Where are the words?
It doesn't seem very likely, as things are, that I'm going to startle the world with my childhood memoirs. There is, as far as I can ascertain, no Tolstoy inside me about to produce ''Childhood,'' ''Boyhood,'' and ''Youth,'' no Flora Thompson magically equipped with faultless recall of life in an Oxfordshire hamlet, no Laurie Lee abounding with the nut-cosy, stolen-apple-tasty sights, sounds, and smells of a West Country upbringing.
Nor can I report with any certainty that I was born and reared, like Maurice O'Sullivan, on a remote island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, my young ears being filled with fireside folk tales, and then later, on long winter nights, in turn delighting the old women of the place with stories of my childhood.
In his entertaining book Twenty Years A-Growing, O'Sullivan quotes his grandfather's words: ''. . . when I was young . . . there is not a word I would hear my father saying . . . but it would stay in my memory.'' And Maurice, the boy, commented in agreement: ''Isn't it wonderful the way you would keep in your head anything you would take an interest in?''
And that's the problem. I've forgotten what everyone said. The superabundant memory endowment of Tolstoy, O'Sullivan, Lee, Thompson, and all does not seem even faintly to have alighted on me. I can hardly record a single word my dad said to me, let alone any long exchanges of conversation - the stuff of childhood memoirs, the very thing that brings classic examples of the genre so marvellously to life. Vanished.
I can, it is true, vividly recollect certain places and moments, and I fancy I see them still with a six- or seven-year-old's eyes. But they are noiseless: a snowdrift at the back door; the dark, moist earth, littered with chestnut cases and leaf stems by the stone wall; the dirt path running down from the backyard steps, under the bright yellow tresses of the towering laburnum tree. That path had channels worn in it by rain and by water from an outside tap. I used to turn the tap full on for glorious stretches of what educationists call ''water play, '' convinced that if I kept it running long enough I would actually create a permanent river. That the stream, gurgling and rushing down the hill and winding like a liquid serpent round the corner, would continue forever, having taken on its own self-sufficient existence.
Doubtless Someone Parental eventually put a stop to this water wastage. But I can't remember what was said. The pattern of speech, the sound of voices - without those the stories of childhood are mere distant phantasmagoria.
Most of my boyhood recollections are devoid of voices. I remember making small, bright, pliable things with sealing wax softened in the heat of the gas fire; I remember the aroma of the potting shed, its loam-ingrained timber bench; garden bonfires; and I haven't forgotten rolling hard-boiled eggs down the bank at Easter until the colorfully painted shells cracked to reveal the blackish surface of the egg just underneath. I can recall the nettles at the end of the chicken run, sprouting vigorously in the scratched dust; and I can remember running across Park Road halfway up the hill to buy chips on Wednesday evening. Fish and chips I still find indelibly nostalgic. My brother and I would sit in the back of the car for the rest of the journey home, fishing hot, greasy fingers of fried potato out of newspaper, the salt getting under our fingernails. We always saved a few for the golden retriever who waited at home, slavering with expectation. But none of the chatter surrounding these recollections remains.
For the life of me I wish I could think how we even asked for the chips in the shop, what words we used, and what profoundly Yorkshire quip the character serving them tossed back. It would fix the tone and the time. Nowadays there are definite ways of asking for fish and chips. In Yorkshire, just a year or two ago , it had become the rule to say (if I've remembered this rightly!), ''One fish and chips'' or ''Two fish and chips, salt and vinegar.'' In Glasgow now you ask for ''a fish supper'' or a ''poke of chips,'' and the Scots have greatly expanded the repertoire of the fish-and-chip shop (where chicken has become a virtually universal alternative anyway) so that you can further ask for such delicacies as ''a haggis supper,'' ''a black pudding supper,'' and even ''lasagna and chips.''
But what did we used to say back in the '40s and '50s? I fancy - but I coudn't swear to it - that we asked for ''threpny-worth of chips, please'' (trying to sound as local as possible in spite of private school education). Yes , that could be it.
Aahh! How things change . . . chips that pass in the night. I mean, nobody says ''please'' anymore. The lovely old 12-sided threepenny bit has long since ceased to be legal tender; chips today cost ''25p,'' or 20 times more than a ''threpny-worth,'' and they are wrapped in special hygienic paper - wordless! I'm all for improvements, of course, but I do think that a newspaper is the right thing to wrap chips in. Gossip-column ink is no less an essential ingredient of the rich, traditional flavour of the ideal chip than the things people said are of the true childhood memoir.
If only I could remember them.