Friday, 20 February 2015

A Chair in the Sky

Entrance lobby, Chauncy House flats, 1970

This week, in order to resolve yet another "partial memory" dispute  -- they seem to be getting more frequent -- I ended up looking through various boxes of old notebooks and diaries, searching for the ur-notebook, the one I started in 1971, shortly after breaking up with my first serious girlfriend.  There's nothing quite like a dose of teenage misery to get the attention of the diary-muse.

Having found it, and deciphered the relevant pages -- written during a hitchhiking trip a schoolfriend and I took through Holland and Germany later that same year, aged 17 -- I was able to establish The Truth: that he and I were both mistaken about various things we thought we could recall with certainty -- but rather differently -- after 44 years.  Those battered pages did confirm, however, that we were both correct in remembering a lift in Germany from the driver of a car with only second gear, who liked to roll himself cigarettes, one foot up on the dashboard, while my friend steered us down the autobahn from the passenger seat.  You do tend to remember that sort of thing.

Naturally, I ended up reading the whole notebook.  People, events and feelings I had utterly forgotten about came bobbing back up into memory.  Although, according to this irrefutable primary source, some occasions I thought I remembered well had in fact been played out rather differently, or with a different cast-list, and some others might as well have happened to someone else, as they had utterly gone from my mind.  I was a little appalled to see what a casual -- or, more likely, ignorant -- view I took of various risks and dangers, but I found myself experiencing an acute nostalgia for the intensity of life at that age, when the slightest thing -- some unusual weather, an encouraging smile from a girl, a difficult day at school -- was fretted with the hot Shakespearean fires of flaming youth, only to be doused by a wet blanket of adolescent bathos.

The trouble with such documents is that they are themselves a very partial account.  Sadnesses and setbacks are meditated upon with greater zeal than simple joys and successes.  The everyday goes unrecorded, and the exceptional is described in depth and at length.  The life of a 17-year-old -- this 17-year-old, anyway -- is apparently a life lived for the weekends, in a small-town soap opera with a cast of about a dozen close contemporaries, sporadically disrupted by invasions from the outer space inhabited by parents and teachers.  Seeing myself seeing myself, as it were, was a real hall of mirrors: "You're wrong, you little idiot... Don't do it!" I wanted to shout down the years.  Though I know only too well what I'd shout back.

Time-travel is bound to have unpredictable consequences. The main fallout for me was that I started obsessively mentally reconstructing my bedroom in the fourth-floor council flat we had lived in since 1967, from the dark blue I had painted my walls right down to the carpet I butchered, by cutting up hardboard sheets for paintings with a Stanley knife and steel ruler on the floor.  That block of flats, where I spent some of the most intensely lived years of my life, became emblematic of all my subsequent personal and private griefs and losses when it was demolished a few years ago, something I only discovered when taking a memory-lane detour through town on the way to my mother's funeral in Norfolk.  It was one of those ludicrously symbolic moments -- I had to pull over to the side of the road, gaping in utter disbelief -- when you think, Really?  Who writes this stuff?

And it's very odd to think that this intimately-known room, fifty or so feet above the ground, with its window hooded by our little balcony, looking out over a playing field and the town centre towards the motorway -- the stage-set for all my teenage hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions -- is now just an empty space somewhere in the air above the new houses built on the site.

The alchemical bedroom 1972


Zouk Delors said...

Flats, Mike -- they built blocks of flats there, not houses. They're much nicer than Chauncy House, honest. Though, as they're no more than about three storeys, still no-one's got your old chair in the sky.

They probably knocked it down so it couldn't become a shrine for Idiotic Hatters. They erased the Long Ship too, you know: just pulled the bottom floor out of the building somehow and made it a car park.

Mike C. said...

Are the new flats council -- sorry, "social housing" -- or private?

Hmm, makes you wonder if they're secretly buying up the place and building a "70s Stevenage" theme park, somewhere, maybe Arizona... Fun for all the family!

Keep a close eye on Ted the Grass, The Red Lion, The Mecca, the Bowling Alley, and, um, that was about it, wasn't it?


Mike C. said...

... the Krazy Kettle, the SPCK bookshop, the Hobby Shop, the Undercroft, Bowes Lyon youth club, and the Library, too.

But you're going to tell me they've all already gone, aren't you? Definitely Arizona...


Zouk Delors said...

Ted the Grass is now Paddy Power bookie's; the Red still is (but with an extension since your day); the Bowling Alley's a car park; the Krazy Kettle is a generic fried chicken outlet; SPCK (I'd forgotten about that - no bookshops at all left now since Waterstone's closed down) is an amusement arcade; the Hobby Shop is Phones4Go, I think; the Undercroft was still there last time I looked, but not now used as we used it afaik; Bowes Lyon is still going; the Library is still there, but the Old Town branch is moving to videolink operation soon, allegedly ("In the future we won't need librarians as machines will do their work. The liberated librarians will be freed from their drudgery, spending their time instead creating works of art, going on holidays in space and engaging in novel forms of entertainment we cannot even imagine today").

Do you reckon there's a guy in a ten-gallon hat looking out your old window, going "I'm not content -- bring me the King George V Playing Field!"?

Mike C. said...

Sounds awfully like it... Perhaps we can get jobs as tour-guides.


Martyn Cornell said...

The Hobby Shop - I'd forgotten that. I worked in the SPCK bookshop, for about a year – £1 a day.

Have you come across the comic novel (not really a good word for it) HERE, by Richard McGuire - it's about 350 pages of drawings of a corner of a room in a house, or where that corner of a room in a house will be/once was, ranging back and forth across time, hundreds, even thousands of years, sometimes a patchwork of different eras on the same page: excellent and thought-provoking. At some time in the past the space where your room in Chauncy House was, was probably occupied by the tops of trees, where birds nested and squirrels searched for acorns. In a hundred years' time, flying cars may be zipping through what was once your bedroom. Meanwhile here's a real blaster from the past

Mike C. said...


I loved that shop! Half a pint of "gentles" for fishing, balsa wood sheets, Exacta knives, Humbrol paints -- it was all there.

HERE sounds v. interesting indeed, tho' it may just have knocked the wind out of the sails of a CH-related project I'd begun to cook up in my mind...

Yes, thanks, I've seen that CH image before, there's one from 1954 in the "Frith Collection", too, taken from the ground. CH actually appears on some Stevenage multi-view postcards, tho' images of the, um, "mature" version of the flats are very hard to find. Wish I'd taken some myself. Sometime, I may ask the Museum, who seem to have a good collection of local postcards and photos.