Life writing: memoir
Light shone like aluminium as it bore through the oversized windows of the dining hall on to rows of chairs equipped with navy serge tunics and fringed faces. The room had been transformed into a theatre space with a raised stage on which four guest speakers were casually seated in armchairs. One of these, an anthropometric architect, stood to address the audience of one hundred schoolgirls who tilted and turned with rapt attention toward his steely frame. The noise level dropped in anticipation.
The choice of O-level subjects had already been set in concrete; I had given up all the sciences against the stony silence of my chemistry teacher, the traditional pleas of my physics teacher and the incandescent argument of my biology teacher. Moulded by the straightened and unenlightened circumstances of a working class background I could never imagine a future when I’d need to recite the chemical elements, when I’d need to apply Einstein’s theory of special relativity or when I’d ever again need to dissect a mouse.
Two hundred eyes on the verge of metrication focused on the speaker, a perfect specimen of his profession. He spoke about thermal insulation, the gradients of stairs and methods of rainwater disposal. While he showered us with guidelines, energy ratings and safe loads each of us privately considered the value and relevance of this profession to our future. A light began to flicker in my head. The relevance of science draped over me like a welcome blanket. The three careers of architect, astrologist and archaeologist, which had fused together in my fourteen year old mind, all of a sudden separated into distinct human activities. I had been unable to put space between the three ‘A’s. Until now. And now I was inspired by concepts, perspectives and profiles. Layers of ideas, one after another, floated from the lectern like ethereal magic carpets to land at my feet. They laminated into a solid path that led to life as an architect. We learned that the university degree was longer than average. And then came the bombshell. It was distressing. Devastating. Three A levels were required: maths and two sciences. We moved toward question time. I realised that ‘A’ for architecture was out of my reach. A flag had been flown, inviting, exciting. But it was swiftly retracted.
The talks concluded to the aroma of brewing tea. Water urns hissed. I had been exposed to an unattainable occupation, extracted and elevated ghost-like, then grounded in self imposed restrictions. It was clear. Confirmed. My future would be in the arts. My future would be wrapped in the phrase: ‘All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.’ (Mantel, 2003).
Reference: Mantel H (2003) Giving up the ghost: A memoir London and New York: Fourth Estate, pp20-5.
Image credit: Desenio Studio Stockholm photograph