‘Mansions in the head’: images, words, and the memories they conjure.


‘Seeing comes before words…

…It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding land; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.’

‘Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent’.

Ways of Seeing

John Berger

‘Memory is made of the imaginary; the imaginary made of memory.’

What We See When We Read

Peter Mendelsund

The Long Day Closes

This image is taken from the poster for the 1992 film The Long Day Closes directed by Terence Davies.  It’s an autobiographical film, like his earlier  Distant Voices , Still Lives (1988), and the three shorter works that made up the Terence Davies Trilogy (1983). It’s film as collage, with no material rough edges. It gathers together, and fills out, a series of the director’s memories, recreates and frames them with an exacting eye, and moves between them, deliberately unhurried. It celebrates cinema, music, and family, and particular moments in time.  It sees and it revels in seeing.

You get a sense of the approach in this clip here.

Why am I writing about this film? And what does this have to do with the Berger quote? It was prompted by an acclaimed picturebook from last year called Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith . It’s  a wonderful book that takes a series of lingering looks at a day in the life of a young boy, growing up on the coast in the mining towns of Cape Breton.   It is written in the present tense yet it feels of another  time and so takes on some aspects of a memoir.

It’s a gentle, but charged book. I once shared it at an inset.  I read it from cover to cover and tried my best to do proper justice to its particular rhythms which play some part in its overall effect – there is a definite ebb and flow, or something like that, about the book.  At the end of the reading,  I was met with a solemn silence, and blank faces.  I doubted my reading, and I’m ashamed to say I doubted the book.  I panicked: “Don’t you like it?”  Such a needy question, asked needily, if I am honest. In my own clumsy way, I risked spoiling the moment.  It wasn’t blankness.  It was more a respectful hush.  And then there was the discussion.

It’s a book that has played on my mind in various ways. It has played on my mind, and wriggled its way around, picking up mental debris on the way.  Now, it has become a locus for a whole host of thoughts I have had about children’s reading and writing over the past few years. It has gotten to the point where I could not hope to capture the many connections it has hooked in just a blog.  What to do?  Leave it?  Give a flavour?  Start, and see where we end up?  Perhaps that.

Town is by the sea

First, the book. Here are some thoughts. It is characterised by gently evocative words and images.  However, there are striking shifts in focus that serve to generate moments of real tension.  Then there are its filmic dimensions.  It is clearly a book about looking – taking things in.  Experiencing them in the ‘now’ of the book; storing them for later.  How else is it filmic?  Several ways.  Its framing calls to mind a number of films.  Consider this for example:


The framing cuts away at the adults; they are not our focus here.  This places the book alongside those studies of childhood (most recently and strikingly, The Florida Project) that place us squarely in the world  – and gaze – of the children.   Then there is this:


That distancing allows us to take in the sweep of the interior and begin to get a measure of the exterior; the scaling and space reinforces something of the perspective of children.

‘From my house, I can see the sea.

It goes like this – house, road, grassy cliff, sea.

And town spreads out, this way and that.’

The book’s opening lines goes straight to this central idea of ‘seeing’ and the book goes on to explore the tensions of what we the reader can see, and the sights denied to our observant narrator.

Other scenes move between  widescreen views (of the sea in particular, dominating the narrative in so many ways – each illustration doing wonderful things with light) and smaller, more tightly framed moments (a series of square panels beautifully capturing the exhilaration of a play park swing; a similar arrangement taking care of ‘the bright days of summer’). I might comment on the colours and the use of black lines and space, but that would be a whole other blog.

I think that will suffice.  There are panels and spreads that take the breath away, but this is not a book for me to spoil.  If you want a greater sense of its contents, together with some very insightful commentary, spend some time poring over this interview with the illustrator at Letstalkpicturebooks.com.

What I do want to do, finally and crucially, is to flag a single, possibly surprising page. Here it is:


Two cups of tea, on a railing.   That is all.  Might seem like a curious choice.  I’m not sure that it immediately struck me as such –   I was swept up by the narrative and the tone of the book on first reading – but it is the image that has triggered more extended thought than any other.

It captures a moment and the “two-ness”  of those cups is ever so significant.  Throughout the book there is a tension around the father’s safe return.  Two cups are definitely preferable to one.  But, still,  it is such an unusual image to  enjoy full command  of a page in a children’s book. It resonated for me in more ways than one.

My first question: on what level(s) will children appreciate this?  What will they make of it?

‘Children bring to texts their own understandings and their awareness of themselves.  In the short period that is childhood some of these processes change in ways that teachers and other adults are not always aware of.’

Introduction to The Reader in the Writer

Margaret Meek

Possibly more than we might assume, in fact as I type this, I realise that I need to find this out for myself.  Considering how much the book has affected me, I have yet to use it in class, with children.  This is certainly untypical. I shall rectify this very soon.

Thinking things over/ overthinking

I could outline the further chain of thoughts this image provoked, but instead I’ve tried to capture it visually.  Here goes:


If we start at the text, we have three numbered thought-paths that I seem to have followed (of course not discretely – more the occasional meandering ramble).

  1. What does this do for me in terms of this unfolding narrative?  What does it add?  How does it change my understanding?  Where are we now and what comes next? Straightforward, proficient reading if you like.  Throw in some associative responses (it reminded me of my Nan’s very specific tea-based requirements centred on a particular bone china cup) and we’re ready for the next step.
  2. Now a little light analysis.  What can I see?  What do  I know?  What can it all mean? It’s here that I think we can see how a single image can take some of the weight of a book.  There are whole other narratives bound up in those cups: the stories of evenings; the relief of dad’s return; the story of the parents and the stories behind them.  So much potential conjuring from one simple image.
  3. Finally but not yet finalised, what most struck me in this “phase 2” moment was how mundane an image it was.  As  I ask in the diagram: why did they do this?   Why dedicate this amount of space to those cups?  Quite quickly,  the films of Terence Davies sprang to mind.  There are definite parallels.

What made me think of Davies?  What in those cups led to that intertextual leap? In the Long Day Closes  there is a fairly famous static shot of carpet that lingers for a surprisingly long time.   Just that.  Nothing else bar the play of light from an off-camera window.  It was there for a reason.  It meant something.  It conjured something. Memory and then a host of associated memories, emotions, and meanings.  In the book we have tea cups, in the film, a rug.  And from there, we can go in all kinds of directions.  I’ve listed a tiny number of the writers who touch on memory and texts that have sprung to mind – some simply because I have read them recently.  That particular section of the diagram could spin off in a dizzying array of directions but I imagine most roads will lead back to Proust.

Now the final part of the puzzle.    Something else was driving this level of attention, this preoccupation, this niggling.  And I think the answer is locked in this very particular clip from Davies’ earlier Distant Voices, Still Lives.

[Please note that there is a deliberately jarring cut to a scene of domestic violence at 1 min 10 seconds into the video. I think it is only fair to warn you.]

The first part of this clip was the key.  When I first saw Distant Voices, Still Lives as a young film student, it was one of those moments where a text shifts you out of your seat and places you squarely back in your own sense of things past.  I’m going to tread carefully here, because my mum is an intensely private and proud person.   Still, I’ve been a good son and sought the necessary permission.

When I was young, around the age of 7, and shortly after my parents had separated, my mum fell horribly ill.  Ill enough to teach us how fragile someone that you have come to rely on, who is the centre of daily life, can be. We learnt a powerful lesson about absence over what felt like a terribly long period.  Time really can drag when you are a child.  In time, mum did get better, but you looked at things differently of course. It is a real leap here- forgive me – but it kind of reminds me of these lines from Hammett:

‘…he was shocked more than really frightened.  He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works…The life he knew was a clean, orderly, sane, responsible, affair.  Now a falling beam had shown him that life was none of these things.’

