Memory by Barbara Nadel

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Memory is just one of the many tools that a writer employs in his or her work. It isn’t always of great importance, it depends upon what one is doing. But it is, in my experience, never wise to ignore it. Almost all my books contain some elements, if not whole plots, that derive from some fleeting or very detailed memory. That said, some memories leave one out on a limb and not entirely sure where to go. A memory that popped into my head yesterday is a case in point.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s in London which, at that time, was the biggest city on the planet. Heaving with people who lived in often uncomfortable, damp and sometimes squalid conditions, it was not a city for the faint hearted. I lived in the poorest part of this city, in the east end. My parents, who had work, were nevertheless hard up. When I was a young child we had no central heating, no telephone, no washing machine and no carpet. Our house was nearly always cold and I can remember very clearly getting ill every winter with chest infections, ear infections, vomiting and the like.

Luckily for me however, by the time I was born the UK had a public health system (the NHS) that was completely free to all. In addition many of the diseases that had terrorised previous generations had finally been conquered. Principle amongst these was polio, a terrible ravaging of the body that could result in complete paralysis. Like all of my generation, and every generation since, I was vaccinated against polio at a very young age and so I knew that I could never fall victim to it. However many people had not been so lucky and, although I was fully aware of my own safety, I also shuddered at stories about older people less fortunate than myself. More specifically I grew up underneath the shadow of a device called the Iron Lung.

This was a machine, a vast metal tube, that allowed polio victims paralysed from the neck down, to breathe. The patient would be inserted into the tube and basically locked inside with only their head left free at one end. A mirror above the head allowed the patient to see themselves, others and some of the room that they were in with ease. In the 1960s thousands of British people lived like this.

I can’t remember when I learned of the existence of Iron Lungs, it was so long ago. Mentioned in whispers by parents and grandparents, it was a fearful spectre that still hung over people’s lives, a relic from a bygone, far more dangerous age. I first saw an Iron Lung when I was about six and it was that memory which, for some reason I cannot explain, came flooding back into my mind yesterday.

My mother had taken me to the London Hospital in Whitechapel to visit an orthopaedic surgeon. I had (and have) claw toes and, at the time, this deformity was looked upon as something that needed correction. Plans were made to break my feet and then reset my toes in a more ‘normal’ fashion. Luckily for me my parents decided, against medical advice, not to go through with this procedure for which I am eternally grateful. However while navigating what was then one of the largest hospitals in the country, I passed an open door that transfixed me. Inside were a series of long metal tubes which made strange noises and which had human heads sticking out of them. I knew instantly what they were and I was both appalled and fascinated by them. My mother, horrified that her young child should suddenly come across a rank of Iron Lungs pulled me away and began talking nervously of other things.

But that image, that memory, remained with me for many years and yesterday, out of the blue, it came back to me. Why, I don’t know. What I may or may not do with such an image I don’t know either – yet. The only thing that is certain is that at some point I will do something creative with it because now it is back with me I just can’t get it out of my head.

This is, as I said at the beginning, some of what writers do. We remember and then, like the good recyclers that we are, we put what we have found to some sort of use a second or even third time around. All I can say for the moment is ‘watch this space’.

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