Memory has a strange way of often hitting you when you’re not expecting it.
I have a little theory about the memory muscle, and it makes me wonder how many writers might be either only children, or youngest. Or at least not the oldest child, because it’s the younger ones who watch, look out for danger, and need to take note. The oldest just forge ahead – doing things.
It’s like Sartre’s comment, live or write.
Maybe my feeling about place and memory is the same as music. It’s been well documented how often music takes us straight back to a heightened emotional state, so we will cry for a lost love (even after years of realising how we’ve escaped something rather awful) when we hear the record we listened to again and again every time we cried ourselves to sleep in our teenage bedrooms. And Proust of course has written beautifully about how the taste of a madeleine brings back so many memories.
Equally I’m always amazed at how I map places through the emotional moments they hold for me. Recently I walked round Ely, the town I spent six years at boarding school, with my daughter. She saw just a street but I was ‘seeing’ so many of the boys I had snogged in various corners that she had to beg me to stop telling her about it! But for a thirteen year old, forget the Cathedral, that was my real version of the city.
Not just the boys though. Spotting the butchers where my best friend Nicky and I used to go in to order ‘two hot sausage rolls’ when we couldn’t eat the school food made me stop and gasp.
And then there was the wall I was looking at when I ‘borrowed’ someone’s glasses and suddenly realised what it was like to see. Every brick. Every amazing brick. What had I been missing? How long had I been short sighted and not realised? And what if I wasn’t thick, but just couldn’t see the board or the books like everyone else? Look, just an ordinary wall to everyone else but, friends, this is the wall that changed my life…
The house where we’d go and eat breakfast sometimes with a cathedral verger and his wife, the organ loft where I once drank cider with the organist during evensong, the cherub whose cheek I used to rub for luck before exams, and then this spot, just coming out of Cherry Hill where I first realised how much my body responded to seasons. I stood in the exact spot where I had been so completely staggered by the joyfulness of spring coming that I’d wanted to sing – no, shout – out loud, the sun has got its hat on and is coming out to play. THIS SPOT (below)! Now decades later, I could still felt my heart lift at the memory…
And of course the beauty of these jumble of memories is that they come as they want, trivial next to life-changing. Happy next to sad. There’s no hierarchy in memories, and the joy of returning to a place I’ve known in the past is how well they had been held for me – just waiting until I returned to leap out and hit me.
In my head I call them emotional hotspots, but I think they should really be hot emotional spots because they don’t need plaques or anything – they are more like those machines that can seek out heat hidden deep underground. And, sorry daughter, of course that includes my first ‘snogs’, but you’re right, they probably don’t need broadcasting!