Monday, May 20, 2019

Wondering how I should live

‘I went on reading novels, poetry and biography as voraciously as ever but I also devoured the floods of pamphlets and booklets the feminist presses turned out, devoting many pages of my diary to reflecting on all these new ideas, to wondering how I should live. Sometimes rather pompously and priggishly, I am afraid.’ This is from a memoir by the British feminist writer Michèle Roberts, 70 years old today. Happy Birthday. In the memoir - Paper Houses - Roberts occasionally writes about her diaries, and how she used them (as in this extract); but she also quotes from them now and then.

Roberts was born on 20 May 1949, minutes after her twin sister Marguerite, to a French mother and an English father. She grew up in a suburb of northwest London, attending convent schools and spending summer holidays in Normandy with grandparents. She read English at Somerville, Oxford, and then studied to become a librarian. She spent a year working for the British Council in Southeast Asia. Back in London, she became very involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, and was poetry editor for Spare Rib, and then for City Limits. Her first novel, A Piece of the Night, was published in 1978. Further novels followed every year or two, but she continued to do various part-time jobs to earn money. Only after 1992, when her novel Daughters of the House was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was she able to focus exclusively on writing.

Roberts has married twice, and has two step-sons. She has lived in Italy and North America, but bought her first house in France. She now alternates between France (Mayenne) and London, and spends time at the University of East Anglia where she is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing. Apart from novels, she has also published collections of short stories and poetry. She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded by the French government, but has turned down an OBE because of her republican views. Further biographical information is available at Roberts’ own website, Wikipedia, the British Council, or Aesthetica.

In 2007, Virago published Roberts’ Paper Houses: A memoir of the ’70s and beyond. The publisher states: ‘Michèle Roberts, one of Britain’s most talented and highly acclaimed novelists, now considers her own life, in this vibrant, powerful portrait of a time and place: alternative London of the 1970s and beyond. A fledgling writer taking a leap into radical politics, Roberts finds alternative homes, new families and lifelong friendships in the streets and houses of Holloway, Peckham, Regent’s Park and Notting Hill Gate. From Spare Rib to publishing her first book, Paper Houses is Roberts’ story of finding a space in which to live, love and write – and learning to share it.’ A few pages can be sampled at Amazon or Googlelooks, and a review can be found at The Guardian.

Here is Roberts concluding her introduction to the memoir: ‘This memoir draws on the diaries I kept, on those written records scrawled in notebooks specially bought for the purpose, each notebook different and distinctive. When I spread them out on the floor of the room where I write they look like the multicoloured pavement of a piazza. This memoir is like fiction, in as much as I have shaped and edited it, but it is as truthful as I can make it, honouring both facts and the way I saw them at the time. On the other hand I know that memory, under pressure from the unconscious mind, is unreliable; and I have forgotten a lot. Out of consideration for others’ privacy, I’ve been obliged to censor some episodes. I have left out some characters, some lovers and love affairs, and I have changed some names. I don’t want to bore you, and I don’t want to hurt people, either. I have tried to be honest.’

And here are several extracts from the book in which she mentions or quotes from her diaries (the first is from the very start of chapter one).

‘I prepared for my new life, post university, in London, by buying a new notebook, a midi-skirt (after years of minis it felt daring to conceal one’s legs) and a fake-snakeskin nightdress, and by borrowing from the library a clutch of books chosen “for the first time in ages purely for pleasure” as I noted in my diary, novels by Mauriac, Gide, Sartre and Lawrence. Having chosen the medieval option for my degree, I had stopped at Shakespeare. I had some catching up to do but could do it at my own pace, my own speed. Bliss.’


