Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively

As Lively writes in the Preface, “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”

“And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance – the identifying freight of a lifetime.”

Only the author’s words do justice to this book because it is a very personal commentary and reflection upon a long life, much of which has already been documented in her work. It is also much more in that it teaches about memory, it offers comfort and it provides help for those concerned about their possessions or “the accretions of a lifetime”. In Reading and Writing, it provides much food for thought about one’s own reading and encouragement regarding the value of that experience.

More from the Preface:

“Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me butAmmonites & Leaping Fish interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.”

“These, then, are the prompts for this book: age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to – how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.”

“And my own context – the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered – the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in altitudes of the late twentieth century – and see how they are judged today, with the wisdom of historical hindsight.”

On old age itself: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.  We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.” …There is this interesting accretion – the varieties of ourselves – and the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself out there as the culmination of all these, knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else.”

And this: “Consider those figures, (in 1961, there were 592 people over 100 years old in this country (England I assume) and by 2060 there will be 455,000) and gasp. Old people were of interest in the past simply because there weren’t that many of them – the sage is a pejorative term suggesting that old age necessarily implies wisdom. That view may have changed radically towards the end of the twenty-first century, I’d guess, when the western world is awash with centenarians. Goodness knows what that will do for attitudes towards the elderly; I’m glad I shan’t be around to find out. I am concerned with here and now, when I can take stock and bear witness.”

On Reading: “Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done – it frees me from the closet of my own mind. Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person’s understanding; reading everything else, I am travelling – I am travelling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences. I am reminded sometimes of the intensity of childhood reading, that absolute absorption when the very ability to read was a heady new gain, the gateway to a different place, to a parallel universe you hadn’t known was there. The one entirely benign mind-altering drug. …So I have my drug, perfectly legal and I don’t need a prescription.”

There is a fascinating section on memory which defines procedural memory, semantic memory and episodic or autobiographical memory. She describes the latter as “random, non-sequential, capricious, and without it we are undone.” I found this section particularly helpful.

The most interesting section for me was that entitled Reading and Writing in which the author states: “What we read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.”

The last section of the book is called Six Things and it addresses the matter of “the accretions of a lifetime”. It too, is very helpful as well as comforting. Those readers out there who might be trying to reduce those “accretions of a lifetime” will find this a useful reflection that might be put towards one’s own personal decisions. Lively writes here of being an “agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity: its mythologies, its buildings, its ceremonies, its music, the whole edifice without which ours would be a diminished world. I would like to attend a service. I am a church-visiting addict, with cathedrals the ultimate indulgence.” There is also a wonderful piece about her Gayer-Anderson cat which is well worth reading by itself.

She sums up the book and her accretion of things in this way:

“To have the leaping fish sherd on my mantelpiece – and all those other sherds in the cake-tin – expands my concept of time. There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.”

A rare treat and a comfort to read and read again.


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