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9 July 2017

I have no sense of my age – every day is Groundhog Day

I live in a state of perpetual excitement, like a figure in a Quentin Blake illustration.

By Frances Wilson

I’m no good at telling tales about myself. Tales about other people, however, are my bread and butter. I discovered this when I was nine and read my first biography, which was about Jennie Churchill, the American mother of Winston. It was a transformative experience, and not because I was interested in the character of Jennie herself.

It was the genre that pulled me in, the way in which biography dignifies chance events, wrong turns and sliding-doors decisions, allowing the chaos of daily existence to seem as choreographed as fiction. I went on to read other biographies, of film stars mainly, and found that radically different narratives could be reduced to similar patterns, that a life could be plotted as if on a graph: this year was a low point, this one was a high point, this was a turning point. The most readable biographies were those that involved a dramatic rise followed by a fall.

I immediately knew two things: that this rising and falling line bore no relation to my own experience, and that I wanted to write biographies. I liked tracing people’s plots precisely because I didn’t have one of my own. Other people seemed attached to some bigger story, their lives had narrative momentum, but I occupied a perpetual present tense with no reference to yesterday and no investment in tomorrow.

I experience my life as a series of unrelated episodes, which is why I anchor it to narratives. I am a narrative obsessive: I write them, teach them, read them, plug them into my ears when I’m walking and sit glued to box sets every night. I spend hours discussing my friends’ various narratives but my response, when asked how I am, is to panic. I’ve absolutely no idea how I am – whether I’m happy or sad, or what I said last time we spoke.

For episodic people, time works differently: the past is obliterated the moment it has happened. You have memory without memories. You remember the concrete events – Christmas, birthdays, weddings – but not the emotional content. You forget, for example, that holidays are miserable if you invite your mother and so you happily invite her every year, having the same argument every hour on the hour, experiencing it each time as the first time.

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Because every day is Groundhog Day, I  have no sense of how old I am. I am staggered when I see what I look like in a photo. When I heard that Amal Clooney studied at my Oxford college, I was puzzled that we hadn’t met; it took my daughter to point out that Amal is 14 years younger than me.

But there are benefits to the episodic state. I never tire of the same joke and can read the same crime novel repeatedly without guessing who did it. Because we cannot conceive of the future, we have no savings or long-term plans. Episodics live in a state of perpetual excitement, like a figure in a Quentin Blake illustration, going nowhere in particular on a raft of our own folly.

So there you have it: a tale in search of a plot. Forgive me if you’ve heard it before. 

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania