I was born on May 13th, 1941,
Of course, I only have my mother's word for that.
‘You never forget things like that,’ my mother told me, when, as she lay on her deathbed, I asked her about my birth. ‘I remember the day of your birth quite clearly, even if you don’t. And now, if I pass away, you will have a clear memory of my last days on earth. So it all evens out in the end.’
A couple of days later she was up and about again as right as rain, as she usually was after one of her deathbed scenes, so she was wrong about her dying moments, but she was right about my birth. I couldn't remember anything about it at all. Since then I have been privileged to be present at a couple of births (once at the birth of my own child, once when I took a wrong turn in a hospital in Ireland ) and on both occasions I have come to realise why a baby can never remember his or her own birth. There is simply too much to take in, and too many people milling around.
One of the worst things in the world is finding yourself at a party where you don't know anyone and don't recognise any of the drinks either. Being born is worse than that. A moment before, you thought the world was a small dark squishy place, then you come out into a place like the Millennium Dome full of people saying things like ‘Isn't he lovely?’ and ‘If you're not the father then you've no right to be here at all, at all,’ (though I have only heard that once, in that hospital in Ireland). It must be such a confusing experience for the baby that the memory refuses to accept it.
The American writer Gore Vidal claims that he retained a clear image of being born to his mother, and even gives the impression that he disliked her immediately, although they hadn't yet exchanged a word. One can imagine Gore Vidal coming out of the womb, sensing immediately that he was the centre of attention and loving it, but sensing too that his mother had alcohol on her breath, and wincing. Most people's first words are ‘Mama!’ Gore Vidal's were probably, ‘Oh, Mother, for heaven's sake!
Of course, it would have been quite painful for Gore Vidal to gradually realise, in those first few minutes of life in a crowded hospital room, that he didn't know anyone there, a situation he spent the rest of his life trying to eradicate, but at least he could remember the occasion.
I cannot hope to match that.
I can, though, beat it.
This is because, in a funny sort of way, I can beat it, because I have a strange memory of a moment before I was born.
It's more like a dream than a memory, actually.
I am sitting in a room with an unseen figure who is asking me what I want to be.
‘Who do you want to be?’
‘How do you mean?’ I say.
‘Just that. What sort of person do you want to be?’
‘How do you mean, person?’
‘Look, we haven't got much time,’ says the figure. ‘You're going to be born pretty soon. Just tell me what you want to be. Population figures are going up all the time, so the choice is quite wide.’
‘Oh, for heaven's sake,’ says the voice. ‘Boy or girl?’
‘Boy,’ I say.
‘Money or no money?’
‘Brother or sister or only child?’
‘Middle, upper or lower?’
Looking back, I realise that I didn't make a rational choice at all. I just went for the first option in each case. That's how I still make a lot of choices. For instance, if I am faced with a wine list in a restaurant on which I don 't recognise a single wine, I always find myself choosing the third one down. It's near the cheap end, but not so cheap that it looks cheap. Just... reasonable. Whenever I back horses, which isn’t often, I use the same approach. Not the favourite, but nearly the favourite. I often wonder if other people use the same system. If so, many restaurants must find their third wine down the list sells as well as all the others put together. What do they do about it? Do they order many more cases of that particular one? Do they ring the changes by swapping the prices around? Do they put another wine on the list at the cheap end, so as to push the old number three to a new number four position?
I must remember to ask a restaurateur the next time I meet one.
Going back to the questionnaire, if I was really remembering a moment before my birth, then I clearly did not take the process very seriously. These were all life-altering decisions, and in each case I was taking the first option offered.
It’s fairly clear that Gore Vidal, would have taken his pre-birth interview much more seriously…
‘What sort of person do you want to be?’
‘I want to be a Roman Emperor.’
‘I'm afraid that's not possible.’
‘Wrong period, I'm afraid. You will be born at least 1,500 years after the collapse of Rome.’
‘Oh. Then I want to be in the White House.’
