Ammonites and Leaping Fish - A Life in Time by Penelope Lively
Published by Fig Tree
10th October 2013
In this charming but powerful memoir, Penelope Lively reports from beyond the horizon of old age. She describes what old age feels like for those who have arrived there and considers the implications of this new demographic. She looks at the context of a life and times, the history and archaeology that is actually being made as we live out our lives in real time, in her case World War II; post war penny-pinching Britain; the Suez crisis; the Cold War and up to the present day. She examines the tricks and truths of memory. She looks back over a lifetime of reading and writing. And finally she looks at her identifying cargo of possessions - two ammonites, a cat, a pair of American ducks and a leaping fish sherd, amongst others. This is an elegant, moving and deeply enjoyable memoir by one of our most loved writers.
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. 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. A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free, it is tethered - to certain decades, to places, to people. It has a context; each departure leaves a person-shaped void - the absence within a family, the presence lost within a house, in a community, in society itself. We go, but hang in for a while in other people's heads - something we said, something we did; we leave a ghostly imprint on our backdrop. A very few people go one further and are distilled into a blue plaque on a building. I began on a spring morning in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek, which was a residential suburb on Gezira, the island in Cairo's Nile; 17 March 1933. Elsewhere, things were going on that would lead to turmoil in North Africa in a few years' time; my parents' lives would be affected, and mine, but they were comfortably oblivious that morning, and I was tucked up in a crib, the feet of which stood in tin trays of water, because there had been instances of ants getting at newborn babies.
Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but 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.
I really enjoyed this memoir by established author Penelope Lively. Originally titled Dancing Fish and Ammonites, it appears to have been re-named Ammonites and Leaping Fish. At the grand age of 80, she has decided to look back on her life, and focus on the elements that made it what it is. She begins by recounting her childhood - her days growing up in Egypt, of the Second World War breaking out and the tensions caused by the Suez Crisis.
The book is divided into four section: Old Age, Memory, Life and Times and Six Things. Lively discusses how she uses memory, and how that features in her writing. This isn't a plodding, heavy-handed look back at a life that has been well-lived, but rather like having a chat with your grandmother about her memories. Penelope Lively 'chats' to the reader rather than spending page after page going into great reams of details about an event or moment of her life. There is enough information to keep you satisfied, rather than too much to leave you bored to tears. My favourite section was where she looks back on the books that have made up her life, both good and bad for over 8 decades. The final chapter focuses on those artefacts that are important to Lively herself, including, a leaping fish and two ammonites!