To the lighthouse: the cult of souvenirs
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode
- Learn to separate fact from fantasy.
- Learn to favour now over then.
- Learn to be at peace with the stories you tell yourself.
- Learn to let cherished ideas go when you need to.
In Moominpappa at Sea, the darkest and most troubling of Tove Jansson’s haunting Moomin books for children, Moominpappa falls under the spell of a classic mid-life crisis. At the root of it is a feeling of leisured ennui.
The Moomin house has been built, the kids are growing up fast, the valley is peaceful, the garden is fruitful, crises such as floods and comets have all been averted. Mamma has all she needs. There’s really very little left to be done.
In fact, he’s almost become obsolete. No one needs him to play Pappa anymore. And what is the point of a Moomin if he is not being someone’s Pappa?
His memoirs cease to amuse him and his thoughts turn to older storylines from his life that lie still untold, things he put aside to raise kids and assume the headship of a family. Things from his restless youth.
He starts to dream of the lighthouse.
Lost on a lonely island, far out to sea, the lighthouse has been a dim beacon at the back of his mind, working on him. Now it is calling to him at night and everything starts to make sense. On the island, they will have to start everything anew. On the island, life will be challenging once more. Emotional and sentimental landmarks will be gone, the family will be at sea and he, the great seafaring Moominpappa, former captain of the Oshun Oxtra, will be the one to bring them all together.
He will easily master mysteries of the deep, the tides and island life and the family will once more flock to his side. And so they take to the boat and leave, pursued by the ice-cold Groke.
But the island is desolate and forbidding. Once the family is installed in the cavernous lighthouse, Moominmamma begins to plant her new garden. She borders it with cockle shells, but the inhospitable wind-lashed soil bears her no fruit. Each day, she tries a little harder in the sand, trying to hide her chagrin behind smiles and platitudes. But still nothing will grow. Moomin is off trying to fathom a gloomy sinkhole, Little My is shacking up with ants and Moomintroll is developing an unhealthy obsession with a pair of unobtainable sea horses, who may or may not be leading him on. Far from gathering his clan about him, Moominpappa has unwittingly cut them adrift. And none more so than his beloved wife.
Moominmamma is a positive soul. There’s no tearful crisis she can’t put right with raspberry juice and pine needles. But the loss of her garden in Moominvalley is really too much. In desperation, she takes a brush and some paint and begins to draw, upon the walls of her kitchen, the garden of her dreams. And just like the best dreams, she slips right into it at will, enjoying its branches, its fronds and flowers. Safe in her garden, hidden in its glades, the shifting, unspoken horrors of the island cannot touch her. Each day, the fantasy garden’s grip on Mamma’s attention tightens, until one day she slips away completely. She stares out blankly from her hideaway as the others mill about without her. Where’s Mamma, they say. When’s Mamma coming back? Now the family is wholly lost and Pappa is far from having answers.
In these moments before she falls asleep, before she will be left alone with her thoughts for the first time that day, my daughter will sometimes talk about anxieties she may have and I tell her this:
“Who is the worst girl at school?”
“Maïka,” she says immediately.
“Ok,” I say, “Why is she so bad?”
“She says mean things and pulls people’s hair.”
“Right, so if you were having a party would you invite her along?”
“Nooo,” she says.
“And if she showed up anyway, would you let her in?”
“Nooo,” she says.
“Right. Because you’re home and safe and happy with the people who love you, so why would you want someone to come into that situation who is going to make you feel bad? Well you can do the same with feelings that show up, uninvited and try to make you feel bad. They are like Maïka. Who knows why they are they way they are, but you don’t have to entertain them just because they bang on the door. Just say no and show them the way out.”
She looks at me and I don’t know if she believes me.
When I was a very young child, in the halcyon years before Elvis died, my grandmother used to take me to a rather wonderful park.
Or, at least, I claim she did. No one else was there to witness these moments, they were ours alone. My brother and sister were at off school, my parents were hard at work, and so my grandmother and I created our own little world, full of conker collecting, sycamore helicopters, catkins and bubbling streams.