‘Mmmm ... Well, we can get you born in and around the White House, though we can't give you any power.’
‘Well, in a democracy you have to be elected to get power.’
‘No, you don't. All you need is the backing of the military-industrial complex.’
‘Look! I'm not going to get drawn into a political discussion with an unborn child... What do you want to be called?’
‘Something very interesting and unusual.’
Something very unusual and interesting, indeed. Gore Vidal was lucky not to be called Truman Capote, and vice versa. But most people never get to choose their own names. If they did, the world would be full of interesting names. As it is, we are given a name at birth and have to make the best of it, whether we like it or not, and I think it is fair to say that most people do not like the names they have been given.
I used to think that given the chance of a name change, most people would go for something exotic or memorable and I would always point to the fragrant aliases chosen by film stars when they adopted a stage name. ‘Look at Rock Hudson and Victor Mature!’ I would say. What I did not realize was that these were the rare exceptions. Many performers have been lumbered with odd or outlandish names in the first place and almost always opt for a quiet life when changing name. So Frederick Austerlitz becomes Fred Astaire and Marion Morrison settles gratefully for John Wayne, and Lucille le Sueur turns into Joan Crawford, and Michael Dumble-Smith turns into Michael Crawford. When I read somewhere that Walter Matthau had started life as Walter Matuschanskayasky, I thought I’d discovered the ultimate name change. That was before I learnt that Tom Cruise had started life as Thomas Mapother IV.
Anyway, I was born, as I say, on 13th May 1941, though I have no idea what time of day it was. I was once asked this by a girl called Sarah, who was mad keen on astrology and wanted to know exactly what time of day I was born so that she could work out an accurate horoscope for me. I thought at the time that this interest meant that she was mad keen on me, but I was only a case study; it was astrology she was mad keen on, not me.
‘I really don't know,’ I said. ‘My mother never told me.’
‘Well, let's ask her!’ said Sarah.
‘She's dead,’ I said.
Things like that don't deter horoscope-loving girls like Sarah.
‘I'm going to a spiritualist séance next week,’ she said. ‘Come along with me and let's try and get in touch with your mother and ask her when you were born!’
‘I don't really believe in things like...’
‘Oh, you will, you will!’ said Sarah, who was terribly bright and breezy, and made people round her feel unaccountably tired. ‘I didn't think I would be impressed by mediums either, but the first time I went I got straight in touch with my late Uncle Fred, who told me where the missing family photographs were! It was incredible!’
‘And where were they?’
‘Down the back of the old family desk. Well, that's what he said. In fact when we went to look down the back of the desk there was nothing there at all, so they must have been moved since Uncle Fred died. But it was incredible to think that he knew!’
If I hadn't been physically attracted to Sarah I would never have got drawn into a spiritualist séance, but I let myself be taken along, and just when I was getting a little bored with the whole thing - I thought I could see how the medium was telling people what they wanted to hear - someone said, ‘Has anyone here got a mother called Jean?’
‘Yes,’ I said, startled.
‘Do you have a message for her?’
‘What time of day was I born?’ hissed Sarah.
‘Uh - I would like to know if she can remember what time of day I was born... ‘
‘That is a fairly unusual request. Normally we like to pass on messages of fondness ...’
‘No, I would like to ask her that.’
The question was duly asked, but no answer seemed to be forthcoming. Instead, the subject made moaning noises and said something vaguely like, ‘Oh no, oh no,’ and then shortly afterwards woke up.
The person in charge of the séance said, somewhat strictly, that asking my mother about my birth had brought on memories of those difficult times and what we heard was almost certainly my mother reliving the pangs of birth.
I disagreed, though I said nothing. I knew that what we had heard was the very familiar sound of my mother doing one of her deathbed scenes. I had heard it often before. But this raised two difficult questions. One was the question of whether what I had heard was really genuine. The other, rather simpler, was why - if it was genuine - my mother should feel it necessary to stage a deathbed scene after she had died.
Perhaps old habits die hard.