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