Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir - Penelope Lively

I began on a spring morning in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek, which was a residential suburb on Gezira, the island in Cairo’s Nile; 17 March 1933. Elsewhere, things were going on that would lead to turmoil in North Africa in a few years’ time; my parents’ lives would be affected, and mine, but they were comfortably oblivious that morning, and I was tucked up in a crib, the feet of which stood in tin trays of water, because there had been instances of ants getting at newborn babies.

Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

I have no idea why, but Penelope Lively’s book seems to go by various titles. Another one seems to be Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, which is a bit confusing when you’re trying to find the book but at the same time makes it really easy to tell someone else what the title is because inevitably any one of the variations on the title may bring up the book in a search. Leaping Fish, Dancing Fish… at least the Ammonites seem to be present in all of them.

Anyway, this book is my RL book club’s read for this month and it is the first of their picks that I have really enjoyed. It is not a perfect book, but I was glued to Lively’s essays on ageing, memory, her own story, her accounts of history, and her musings on life, on reading.

As it turns out, she seems to be an author that I share some interests with and whose thought-process I find both inspiring and, not easy to follow exactly, but neatly cutting to salient points without a lot flourish. What I mean is, she gets to the point. I like that.

You aren’t going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won’t ever be old, partly because we can’t imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don’t want to, and – crucially – are not particularly interested.


We are too keen to bundle everyone by category; as a child, I used to be maddened by the assumption that I would get along famously with someone just because we were both eight. All that we have in common, we in this new demographic, are our aches and pains and disabilities – and, yes, that high C evoked by Anthony Burgess. For the rest of it, we are the people we have always been – splendidly various, and let us respect that.

Whether it were her thoughts on old age, or her dissection of the Suez Crisis (which, btw, I found particularly fascinating in that horrifying way that history has when it becomes clear just how stupid and reckless politicians are when gambling with people’s lives), or her description of how much she loves reading and how books are part of her life (Right on, Penelope!), I will be returning to this book to re-read certain sections.

Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too – try her, try him, try that, Amazon and AbeBooks would founder without me; my house is a book depository – books in, books out (to family and friends, to my daughter’s Somerset cottage where there is still some shelf space, to wonderful Book Aid which sends English language books to places where they are needed).

Despite all my enthusiasm for this book, it is not without faults. They show up especially when compared to Lively’s fiction, which has structure – as story-telling tends to do.

This, her memoir, does not stick to that prescribed architecture of beginning, middle, end, with a relevant flow of narrative. It is a memoir, in a  way, but certainly not anything that could be referred to for chronology. In this book, Lively dissects topics – old age, memory, the individuals place in collective history – and connects them to her own life.

Her narrative in this book very much reminded me of that of Claudia in Lively’s book Moon Tiger, who exclaims the following at the beginning of the book:

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

(Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger) 

It is … messy … in parts. Yet, I actually found that aspect charming. Others may not.

Oh, well.

Am I envious of the young? Would I want to be young again? On the first count – not really, which surprises me. On the second – certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. And, having known youth, I’m well aware that it has its own traumas, that it is no Elysian progress, that it can be a time of distress and disappointment, that it is exuberant and exciting, but it is no picnic. I don’t particularly want to go back there. And in any case, I am someone else now. This seems to contradict earlier assertions that you are in old age the person you always were. What I mean is that old age has different needs, different satisfactions, a different outlook. I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.


Original post: