Kirsty Morris Welsh on the Poignant Power of Memory

A few weeks ago, I found myself unable to sleep because I couldn’t remember the name of a book I took out of Darlington library in the early 90s.

I was convinced it was about elephants. They moved house, leaving the youngest elephant upset and disorientated, but it ended happily. That was all I could recall.

Google – ordinarily the cyber Room of Requirement – proved unhelpful on this occasion. I embarked on a mammoth (no pun intended) quest to track down the book. Searches for ‘elephant children’s books’, ‘books about moving house’ and ‘elephant moves house’ proved fruitless.

All I learned from this research was that Babar the Elephant – the colourful French children’s series – actually had strong colonial overtones. Indeed, it would seem that King Babar himself represented – and justified – paternalism in the African colonies.

As an African studies graduate, I found this all this very interesting, but it brought me no closer to finding the mystery book.

‘I don’t remember a book about elephants,’ my mum said. ‘I think it was about bears. Why does it matter so much anyway?’

The truth was, the animal protagonist was of little importance. As a child, what really mattered to me was that the story was about moving house. My parents were publicans and we lived all over the country while I was growing up. When I became particularly bored one evening earlier this month, I worked out that I’d moved 22 times in my 23 years.

22 pins in a map. 22 new starts.

I abandoned hope of finding my beloved children’s book. I forgot about it. Until one morning, I had a blinding flash of recollection.

The book wasn’t about elephants. It was about tigers.

This time, Google was back on top form. It took me less than five minutes to identify the book as A New Home for Tiger by Joan Stimpson. I immediately ordered a copy.

Paging through the book, I was filled with an enormous rush of nostalgia. Straight away, I could see where my confusion has arisen from. There was an elephant, but his job was to help the tiger family move their belongings from one house to another. Good effort, brain.

This weekend, I will complete my twenty-third move, leaving behind the house where I spent what was easily the happiest year of my life.

What will I take away from my time spent there? Well, among other things, a yellow teapot and a framed black-and-white photograph of Walter Brennan. Obscure, yes – but don’t we all have items that are linked to a particular time and place?

The detritus that we collect throughout our lives is only half of the experience. Some of it must be inevitably parted with. Zeitgeist – the trends and popular culture of a particular time – is harder to dismiss.

The song that you can’t get enough of this month – write it down. The books you’ve read and enjoyed – record their titles.

In twenty years, I’m unlikely to render myself an insomniac trying to remember who played Stumpy in Rio Bravo – because I’ll know that the year when I had a photo of him on my desk was also the time I made my way through Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, watched Murray win Wimbledon and read a lot of Joyce Carol Oates.

You can, as the tiger in Stimpson’s story discovers, carry your home with you – no matter how many times you move on.