‘On Sunday 13 September, 1970, I moved into my attic bedsit in a house on the northern edge of Regent’s Park, a classy, genteel district just east of Lord’s Cricket Ground and just south of St John’s Wood, the latter synonymous with discreetly shaded villas in which Victorian gents, in Victorian novels at least, kept their mistresses. The week before I had had lunch with Ernestine, my prospective landlady, whom I had met through her godson Joss, one of my Oxford acquaintances. I had first seen the house, all understated Regency elegance, the previous February, when Ernestine threw a party for Joss’s twenty-first. “A tall thin slice of wedding-cake” I called it in my diary: “on different tiers one drank champagne, ate salmon, danced, and right at the top, talked to a sexy 60-year-old Frenchman who eventually introduced me to his wife and sat and laughed as we talked about Simone de Beauvoir.” ’


‘Who was that ‘I’, that young woman of twenty-one? I reconstruct her. I invent a new ‘me’ composed of the girl I was, according to my diaries, my memories (and the gaps between them), and the self remembering her. She stands in between the two. A third term. She’s a character in my story and she tells it too. She’s like a daughter. Looking back at her, thinking about her, I mother myself. I listen hard to her silences, the gaps between her words, the cries battened down underneath the surface of her sentences. I sympathise with her ardour, her desperation to read, to learn how to think, to contribute something to the world. How tender, amused and exasperated I feel towards her snobbery, shyness, self-consciousness, priggishness, guilt. She writes her diary so self-critically, suffers so much, berates herself so harshly for suffering and then for writing about it. When she’s not rhapsodising about books and nature she’s fierce, intolerant of adults’ intolerance of youth, enraged when she feels patronised. She wants adventures. She has come to London, in the time-honoured way, to have them. Not to make her fortune, though. She scorns that. She intends to become a writer, is determined to publish a novel before she is thirty, and she expects to be poor.’


‘My early writing experiments contained many caricatures. Mocking a left-wing family let me stay away from involvement. Yet that overnight stay in Stoke Newington, after Joss’s party, had given me rapturous glimpses of a London I did not yet know and longed to explore. I sketched it in my diary: “We went to the Rodin exhibition at the Hayward. Driving through London on Sunday morning - empty streets, an old man comes out of a corner shop with a bottle of Corona, a line of hoardings gives way to a fence made of brightly painted blue wooden doors, mountains of earth have been dumped until Monday, drizzle over the Thames from the top of all the concrete at the Festival Hall. Beautiful place in this weather: lucky people who can wander there in the empty silence every Sunday, pass across the far horizon in Hyde Park, look at paintings as far as Notting Hill, walk round the deserted City, find a cafe for lunch.”


‘I met Alison, my sexual mentor, at the second Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin, Oxford, on 9 January 1971. [. . .] After a morning of workshops on different topics, over lunch we talked collectively, vociferously, about our demands for equal pay and opportunities and good childcare. I wondered about the women canteen workers: serving us, they were not able to take part in the conference. I wrote “four grim Maoists, so narrow and ultra-serious and closed-off they made one despair”. We had discussed the forthcoming first-ever women’s liberation demonstration; its form, its tactics.’


‘So ultra-idealistic had I become, politically, that Spare Rib seemed quite tame and middle-of-the-road to me. One of its editors, Rosie Parker, was actually married. Heavens above! My disapproval masked envy: I imagined she had a man to help her, whereas I struggled alone and was very hard up. But Spare Rib sold well and was popular, reaching women who wouldn’t have dreamed of reading Red Rag, let alone all the small magazines rolled off duplicating machines (a long-winded, messy procedure) and distributed at meetings and in pubs. For my part I refused to read the Morning Star, the Communist paper, because I thought it merely reformist, and I wouldn’t touch the Socialist Worker newspaper because Tony Cliff had refused to allow women in his party to organise independently. I went on reading novels, poetry and biography as voraciously as ever but I also devoured the floods of pamphlets and booklets the feminist presses turned out, devoting many pages of my diary to reflecting on all these new ideas, to wondering how I should live. Sometimes rather pompously and priggishly, I am afraid. That seems to have been my way of smoothing over the contradictions between theory and practice. They were supposed to be dialectically related. I didn’t always see how that worked. I would fall back on idealism, and when that failed me, on earnestness. I squirm, now, reading some of those diary entries, and I smile, too. Good for me! At least I was committing myself to something and having a go.’ 

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