Friday, 13 November 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

It has been a week for memories. Monday 9th was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember that day. Husband and I went into town for some forgotten purpose and, coming up the stairs at Oxford Circus tube station, we met the vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, coming down. Father Hutt was as full of smiles as we were and I think all we said was, "Isn't it wonderful?' The following Sunday he mentioned this encounter in his sermon - how he and the two members of his congregation hasn't needed to say what was wonderful; we just knew.

So we all know when it came down but before this week did you remember when it was built? I found out when researching an adult novel set in 1980, that the Wall went up in 1961, when I was a dreamy teenager, faling in love in Spain with an English boy I never saw again.

Tuesday 10th was the exact 800th anniversary of the death of a hero of mine, Raimon-Roger Trencavel. He was the young viscount of Béziers, Carcassonne, Albi and Razés and I wrote about him in my novel Troubadour. Trencavel got the Jews out of Béziers before the massacre perpetrated by the Albigensian Crusade and he believed the Cathars would be safe there - as they should have been but for a freak incident. He rode on to Carcassonne and fortified it against the invaders but after a long siege came out to parley under a safe-conduct. Treacherously the French leaders seized him and imprisoned him in his own dungeon.

His titles were given to Simon de Montfort (Snr. - not the one the university is named after) while he still lived but on 10th November 1209, it was announced that Raimon-Roger had "died of dysentery." He was 24.

Wednesday, 11th was a day of memories for everyone, made even more poignant by the absence of any WW1 survivor at the Cenotaph. I observed the silence, wearing a red and a white poppy, in a coffee bar in Cambridge, with a friend. We had got the waitress to turn off the loud pop music but could not switch off the man lecturing his companion on LinkedIn.

I was having lunch at Newnham, my old college, which I hadn't re-visited for ten years and not much before that. I often dream about it though, its long corridors, the dining hall, where this week I was having a pleasant meal with a group of senior staff, the grounds and climbing in.

One of the guests was my old Director of Studies, whose retirement party was the reason I went back in 1999. She spent almost her entire working life there and must have admitted at least ten women for 35-40 years and yet she remembered several people and incidents from my cohort extremely vividly. We had a fascinating talk.

On one day this week Germaine Greer, who was also a Newnham alumna (she was doing a postgraduate course there when I went up) wrote an extremely stupid piece in the Guardian about how it wasn't worth reading Proust. I remember Greer as a tall, terrifyingly articulate and beautiful woman with a mass of dark chestnut-coloured hair. I wouldn't have dared to contradict a literary opinion of hers in those days but I do now.

I bet she never even finished A la Recherche, let alone read it several times, as I have done. No-one has ever written better on the subject of memory, not even my beloved Giorgio Bassani. And now that I have so many years to remember, I frequently relive Marcel's sensations in the last volume when he sees his friends at a party and believes them to be in fancy dress - so many of them are wearing white wigs, or walking with a cane, or are padded out to look fat, or have lines drawn on their faces!


Stroppy Author said...

So glad I'm a recent enough friend not to look like I'm in fancy dress (yet). I've just written a book on the Berlin Wall, which was fascinating to research, and so that (as well as some family history) made that paticular anniversary very important for me this week. Those who died crossing the Wall (239 of them) are also worthy our remembrance. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Mary.

adele said...

So glad we agree about Proust! That was an extremely silly article by Germaine, who, I sometimes think "only does it to annoy/because (s) he knows it teases."

catdownunder said...

We waved Greer goodbye from Downunder with a sigh of relief.

Nicola Morgan said...

Mary - gosh, I was at Newnham too! I never knew you were. I was there 1979-82. You? That's amazing. I have barely been back though. I recently went back to a Selwyn reunion (my huband was there and that's where we met) but not the newnham one. What was your subject?