena bottle box. He delays and delays; Dido gets very, very sick; Richard has a terrible accident and is paralysed, and because our biographer is superstitious and feels there may be some message, some code to be discovered in the order in which they were found, it takes him years even to put the books into chronological order. Over the years he has discovered the writer is female, and that her name is Laura. With the diaries in order he discovers several more things:
that the sequence, although stretching from 1952 to the day on which Dido and Richard made their discovery, is not complete. He has in his possession thousands and thousands of words of an obsessive, voluminous diary-writer’s diary, but only a fraction of the whole;
that the diaries had been tossed into the skip by builders the day Laura was evicted from a house where she had been ‘imprisoned’ as a housekeeper for much of her middle and older age, on the death of her employer – maybe only hours before Dido and Richard had found them;
that Laura, though now an old lady, is still alive.
That’s the bones of it – the mystery/adventure story behind Laura’s own story; poor, valiant Laura of the squandered life and the lost ambitions, recording a whole lifetime of neurotic fears, artistic ambitions, failure on almost every front; poverty, boredom, loneliness and television watching.
She doesn’t read back what she has written – all those hours and hours a day of obsessive scribbling – which is how, when he finds her, she is surprised that the diaries were even missing. She does not read back at all; she writes and writes ‘to protect her brain’ as her biographer puts it – to knock the words out of it, to eliminate wretched thoughts. Diary-keeping means she fails to practice the piano, her drawing, or to write anything else. It ‘gobbles up’ her talent. She briefly goes to Art School. She works in a library and gets sacked. Then she gets sacked from a string of other, mostly housekeeping jobs. Because she does not read the diaries back she never does come to understand why. Decade after weary decade she does this one, ritual activity, but can study/focus on nothing else.
I must say although it’s an intriguing story I did often wish that Alexander Masters would but out and just let me read the diaries. I got a bit fed up with him and his clever-clever detective work (like working out her height from the slant of her letters, and calling in psychics and detectives to read the vibes) although of course we must be grateful to him for seeing the potential in Laura’s diaries at all, and saving her ‘life’ for posterity. He’s a skilled and entertaining writer – if he wasn’t, he and Laura would have been consigned to the Cloud well before now – it’s just – he isn’t a woman, he isn’t a failure and he isn’t of that generation. I found myself wishing to read the diaries themselves rather than all those teensy-weensy, out of sequence extracts.
I suppose what I’m trying to get around to, and avoiding getting round to, is why I felt I had to read this particular book, out of so many, and what I have learned from it – which is unpleasant, though not unexpected. Unlike Laura, I do read back what I write. I do analyse. And I don’t just write to bang the words out of my head, although that’s part of it. It is medicine, writing. Not therapy – there we are straying into Self-Obsessed, Dire and Totally Unreadable territory.
So, I could see the parallels – the lack of focus, the constant distraction; the woolly-minded, unemployable dreaminess… a thread of it does rather seem to run in my family. One of my sisters is like it, like me – the other not at all. My mother was an odd mixture of both – steely, unimaginative practicality but cursed with what my father used to call her Butterfly Mind.
Butterfly Minds can be useful, however. Not for life – oh no, not for life – but for writing, journalism, some kinds of inventing. It’s like being a magpie in a world full of shiny, interesting things – a magpie in an infinite junkshop, maybe. Everything is equally fascinating, infinitely strange. Nothing can be ignored or left to rot, quietly. And so we hop (or flutter, if you’re still stuck on the butterfly imagery) from one heap of junk to another – examining; pulling out a thread of tinsel here; picking up broken pottery; finding lost earrings. What’s this? How does it work? Oooh, this would look nice in my nest…
With that kind of mind you need a hefty dose of guidance (‘support’ as they call it nowadays) and she didn’t get it. I didn’t, either. You can almost hear her un-supported-ness, as she tells you about boiling up the stalks of sprouts, which she got cheap at the supermarket; fretting about Michael Barrymore and his troubles or fantasising about being a concert pianist when she’s too old, nowhere near good enough and doesn’t practice. She needs looking after. No one looks after her.
Diary of Discoveries by Vladimir Kush – (banana painting also by Kush)
But it did make me think about such fruitless, frustrating lives. Are they really wasted? Sometimes we spend our lives trying to create one thing but actually, unwittingly, creating something else. People are often remembered, not for what they thought was important, but for something else entirely, a thing they didn’t value.
It did remind me about the returning and recycling of souls, and how they are said to plan, before entering into a new existence, the life they need to lead, in order to learn what they need to learn. When they return to the ‘centre’ they take with them what they have learned, the ways that they have grown, and they leave behind traces in other human lives, unpredictable consequences. So, it’s nothing as crude as saying – though of course, it might be – this must be my lifetime for being a quadriplegic, or spending twenty-five years in an iron lung; this is the lifetime for falling off a cliff and discovering what it feels like to fly through salt-laden air and land in a mangled heap on the rocks below; this is my lifetime for barefoot scavenging on slum waste-heaps and hoping not to get stuck by discarded needles.
But it might well be – this is my life for failure and tedium; for unrealised dreams; for feeling fat, boiling up cauliflower stalks and failing to clean out the fridge; for physically loathing my employer yet staying with him till he dies and I am summarily thrown onto the streets; for actually caring about Jeux Sans Frontières or Michael Barrymore. This is how I progress. This is what I learn. This is the path less travelled; a day’s excursion; a small detour in a far, far longer journey. This is what I leave behind, and may other people see what I did not.
This is part of where I’m going.