Sunday, June 7, 2015

Landscapes of Memory

One of my favourite poems of all time is 'Ulysses' by Lord Alfred Tennyson. Nearly every line of it is pure gold, but one of my favourite parts of it is Ulysses's meditation on memory and experience:

 For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known---cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all---
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.

"I am a part of all that I have met". Such simple, everyday, monosyllabic words, but expressing such a profound thought, never expressed with such high dignity! I always take it to mean that Ulysses had played such a part in the places and situations he had been in, that he had left a permanent mark on them. But I've also always taken it to mean-- and I see now that there is little warrant for this-- that the places had left a permanent mark on Ulysses, and had become part of his very being.

Time and space have always seemed mysterious to me, and the more experience I have of them, the more mysterious they seem. When someone says something like: "That happened fifty years ago, but it seems like yesterday", we are at the heart of this mystery. Nothing is more real than space and time...but nothing seems more unreal, either. 

What is the past? Where is it? How is the baby of 1930 the same being as the old man of 2010?

As for space, what is a place? How can France and your back garden both be 'a place' in the same sense? A place is partly an idea, and partly a thing. Very often there is no obvious demarcation between one place and another. And yet-- it would be the utmost pedantry to pretend there is nothing but one endless continuum, arbitrarily divided up by the human mind. There are places. They are real.

When I started going to Mass, the parish priest at the time would always include, in his notices, this little advertisement: "The Irish Catholic newspaper and other religious items are on sale on the stand in the corner." And somehow I always felt a thrill that he could describe the corner of the church, which was perhaps fifteen paces from where he was standing on the altar, as a different place. It was so close-- and yet, in the sense of being not present to him, it was as far away as the moons of Jupiter. I know this is a very idiosyncratic response.

Place seems extra mysterious to me because I have an appalling, appalling sense of direction, and of geography, and of visual recall. When I admit this people say things like: "Oh, I'm like that myself, I'm always getting lost." Well, you might be as bad as me in this regard, but I doubt it. I really doubt it. My inadequacy in such matters is truly spectacular. I would not be able to draw a picture of a room I had been in every day for a decade. All the same, places enter into my soul every bit as deeply as they enter into the souls of others.

There are so many places that seem a part of me, as though I had left fragments of my soul there, like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.

Funnily enough, the seventh floor flat where I grew up-- right from my youngest days to my early twenties (it's now demolished)-- doesn't hold much nostalgia for me. I am generally the most sentimental of men, but there are too many memories attached to that three-bedroom flat. I don't mean too many bad memories. I mean too many memories of every sort. They seem to cancel each other out.

It's funny how the same experience can affect you in different ways. There were so many people in that flat-- different complements at different times, as people came and went (and came back and went again)-- that the flat was always noisy, chaotic, crowded and messy. It left me with a hatred of messy places-- though I can be messy myself-- but it also left me with a hatred of too much peace and quiet. I can never be happy in a place unless there is coming and going, activity, life. And I can't help feeling a certain (unfair, I'm sure) disdain for people who 'need peace and quiet to function'. I could sleep through a building being demolished-- and I have. But it's strange that I reacted against my environment in one way-- its messiness-- but that I hearken back to it fondly in another-- its bustle, noise and animation.

(How do you work in a library if you don't like too much peace and quiet, you might ask? Sir or ma'am, you would not ask that question if you had ever been in the James Joyce Library. It is not a sleepy or quiet place!)

But the flat lingers in my memory-- and in my dreams-- in a different way. For as long as I can remember, I've dreamt about trying to get home-- trying to get to the seventh floor-- where my mother and my father are waiting for me. This dream has changed over the years. (I had it a few days before my mother died in 2001.) All through the years, I have dreamed of the last flight of stairs being missing, leaving an empty space from the sixth to the seventh floor. (Sometimes it is partly there, sometimes it is all gone.) In later years, though this motif continues to feature, I also find myself aware-- when I do eventually reach the flat-- that I have not been there in a long, long time. And everything is different, though my family still lives there and my mother is alive again. For one thing, in this dream, there is often chequered black-and-white linoleum on the floor. I always feel a sense of mingled dread and hope-- can I really go back? Will everything be restored, made better, or is there a horrible surprise waiting inside?

