‘And the task of writing is to hang on tight, like Menelaus, till the god gives up, stops trying to throw his rider, and becomes his true self.’
In my imaginary autobiography I’m sneaking between fences along an overgrown passageway between 50s suburban back gardens. I’m shaky inside as I step around orange fungi and fat-bodied spiders while poking sticks into webs. Part of me is watchful, an undercover agent observing neighbours through gaps in the fence, and part of me is hot and sweaty, sniffing out a trail.
In another scene I’m by the house with an old wooden chair that I’ve been told to break up. It’s my chance to let it have it, full force. The chair’s in my power, so I twist and wrench it, exercising my will. There’s a beast inside me, a smasher and basher who does what he likes and enjoys what he can do.
At other times in the story I’m a ghost and I walk through walls. This allows me to live in unseen worlds, overhearing chatter in houses and listening in to talk in school playgrounds. I can tune in to friends as they speak and be there with the neighbours at any time of day. I can even enter the heads of strangers, living their lives as an unseen watcher…
For years I was planning my imaginary autobiography. I wanted to find words for the baroque and the surreal hidden inside suburban living, the prisoner at the window, the digger of tunnels and the boy who could soar and turn cartwheels over roofs. But my crazy memories didn’t transfer well to paper. They were states of being rather than anecdotes, they didn’t build or develop, and they were too absurd to appear in a conventional autobiography. I needed entertaining incidents that went somewhere and what I had was a collection of static tableaux.
I think of them now as defences. As an only child I was a lonely, over-protected boy who lacked confidence. There was a space around me, an absence of love or relatedness, and the fantasies were an outlet for my pent-up feelings. I was also sneaky. I thought people would laugh if they read about my ‘real’ thoughts and I wanted to avoid the critical parental eye. So I made my words tediously elaborate, straining for effect, or crafted low-key indirect ‘poetic’ versions of MY LIFE – but neither rang true. It’s hard to write about essence or deep subjectivity and, linguistically, the subject I’d chosen was as impossibly silly as my dreams of walking tightropes or scaling cliffs.
What I also didn’t realise was how much editing any written piece requires and how an esoteric subject demands even more work.
If it was ever going to exist, my Imaginary Autobiography would begin by describing the Odyssean journey of a pink-faced child being wheeled in a pram down a N. London street. The houses are islands and the street’s a sea, turning into ocean when we reach the shops. Feeling the wind striking through flesh, the child becomes a schoolboy running , deer-like across open fields, transforming into a fox jumping a ditch. There are flames close behind, licking at his back. The boy, or animal, reaches sand and a long, curving, seascape where he walks with his father exploring continents and changing, as the sun goes down, into a seal playing in water…
The film cuts suddenly to a suburban bedroom where I’m lying awake in bed making seal-like noises. Awru, awru I bark, flapping my hands, till my father bursts in, ordering me to sleep. At that point the waves rise up and the film ends. Next morning I’m absent, flown in spirit from my body, while the person I imitate eats breakfast, gets washed and dressed and walks out into the garden to hide behind fences.
Looking back at that child and at what I’ve written, I think the presiding spirit of my Imaginary Autobiography is Proteus, the sea god, who changes into something different every time his questioner tries to grasp him. These shape-changing transformations, which Pessoa called heteronymity, resemble the masks of Comedy and Tragedy at a Greek drama. And the task of writing is to hang on tight, like Menelaus, till the god gives up, stops trying to throw his rider, and becomes his true self.
These words are the result.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here