Never get Too Close to the Distant Past

Written in the dressing room at Greenham Arts after a visit to my past. 

When I lie awake at night, before the screaming starts, I sometimes occupy my time by walking around the places of my childhood in my head. Some details are stubborn, some are vivid, the main thing I can be sure of is the scale will be a little out. I am seeing things I saw at 4ft 8 and now it’s scaled up for someone a foot taller. The most difficult things to evoke are the colours. I can see the yellow and pink of the paving stones between the science room and classroom 3b, but the third colour seems irretrievable. Though I usually walk through the corridors and rooms when it is deserted, I sometimes conjure up a teacher. I am sure Mrs Archdale, the petrifying French teacher and headmaster’s wife, did not have a face so Fluck and Law as the one I have drawn, an imagination’s revenge on some of the harsh and belittling words she sneered at me to entertain the rest of the class. There are things I forgot to forget. I particularly remember her joy at playing to the flanneled boys after I had been off for two days due to gastroenteritis. She was the Mark Lamarr of her day. 

There is a vain hope when imagining the buildings of our past that they remain intact, since that elderly relative died it has been preserved by English Heritage for admission only by you. The doll that hid my grandmother’s loo roll, the cocktail trolley, barely needed in that maisonette, still holding a tin of cheese straws and a soda siphon dressed as a knitted poodle. Then there’s the painting bought on that Cornish holiday of something uncertain, perhaps trees or maybe a sea, and a bookshelf with Halliwell’s Teleguide, my bible when I no longer wanted The Bible (though my fondness for the Hamlyn Illustrated Bible with the blonde Jesus and Absalom hanging from a tree by his hair remains). 

Tonight, I am at New Greenham Arts, a building that was once the officer’s mess of this notorious missile base during those politcising earl 80s when feminists were lambasted and lampooned as they protested against nuclear warheads and US occupation. Opposite what is now a selection of workshops, businesses made of tin and a “ballroom/sports hall/what would you like to hire it for” building, is where my grandmother lived. Here was the destination for those regular trips to scoldings, meringues and a donkey. I know you should never go back, but this time, now middle aged, I did my soundcheck and then took to the hectic main road, to see what remained. 

Walking through the brambles I peered through the woodland to see if there was a roof I recognised. I strode halfway down a drive or two, attempting to look as little like a burglar as possible, but I was unshaven and wearing an overcoat with perfect pockets for jewel box booty. I was glad not to be accompanied by Josie Long, as she wears a red and black striped jumper at times. We’d have been hauled to Newbury police station and incarcerated on some Devil’s traffic island. 

I thought of my grandmother’s way with trespassers. I am surprised the postman didn’t suffer from frequent buckshot wounds but fortunately she never received many letters. 

When the peace camp began, she was outraged. I think she read the Daily Express as I remember yellowed Flook cartoons in corners. My grandmother was from a Victorian age, having spent her first 11 years under that particular reign, and she was armed and ready for any peace camp women who might do a poo in the woodland in front of her house. This is one of the many signs that political persuasion is not genetic. 

I finally recognised the drive, once a shamble of gravel and holes, now tarmac covered. 

The memory at the forefront of my mind was as banal as could be. I remembered the imperial leather soap that seemed so ornate when we visited and the shiny, greaseproof toilet paper that helped launch many early 80s observational routines but which is properly too historical for a youthful audience now. 

I tried to recall the donkey, but I started to have an inkling that it had either died or was too unwell to carry me, one of those memories that might really have been a reboot of a photo of my sisters on that donkey. Another family favourite before my time was the tale of my sister as a baby being removed from the lawn moments before an adder appeared and killed a whippet.

I got halfway down the drive and then felt I better not invade. Some people are friendly but we live in times where wealth and natural suspicion can go hand in hand, partly because many of the wealthy think everyone must have minds like them, ready to screw, bamboozle and white collar pickpocket for a fiver. Through the trees I could see the same door, that was enough. The shape had changed, tumours of extensions grew. On walking away, a man shouted at me suspiciously. I returned and explained my nostalgia trip. After offering enough evidence that I knew this house and its history he calmed, but his wife still felt the need to mention the dog and its moods. I saw no further, no tea was offered, and I was glad. By not seeing the changed past save for hints of growth and pruning, the cottage is almost intact. My English Heritage Granny’s house is still there, I must remember to never go so close again.

I am on tour as usual – coming to Bristol, Northampton, Radlett, Aldershot and Shoreham plus 45 more across the UK. Details HERE

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6 Responses to Never get Too Close to the Distant Past

  1. lanceleuven says:

    “but his wife still felt the need to mention the dog and its moods”

    You should have warned them about the adder!

  2. Simon Budgen says:

    That’s a beautiful piece – and even as I go through things I brought home from my Dad’s house after he died, I still somehow place them in a house that has since had its walls changed around and a different generation’s quirks added.

    Flook, by the way, was the Mail (although he moved to the Mirror for the last couple of years) – my Dad would sometimes tell me the story of how, on his first appearance in what was for too many generations my family’s paper of choice, he called his sister – my aunt – over to “see this strange bear-like thing” in the newspaper.

  3. sam says:

    You really must read Jonathan Franzen in the Guardians saturday Review. Sorry I can not give a link, because I do not know how to, I learnt to survive in a different time, the sheer pace of change has left me behind, I come from a time when getting a job at the Post office was something people respected, when mothers had time to look after there own kids, when the high street was empty on sundays, when House Martins nested on city homes, when kids went to school on bikes, a time when council estates had skilled men with jobs for life, I could go on, you see for me it feels like a personal apocalypse. You may call it nostalgic, but I think its just a fact of modernism, good or bad it definitely has its casualties

  4. Nancy says:

    Beautifully written piece Mr Ince, ta very much. I’m going to send its link to one of my young people doing Arts Award. Nancy

  5. I am in the process of emptying my Mother in Laws house,she is alive but in a home, and the sadness is incredible,I am finding loads of everyday reminders of how they lived its very touching and have been close to tears on several occasions.
    My childhood friend also died recently,suicide, he had been in the army, I have been mentally visiting our old haunts ( Beaufort in Ebbw Vale) where we played as kids,it was mostly war, running around with toy guns, again all too sad.

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