What I can comment on

In writing memoir, when it comes to those whose lives intersect mine, sooner or later I shall have to decide what I can comment on – carefully – and what should remain shrouded in tactful silence. This dilemma is especially challenging when we are forced to borrow aspects of experience in which we have no direct part, a process of necessary borrowing which should be resorted to very sparingly.

It may be that my parents were very loving to each other, in which case I can comment on the evidence I saw of that and how I experienced it, but not that which they experienced together in private. Compare, “My parents were passionately devoted to each other” – how would I know, and to what degree can I comment on their passion? – with “I often saw my father kiss my mother, so I grew up assuming that everyone behaved this way.” But hold your horses, it’s not evidence of love that people tend to get upset about.

So more pertinently, I may know that my parents argued a lot, and that may well have affected the atmosphere round the dining table – which I can comment on, since I experienced that atmosphere and would have drawn conclusions about it. I may have witnessed my parents having a row, and that also I can comment on; but any deeper references or even hints about the reasons why, are my parents’ reasons, and not for me to borrow.

Though I have disagreed with others on this, I do believe that the past is a foreign country, and that, in recalling the past for our own narrative we had best remember:-

~ That we can comment on what we saw or experienced;

~ We can invent or reconstruct likely conversations that took place in an attempt to replicate flavour, atmosphere and likely attitudes;

~ We should omit, in the final analysis, all references to conduct between two or more others about which we have no direct knowledge.

For example, I came to the United Kingdom from Africa when I was three. My siblings did not travel with me on that journey. I can, therefore, comment on my naïve impressions of that trip by ship and can give some idea of why I thought it happened. But I was not aware, or told, what happened to my siblings while I was away, though I can comment on feelings of unexpected estrangement with them that followed my return with my mother to Africa after several months’ absence.

Thanks for listening.

To be continued.

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