Or at least that has long been my claim.
I hadn’t really thought about it at all until I was in my late thirties, when I escaped the perma-bongo playing of Montmartre to live in a leafy, affluent suburb of Paris, close to the Bois de Boulogne. It seemed a safe and salubrious place to base my daughter’s childhood, although I had no idea where to begin.
Quite by accident, while buzzing about on my mobylette, I happened upon a hidden and enchanted garden. Quite unlike the usual French parkland fare — which tends towards strictly regimented sections of forbidden greenery separated by sandy gravel upon which the hoi polloi are authorised to sit upon iron furniture — this one was wild and rambling, in the English style, with a sizeable lake and concealed Japanese gardens.
The planting was astonishing, rare cedars, maples and willows nestled against more familiar native trees. The water was chock-full of giant carp and coipu, who gambolled on logs and startled fishing herons. Dippers skirted the water’s edge, cormorants spread their wings high on the top of the canopy and terrapins paddled from log to log. Inside the wood itself, a hidden pond bordered by gushing streams and wild garlic provided the base for many adventures.
As soon as I walked into the park for the first time with my daughter I was struck by a memory from early childhood, as I suddenly saw myself on some old super 8 footage from the back of my mind walk into that lost old park with my grandmother and run to collect conkers that had fallen about the roots of a venerable horse chestnut.
Oh! This is just like the park I visited with my grandmother! I exclaimed and my daughter accepted this as true. The similarity comforted me. I was raising my daughter alone, far from home, and constantly looking for reassurance that I was doing the right thing, without the usual guides of parents and family. There was something healing and cathartic for me in the knowledge that, against the odds, I was delivering to my own child something of the magic I had felt as a child. It felt so important, urgent even. If I couldn’t be home, this would be a wonderful second-best.
The years went by and our relationship with the park deepened. It was literally our favourite place on earth. We made picnics, we played hide and seek and Happy Families, we told each other stories, we developed rituals and routines, we buried a goldfish and planted a wood of freesias around his matchbox casket, we walked on the stepping stones, we fished for minnows. We invited friends.
When we gathered sticks and leaves to make little boats, the picture that came into sharp relief in my mind’s eye was so vivid I could almost touch its brush strokes. Playing pooh sticks with my grandmother in that lost English park — the feeling was exquisite and I felt she was with us then, joining us for these moments that had belonged only to us, and I comforted myself that despite my catalogue of poor choices and failures, I was doing the right thing.
For me the place was respite and reprieve, an escape from unmanageable conflict and grief. A place where I could unfailingly regain my emotional centre. The water calmed me, the trees soothed me and the bubbling streams washed the glue of trauma from my muscles, while my daughter’s hand in mine cured all ills. Our time in the park wasn’t simply a pleasant diversion in some bigger goal of raising a child, it was the goal. My grandmother had shown me, decades before, the model for childhood magic and somehow I was holding it together and delivering. That time, that privileged, unfettered time in those critical early years is the time in which lifelong bonds are made that cannot be broken by distance, by separation, or by the selfish greed or malice of others.
Return of the native
It’s impossible to overstate the joy my daughter and I felt in these moments. We we would spend whole days there and when we finally loped back home and ate some supper my daughter would be restless to hear the next chapter in the stories I read to her by Tove Jansson.
There were no French translations of Jansson’s books at that time and so I did the best I could to translate to French as I read, to convey in the best language I could muster her universe of nuance and feeling and the emotions of small creatures. We worked our way through the whole series in order, only coming to a halt as I saw the ominous and foreboding Moominpappa At Sea heaving into view on the bookshelf. I felt this work dug a little too deep into the frailties of the human condition for her age and left the book undisturbed.
It was a curious thing, in fact, that I could translate for my daughter. Had I continued to university and studied psychology, as I had prepared to do, this facility would not have been open to me. But there are junctures in your life when you chose to follow one train of thought or another and somewhere around the time I discovered the old picture of the lighthouse and resolved to live there, I changed my mind about what I wanted to do. I made a left turn out of psychology and abandoned my reading. I enrolled instead in a double honours degree in French and English. It’s a distinction that qualifies a person pretty much uniquely to translate from the one language to the other.
When I moved back to the UK, I felt the loss of our enchanted French park especially keenly. I worried that my daughter would, too, and felt a strong need to replace it with some new place that we could make our own.
What better replacement could there be, I told myself, than the original park where I had enjoyed those privileged moments with my grandmother four decades prior? I set about finding it, an activity that is greatly aided today by the existence of Google. I pinpointed my early childhood home and zoomed out from my existence, searching in ever-widening orbits from the house. And there it was.
I had not set foot in the park since the age of five and as I buzzed towards it on my mobylette I felt a rising sense of euphoria.
I had come to feel that to step into this fabled park once again would close one circuit left open after the death of my grandmother and another left open after our departure from France. That’s a lot of catharsis.
The reality was a colossal anticlimax.
The place did not feel familiar at all. I wanted the experience to be like slipping on a beloved old coat, but it was like stepping into a doctor’s waiting room. Where was the giant and ancient horse chestnut? It was nowhere to be found and, moreover — looking around at the layout of the park, unchanged in seventy years — there was nowhere it could have been.
I pushed on regardless, now searching for the magical woods and bubbling streams of memory. Again, these were not to be found. Just plain grass and a tarmac path down a steep bank to the river Frome.
In all honesty there was nothing to the place and it’s not even somewhere that I feel merits a second look. It was literally just the park that happened to be by my house. I looked around and around again, spinning on a futile axis like a dancer in a musical box. Finally, I was forced to come to the following conclusion.
The park of my memory, the one full of magic, never existed. Oh, the gist of it was there, I didn’t concoct the whole thing. We had certainly come here. But the verbatim memory … the details … damn it, we’re so little … how can we be expected to store everything meticulously when we barely understand what we’re seeing? And how can we be expected to retrieve these memories forty years later, based on such flawed search terms?
When I had walked into the Parisian park with my daughter, the conkers there had served as a Proustian madeleine, an evocative trigger that sent me scurrying back in memory to a walk in the park with my gran a lifetime before. I had then tried to retrieve the memories of that event and match them up to the present moment. However, the memories I had been able to trace were incomplete, fuzzy. And that was not good enough.
I needed in those moments — believed I needed — the reassurance of my grandmother. Something in me regretted being so far from what I thought of as home. And so I started colouring in the gaps in memory with the new information: the conkers started it, but it wasn’t enough to acknowledge that I had once collected conkers with my grandmother and been happy and leave it at that. I had to go so much further and tell myself that this horse chestnut exactly resembled that one. These bubbling streams are just like the ones where I went with my gran, I told myself, and thus felt satisfied I was doing right by my daughter. I didn’t have anyone else to ask.
This way, over the course of the seven or eight years that my daughter and I visited the park on a regular basis, I meticulously constructed a memory universe that was largely fictitious. The more we visited, the more firmly I held the conviction that our park exactly correlated with my childhood park. I suppose because that’s what I needed to believe in order to feel at peace.
It’s utter bunk.
And not only that but the Parisian park beat the English one hands down. It was just empirically a better park, it had more places to go, more trees, more types of tree, an actual lake full of actual fish, coipu and terrapins. A hidden Japanese garden that was just right for hide and seek and a parade of wonderful birds to spot and identify. It was a masterpiece of park design and so it should be, it was paid for by Edmond de Rothschild.
It turns out that my grandmother and I visited our neighbourhood park quite infrequently, it hadn’t even been a habitual thing. Whatever memory I had, the chronology of it was completely missing, along with a ton of detail. Had we gone just the once? Or a few times? Whichever it was, I know it wasn’t every day for the whole summer, I know we never went there first thing in the morning in midwinter to run about in the snow and I know we never caught minnows in buckets and we never invented fairy stories while exploring the bullrushes and wild garlic.
