Book of the week: The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

Alan Slingsby on a book set in 1980s Brixton that dazzles with its photography-like descriptions

Black and white picture of Brixton in the eighties
Brixton in the eighties

At one point in Geoff Dyer’s The Colour of Memory, set in Brixton in the 1980s, two characters are discussing a book.

“What’s it like really? Is there a plot?” asks one.

“Oh no there’s no plot,” comes the replay. “I hate plots.”

He would certainly like the book he’s in – no plot but lots of events, both momentous and insignificant, described with a dazzling use of language and colours.

A group of young, apparently middle class, people drift through life, buoyed up by drink, drugs and music, and the sense – almost impossible to believe now – that there was no need to worry about careers or somewhere to live, because there would always be work of some sort available, or you could just “sign on” for unemployment benefit with few, if any, questions asked, and get a flat from the council.

If you were like them in Brixton in the 80s, there will be some moments for you. You’ll remember the pie and mash shop, Tesco’s move to Acre Lane (from its site on Pope’s Road) and the Hootananny being the George Canning.

I was delighted to discover that I was not the only 80s Brixtonite to get impatient in the queue at the “the hippy shop”.

A passage from the book sums up its approach and its fascination: “This book is like an album of snaps. In any snap strangers intrude; the prints preserve an intimacy that lasted only for a fraction of a second as someone, unnoticed at the time, strayed unintentionally into the picture frame. Hidden among the familiar, laughing faces of friends are the glimpsed shapes of strangers; and in the distant homes of tourists there you are, at the edge of the frame, slightly out of focus, in the midst of other peoples’ memories … Look closely and maybe there, close to the margin of the page, you will find the hurried glance of your own image: queuing at the bar, hurrying for the bus, drinking beer on a roof, bleeding on the floor of the tube.”

book coverThe Brixton I recall didn’t read Nietzche on rooftop terraces while listening to Mahler on a cassette player, but Dyer’s book does capture some of its atmosphere and name-checks just about everywhere of significance, particularly the Effra, where I felt I would have been sitting next to the characters as we all chatted away.

If you don’t want to wallow in Brixton nostalgia or get an idea what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, The Colour of Memory, is still very much worth a read. Geoff Dyer is a brilliant writer and his photographic writing technique is stunning.

Unnecessary quibble of the week: The book was first published in 1989. Its latest edition, from 2012, still spells Coldharbour as two words.

The Colour of Memory; Geoff Dyer; Canongate Books; ISBN 9780857862716. Available from online retailers in hardback, paperback and ebook.

Read Nick Buglione’s recollections of 80s Brixton

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