Ask The Memoir Detective: Which is the most useless of all?


Dear Dr MD

Can you please tell me which one of these is the most useless?

(a)  War

(b)  Fancy cookery shows

(c)  A hip-pocket in a singlet

(d)  An ashtray on a motorbike

Many thanks


Dear Finbar

First of all, this is clearly a trick question.  Plus, it lacks the most important option: an (e) all of the above.  For (e) is the correct answer, my dear, with some qualifications, as always.

As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.  Or words to that effect.  War is, as we all know, both useless and tragic.  But many thousands of memoirs have been written about wars – perhaps for those very reasons of uselessness and tragedy – by soldiers, foreign correspondents, politicians, and victims, to name a few.

If I were you, I’d stick with memoirs by the correspondents: they usually have fewer biases and are more likely to present a picture that doesn’t demonise The Other.  Also, war victims’ memoirs, while cathartic and moving, can be quite traumatic and overwhelming.  Perhaps you don’t feel that you want to invite such sadness into your life.  It’s your choice, of course.

You may, however, actually enjoy ABC correspondent, Eric Campbell’s account of his time in several weird, wonderful and dangerous places, some of them at war, on the brink of it, or trying to clean up after it.  It’s called Absurdistan, for reasons that become very clear very early on.

Now, as to fancy cookery shows, Fin – may I call you Fin – they, too, though frequently entertaining, are quite useless, and wasteful, but in a different way from war.  At least as you eat your way to a solidified left ventricle while imitating your favourite TV chefs in the comfort of your designer kitchen, you may enjoy a few mouthfuls of delicious creamy pasta rather than a faceful of shrapnel before you drop off for the longest sleep of all.

You’d be better off, though, eating more steamed vegies, fewer steaks, and drinking plenty of black tea with your breakfast oats. 

Famous cooks, by the way, write their memoirs as cookery books whether they realise it or not.  Check out Kylie Kwong, Jamie Oliver, and the Two Fat Ladies.  This is a far more useful pursuit, as these texts often contain beautiful, and droolworthy shots of dishes that don’t always require three ovens and 48 separate processes to achieve.

Indeed, Fin, why not create your own cookbook memoir by compiling your own, or your family’s favourite dishes in one handy volume?  Add comments about why you love each dish, and when you prefer to eat or serve it, and to whom.

Incorporate some photos of the dishes as they are created, and then when they’re served on the plate.  Don’t be shy about including in the photos whoever might be in the kitchen or dining-room with you at the time.  Gather quotations from those satisfied diners, and place them in the sidebars of your recipe pages.  Note the dates and times at which the comments were made, and the ages of those quoted. 

Develop your cookbook as a history of your tribe’s and even your culture’s changing culinary tastes.

You’ll have a mindful and meaningful family heirloom to give to succeeding generations of grateful gourmands, and the youngest ones will see the timeline of their maturity as they grow from loathing to loving garlic, mushrooms, broccoli, and green beans (stir-fry, add a little stock and low-fat cream, and serve on rice, couscous, or noodles – brought to you by RBS: Recipes By Stealth).

Finally, Finnie baby, (c) and (d) are there to get us to (e) really, and because they remind me of my father, who was fond of a joke or two.  So they function for me as micro memoirs: memoirs you can write in a sentence or two, and which then open entire worlds of memory to you about loved ones, events, and places.

As useless as a hip-pocket in a singlet, darl, Dad would explain as we’d watch yet another politician bloviating on TV about the Vietnam war, oh so very long ago. 

As useful as an ashtray on a motorbike, he’d say as we’d laugh over whether or not the latest K-Tel product came with steak knives, and wonder about its capacity to create radish roses.

So, Fin, Finnie, Finbar, dearest, why not write your own micro memoir now before you forget, and start that cookbook memoir with your next meal.  A line or two, a soupcon of pepper, and you’re on your way, and that’s a very useful thing to be doing in a world undone by conflicts and confits.

Remember, Grasshoppers: Life = Memoir = Now

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