I think the drama of trying to get home is one of the most primal dramas of all-- perhaps the single most primal. Stories that follow this narrative, from The Odyssey to Star Trek Voyager, have an irresistible appeal to me. 

Often, I find my mind hovering over the landscapes of memory, like a restless ghost. Sometimes this is when I am falling asleep. Sometimes, it is while I am thinking of something else entirely, or doing something else entirely. I can be very active and focused, mentally or physically or both, and yet a different 'track' of my mind will be lingering on some scene from my past, half-consciously.

Sometimes they are places I have been hundreds of times. Sometimes, they are places I have only been once.

I remember the first school I went to. The schoolyard seemed so hectic and riotous, and I was knocked down by running children so often, that I remember once congratulating myself-- in some astonishment-- at crossing the yard from end to end without misadventure. There were diagonal beams of wood buttressing the walls of the school, rising up from the ground of the schoolyard. I remember, at one point, children playing a game in which one victim lay on the diagonal beam, while others performed some kind of imaginary operation on him. I seem to remember this was intended as torture rather than surgery.

Now my mind flashes to a much later memory-- a bowling alley that Michelle took me to in Richmond. It was the first time I had been in a bowling alley. It's the only time I've been to a bowling alley. I remember it so distinctively because of the satisfying thump of the bowling ball on the floor, the feel of the bowling ball in my fingers, the sound of the skittles falling. I remember Michelle's smile, even though she was in pain at the time. I remember the taste of Coke in my mouth, and the pleasingly trashy way the monitor above each alley kept playing little snatches of pop music. The memory of this bowling alley and the bowling alley scene in my favourite movie,
Groundhog Day, have leeched into each other. That often happens. (The bowling alley scene is one of my favourites, purely for its strangely contemplative atmosphere.)

The word 'skittles' brings me my mind to another place-- the butcher's shop in Ballymun Shopping Centre, which was there for as long as I can remember, and which only closed recently. It always struck me as classy, since it had tile mosaics showing the heads of various animals on the walls. It also had enormous (or what seemed like enormous) rugs made of animal skins and fur hanging on the walls. I couldn't imagine anyone ever actually buying one of these. (Come to think of it, I think they were prizes in draws, rather than items for sale.) It also sold sweets, including Skittles-- small eliptoid-shaped pieces of candy, in many different colours. My elder brother bought Skittles, and somehow I got the impression that Skittles were only for big boys. This made the place seem even classier.

 And now my my mind flashes to another old shop in Ballymun Shopping Centre, a shop called Perry's. I don't know when exactly this shop closed. There was a discussion on the matter very recently on a Facebook page called 'Tribute to the Old Ballymun" which I sometimes visit. It was some time in the nineties. This shop always intrigued me because it was kind of a department store, but not really. It was too small and too limited to be a department store. But it was too big and had too many departments to be a general store. It had a sweet counter, a hardware section, a second hand books section, and a clothes section. Allthough I have subsequently learned that it was part of a (very small) chain, it certainly didn't have the regimented flavour of a chain store. It had neither the atmosphere of a Target store on the one hand, or a Mom and Pop store on the other, but a strange mixture of the two. (I put it in American terms for my American readers!)

I remember the mechanized parrot just inside the entrance. I can still hear his mantra: "I love the sound of money. Here comes your present. Mind how you go!". My younger brother was a sucker for this and always petitioned my mother for coins to feed it. Being a little bit older, I was partly indulgent and partly disdainful of his greed (as it seemed to me). 

And now I find myself remembering a circus I attended, as a child-- the only circus I ever attended. Part of me hated it, and part me has always hated everything to do with the circus-- the exaggeration, the freakishness, the sensationalism. But it was too different from anything else I had ever experienced not to sink into my soul, like ink into blotting paper. Funnily enough, the thing that held my attention the most were the wooden bleachers we were all sitting on. I looked down into them, into the darkness below, and was fascinated by the contrast between its melancholy and the gaudy splendour in front of me. I also remember thinking-- consciously or unconsciously-- how much of a mismatch there seemed to be between the skill of the acrobats and the impressiveness of their feats. The law of diminishing returns struck me with great force on this occasion. I understood that the acrobatics required tremendous skill-- but how tiresome they quickly became! And how I sympathised with the acrobats for having to perform ever more  dramatic feats, to hold the crowd's waning interest! Since that day, if not before, the idea that something is to be valued purely for its difficulty has always seemed rather grotesque to me-- even rather inhumane.

I remember the taste of candyfloss too-- cotton candy, as Americans call it. I've had it on only a handful of occasions since, so its association with this memory remains strong.

And now the wheel of my memory spins again, and I remember the large hall or auditorium on the top floor of my secondary school. It was an Irish language secondary school, and the teachers used the Irish term for 'attic' to refer to it. It was dark and cavernous, and it was shaped rather like an ancient Greek theatre-- in the sense that the floor rose in steps from the front to the back, with only a little bit of flat floor at the front. The students would sit on mats on the steps. We used it for choir practice, amongst other things. I remember us singing, "Under the Old Apple Tree" there. (Or so I remembered the title. It seems, from an internet search, to be "Under the Old Linden Tree" Maybe the teacher changed it to "Apple".). It was a sweet, nostalgic tune, and it had a couple of lines that ran:

When we were hungry, we'd plenty to eat
And when we were thirsty, we'd cider to drink.

A boy sitting beside me, who had a fine singing voice and seemed to realise it, changed the words-- without the merest smirk, and safely guarded from detection amongst so many other voices-- to:

When we were hungry, we'd nothing to eat
And when we were thirsty, we'd f---- all to drink.

I remember looking at him and feeling partly amused by the parody, partly impressed at his wit and audacity, and partly sad that the innocence of the song had been tainted-- that the innocence of our youth, or what might have been the innocence of our youth, was being tainted all the time, through our own fault, or through the fault of our era.

In the same 'attic', I remember we sang 'Yesterday' by the Beatles. I had never really listened to the words before, and I found them haunting, and especially so when sung by adolescent voices. The line: "Now I need a place to hide away" made me yearn to be broken and wounded and crushed, and to legitimately crawl away to recuperate.

And now I remember a playground where my two brothers and I went to play, during a trip away from home. It was a terrible playground. I remember one metal pole that we were expected to climb, and wondering what pleasure could possibly be taken in something so frustrating. The only part I liked was a metal 'spaceship' that had three seats inside it. I remember wishing I could travel all around the galaxy with my brothers in such a spaceship. We would always be in the same positions, and we would always be together, even as the stars changed around us. This idea, in different forms, has always delighted me.

When I conceived this post, I thought of putting together a definitive roll-call of all the major settings of my life. Now I realise how laughable this idea was. Apart from the fact that it would take a book of three hundred pages, how could you classify 'major' and 'minor'?

I am a part of all that I have met, indeed. Some of these places, of all the places that have entered into my soul and my memory, still exist. Others have disappeared. And others are in an intermediate state. But, in some sense, they all remain. In some sense, I am still present in every one of them. And my mind can flash back there at any instant.

Really, one could say we are only ever in one place-- in our own minds. "The mind is its own place", as Milton's Satan said. (I wrote "as Hamlet said" at first, until a reader kindly wrote to tell me it was Milton. Thanks!) In a way, the mind seems to me like a cinema upon whose screen all these places appear and disappear-- but we are always in that cinema. Or, if that image is too depressingly stationary, we can think of our minds like a spaceship that travels through all these star systems. We are always in the spaceship, even while we are everywhere else. 

But even that seems too passive. Our minds half-experience and half-create the places that we visit. No wonder we never entirely leave them. To filch a wonderful line from the horror write Cliver Barker: "That which is imagined need never be lost."


  1. You are very good at describing the everyday and commonplace without sounding either pompous or childish.