 The Maltese Falcon

Dashielle Hammett

I don’t always trust my memories – they are often contested by my family.  My sister and I agree, though, that, like the children in the clip, we would watch our newly-vulnerable mum precariously cleaning windows with our hearts in our mouths.  We’d known what it was like to be without her; we’d seen the gaps in what we had assumed to be safety nets: what on earth was she playing at stretching out to those hard-to-reach corners?  It’s unquestionably a small moment – like the tea cups – but the weight of emotional connections that circle about it is profound.  It’s that moment, that intense connection and shock of recognition from something so simple and everyday, that I think sat at the heart of my preoccupation. Simple things can carry the weight of a world.

I seem to have sort of got there in the end.  Worked out why that page kept coming back to me.  Only – I am not quite there.  Now other thoughts and possibilities are opening up.  Deeper questions.  For instance, my sister and I would have experienced the window cleaning moments on a deep, emotional level.  However at the time, I am certain it was just an immediate pressing worry for the safety of our mum  I’m not sure we were linking it back to the recent events that had torn the world in two.  It remains a vivid memory for us both because we are able to see its place in the overwhelming hugeness of what had taken place around it.  Going back to, and possibly twisting the Margaret  Meek quote, at what point in my life did I become aware of the significance of those breath-held moments, and the stories they told.

Proust thought that it is rare for an experience to connect with its meaning, but that when this occurs, for instance by connecting the pattern of a memory to its meaning, the conjunction can create a deeply moving understanding’

‘His joy was not a reliving the taste of tea.  It occurred because of a return of memories from childhood, a state and a time that he had not understood when it was happening.  But now his childhood with its meanings started to unfold for him…’

Such Stuff as Dreams   The Psychology of Fiction

Keith Oatley

Moving on, what are the implications for children and then, the teaching of reading and writing? I’ve spoken about some darker moments,  but I could equally talk about the brighter side of life.  I’ve lived in Harlow all my life, barring university, and I now live in the same neck of the woods as in my childhood.  On the right day, under the right conditions, there is a certain smell in the air (a good smell, I hasten to add, given the eagerness of Harlow-bashers) that conjures up run-outs and other sweaty neighbourhood games, arguments, icecream vans, being late for dinner, and more. Rose-tinted no doubt.  Rose-tinted and rosy.

This train of thought, this teasing out of memories, this building of future significance, further chimes with other preoccupations: spaces for stillness, to attend to things, to notice, to name, to describe, to carve out abstractions, to accept, and to challenge or reject what we see in other texts. I spoke on something of this the year before last at the Oxford Reading Spree, drawing largely upon Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making.  In the book, Hughes makes a case for ‘practice in simple concentration on a small simple thing’.  Like two teacups or on someone cleaning windows. We may not know now what they might come to mean later on…but I imagine it is all to the good if  we are encouraged to notice and to note, to join some dots, to form something like stories. I have further thoughts relating to what this might add to children’s appreciation of other texts, and how it might help them to make temporal breaks in their writing, where they sit back and take stock.  I’ll get to them elsewhere.

Let me just close by sharing some of the final paragraph of Hughes’ book, in a chapter entitled Words and Experience.  My one request, small, but formed by the above, would be to consider how well we might add the word ‘images’ to this particular stream of thought:

…it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us…

Words that will express something of the deep that makes us precisely the way we are…something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river… Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaningless of it…

Poetry in the Making

Ted Hughes












4 responses to “‘Mansions in the head’: images, words, and the memories they conjure.”

  1. […] is By the Sea immediately makes me think of this model, as it were, of light and beauty, although Martin Galway does wisely point out that there is a lot to be said about line and colour in this book – as […]


  2. […] Mansions in the Head – Images, Words and the Memories they Conjure. […]


  3. […] by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith. I have waxed lyrical about Sydney Smith’s work elsewhere, and his debut solo excursion, Small in the City, was my favourite picturebook of last year. More […]


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