And here’s the thing: if I could barely remember the details of this park, what made me so sure it was wonderful? Surely I was simply remembering the feeling of good company? The feeling of having those intimate moments with my gran, having her attention. The thing about great company is it doesn’t even matter where you do it.
As I sit here today writing this, in my beach café of habit, staring out at the lonely island that squats in the Bristol Channel, its lighthouse a charcoal smudge against the sky, I can’t help but assert that what was happening in the present tense of my life all of those years as my daughter was growing was so much more vital, so much more compelling and infinitely more rewarding than any of the fetishised false memories I was drawing on the walls of my mind.
The experiences I created with my daughter in the present went far beyond anything that had existed in my own childhood. They were not the imperfect recreation of old things, but the creation of new things.
Proponents of the fuzzy-trace theory of confabulation hold that there are two distinct encodings for stored memory. One is the gist codex, in which we store away the general idea of an event or thing. The specifics, however, are encoded separately and stored somewhere else. This is the verbatim memory. So for example, when asked to recall a happy place from childhood you might recall the park where you went with your gran. However, if pushed to describe the layout of that park, you may not be able to retrieve that.
Where one person might then answer: I’m sorry, I don’t quite recall, the confabulator is tempted to sketch in the missing details and provide a response.
Confabulation is a disturbance of memory that presents as the fabrication of distorted or misinterpreted memories of ourselves and the world at large. It’s distinct from lying as there is no intent to deceive. The confabulator is not trying to manipulate. They are merely mistaken.
The chief difference between what psychiatry calls confabulation and what I did with the park, is that the confabulator will often cling to their own interpretation of events even in the teeth of superior evidence to the contrary. As a pathology it is a close cellmate of delusion, the formulation of firm beliefs based on false information, false memories, illusions or dogma.
I’d lived with a comforting chimera for nigh on a decade, but faced with hard evidence, disappointing though it was, I was happy to let my interpretation of things go.
I came to the conclusion, however, that memory cannot be trusted. Not entirely, not completely. And if this is the case with the happiest of one’s supposed recollections, then surely it must apply to the memory of trauma, of humiliation, of rejection or injustice. How can we be wholly certain of anything?
Should I sit in an analyst’s chair and hear the words: “Tell me about your childhood,” how could I possibly answer usefully, knowing as I do now that I will likely be making up a good proportion of it?
Tears for fears
Following my revelation in the park, I understood that I could use what I learned for something else. I filled up the tank of my mobylette and embarked on a tour of my childhood, riding from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, street to street and house to house. I was shocked at how close everything was. I was six when we had moved house and it seemed we had left one universe and travelled to another. In reality we were only a couple of miles down the road.
I visited places I associated with old fears, unhappy memories, shame or stigma. I’d been avoiding these places for years. And yet I realised that seeing them in adulthood had no ill effect whatsoever. I felt no uprising of bile, no raising of hackles, nothing in fact except liberation from needless baggage I had been carrying for far too long.
We give significance to things that don’t merit it. Not by half. They lurk as inaccurate memories in parts of our brain. The longer we spend inside our brain, going back for those memories, the more likely we are to colour outside the lines and draw new bits on — until we get to the point where we may actually be making ourselves unhappy from something that never really happened. Not the way we think it did. That’s why what happened then doesn’t bear dwelling on too much. What are you going to do now?
My daughter and I didn’t make it out to the island this summer. It had been on my list to take the ferry out there but unseen forces conspired to dash my plans against the rocks.
One evening, though, as August draws to a close, I feel the summer slip into autumn. “I’m sorry we didn’t seem to get to to do everything we had planned,” I say regretfully.
My daughter is busy making a cake. She looks up at me, briefly, from her mixture and shakes her head admonishingly. In English, with her gentle French accent, she says: “You have to live in the present moment, Papa.”
I’m so impressed with her and I marvel at how long it has taken me to come to the same realisation.
I think back, eleven years before, to the day her mother and I pushed her in the buggy down a path towards the sea, startling a jay, and remember how fearful I was then for the future. I need not have worried. Clearly — despite our differences in outlook — her mother and I did a better job of raising her than anyone did of raising us.