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Can’t garden, and won’t travel

by
29 November 2013

Caroline Bowder reads about a wry writer's life

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Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A life in time
Penelope Lively
Fig Tree £14.99
(978-0-241-14638-5)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT205 )

NOW aged 80, Penelope Lively is the prolific and esteemed author of novels, non-fiction, children's books, and memoirs, but I have to admit that the only Lively book I know is her Booker Prize-winner Moon Tiger (1987). So I come fresh to her "life in time" - not quite a memoir, she says: "rather, it is the view from old age." It helps to be quite old to read it, and recognise the symptoms.

It is a chatty, wry insight into a woman who has been there, and written and read much, and is now content. (She says, "Can't garden. Don't want to travel. But can read, must read.") Her voice is immediate, almost post-modern, present. How to retain one's marbles? Sudoku, crosswords? "I must put my trust in writing novels, and, maybe, this."

The book is divided into sections: Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and Six Things (of which the ammonite is one, a reminder of herself as "archaeologist manquée" and "the path I might have taken, had life run differently").

She recounts her childhood in Egypt as sole offspring of distant, divorcing parents; her evacuation to Palestine when war broke out; and then England and boarding school in 1945. At Oxford University "it was hazardous to be a woman" (for fear of pregnancy), but there she met her husband, Jack, and woke up to politics and the Suez crisis.

She writes revealingly on memory, amnesia, and dementia. "My brain hadn't remembered but my fingers had," she recalled when changing a typewriter ribbon. But memory as "the moth-eaten version of our own past"? I hope not. As a novelist, she uses and recycles her own memories, and is nourished by her reading; in the writing process, books beget books: thus her passionate support of libraries, public and private.

Above all is her preoccupation with time. "In dementia, life takes place in a segment of time without past or future. . . . I am more afraid of Time than of death." But we do have "this one majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time - Memory". I must now read more of her.

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