Reading Maria Stepanova (in In Memory of Memory) on how she remembers the pictures on the transfers she used to stick on the base of a lamp when she was ten, I clearly remembered having such transfers myself, how you soaked them in water, then carefully spread them out without creases, but I couldn’t remember a single picture on any of them. What were they? Farm animals? Cartoon characters? Perhaps it was the soaking and spreading that were the point, not the pictures. Remembering things from one’s childhood is supposed to be a reward of growing old, but when you only remember parts of it, and other people write in such detail about what they do remember, it seems less reward than punishment. Or a particularly refined kind of torture, which leaves you soaking and spreading precisely nothing.
It sometimes seems to me that when my brother died he took a lot of my childhood with him, but perhaps this is only true to the extent that I can no longer be reminded of things by him, or check them with him. Having mislaid my password on a website this morning I had to fill in the answers to the security questions, one of which was ‘Which town did your youngest brother/sister last live in?’ At first it was upsetting, as if the website should have known: I only had one brother and he is dead. Worse, I could not answer it: where was he living when I filled in the answers to those questions? I have to start all over again on the site to prove my identity; the man at the helpdesk said I should choose questions to which I knew the answers.
Thinking of those transfers I tried to summon up the actual material proofs that I had a childhood at all. There is one photo album and a few slides, there used to be some stuffed toys – but where are they now? – and amongst my brother’s things was the inventory of the objects in my dolls’ house that I made three days after my birthday in 1960, the year I got a date stamp. But fortunately, apart from this random and not entirely convincing collection, there is the overpowering glory of my childhood books, not all of them but the best, saved from when my parents moved house and jealously guarded since.
Quite a few of them also have that date stamp; when I was ten I wanted not only to write books but also to stamp them, as they did at the library. All the Arthur Ransomes are there, many of them with the drawings coloured in; the E. Nesbits, the lesser known ones in hardback, others in paperback; M. Pardoe’s Bunkle series, some of them sold off from Boots Booklovers Library, I remember the excitement when we found them, rare even then; The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett – I thought I was the only person to have read this until I discovered that Annie M.G. Schmidt translated it – and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, a Puffin paperback that has fallen apart.
I reread all of these regularly, except the Eve Garnett, which is missing its last page. They are battered, dog-eared and defaced, but I am sure that even without them I would still remember the illustrations (some by the authors, like Arthur Ransome and Eve Garnett, others by artists like Julie Neild and H.R. Millar) just as well as Maria Stepanova remembers her transfers. She writes that cataloguing those transfers seems to be her life’s work: ‘As if that is what I grew up to do.’ Her transfers have disappeared but I still have the illustrations in my books. It sometimes feels as if the last part of life is there to make sense of the first part; when I look at those books I am back in the time when I knew the answers to all my security questions, when everything was still all right.