Tell us another and I’ll stay awake. Pass us a drink it’s a quarter to eight. What’s on the wall and here comes the sun. And if you really want to talk about it you can take me there ’cause I’m all ears and whiskey tonight.
A couple of months ago I walked into a tiny newsagents on Racecommon Road, just off Town End in Barnsley. The shop is small and inconsequential. Blink and you’d miss it. Thousands must pass by without noticing it everyday on their way in and out of the town centre. The shop has a blind window with a BFC, Hallam FM we’re in the Premier League sticker in the corner. A misshapen door. Inside the tiny shop was packed with ephemeral goodies. The short term tat and gunk that we stuff ourselves with on a daily basis to make existence slightly more bearable and then promptly forget all about. To relieve the boredom, to feed our interests, to distract us from the grind and futility. There were copies of Mojo with free CDs stuck on by chemically generated snot. Tabloid newspapers with bland stories about plastic, disposable celebrities splashed on the front pages. Glossy lads mags on football. On golf. On gadgets. On coarse fishing. Even glossier magazines for the girls. Company, Cosmopolitan, Chat. The latest make-up tips. How to reduce cellulite with a Marmite rub. How a teenage Mum married her Dad by mistake. There were pouches of Drum tobacco. Rows of cellophane wrapped cigarettes with their warnings of an invisible suicide. Bullet shaped tins of cigars. There was Haribo. There were Polos. Tubes of Extra Strong Mints. There were Aniseed Mint Imperials. There were plastic jars containing pear drops, Jelly babies and humbugs. There was Toblerone. And then I saw them. Tucked behind the Flakes and the between the Milky Bars and the Kinder Surprise. Blue, purplish wrapping, lurid red lettering with gold highlights. Wispas. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones in a head to head on the adverts. Velvety chocolate.
I paused. I stared between the counter and the woman behind it in disbelief. She nodded at me, smiling. Knowing. They’re back. I handed across a couple of pound coins. I bought a few bars. I staggered back outside. I tore open the wrapper. I looked at the shiny chocolate. I ate. I chomped. I sated my tongue. I held the sensation as the cocoa and sugar melted. The tiny bubbles popped. I stood on Racecommon Road with the half-eaten Wispa in my hand. Breathing in the carbon dioxide and conscious of a heroin addict shuffling along behind me. I wondered. I was transfixed. I was thunderstruck. I was transported.
Suddenly it was 1984 all over again. The sky washed out. A grim, hot summer. My BMX. The nylon feel of my Barnsley Football Club match shirt. Swapping Panini Stickers. Tight shiny shorts. Red Pod shoes. In the gleaming chrome of my Ammaco Silver Star I saw my whole lost world reflected. It’s the past resurrected. I hear it in the voice from Speak & Spell. In ‘Liza Radley’ by the Jam. I see it in the Goodyear airship. The smell of a cold winter’s afternoon. The dated font on the sign of the local dry cleaners. A shift in time takes place. This is the power of association. These are folds and wrinkles of the mind. Where memories and sensations lurk. It is the lounge carpet whose pattern is protected underneath the sofa. We forget the vibrancy of the colours. The depth of the pile. Until one day we shift the position of the armchair and see the startling shock of what it once was. Of what we once were.
Coleridge states: ’The general law of association, or, more accurately, the common condition under which all exciting causes act, and in which they may be generalized, according to Aristotle is this. Ideas by having been together acquire a power of recalling each other; or every partial representation awakes the total representation of which it had been a part. In the practical determination of this common principle to particular recollections, he admits five agents or occasioning causes: first, connection in time, whether simultaneous, preceding, or successive; second, vicinity or connection in space; third, interdependence or necessary connection, as cause and effect; fourth, likeness; and fifth, contrast.’
We are recording machines. Throughout our lives, every tremor, every taste, every sound, each and every colour we see, every place we visit, every conversation that we ever have, the shape of a Ford Escort XR3i, the sensation of Space Dust on our tongues, the appalling taste of our first pint, everything is fixed and held inside each and every cell of our being. We hold the ineffable pain of grief and bereavement etched into our atoms. The moments of terror acid bitten into our souls. We store the memory of every moment of our lives. The delirium of happiness. The desolation of heartbreak and the disappointment that can be engendered by another human being. The colour of the sky when we reflected of the certainty of another’s deceit. The angle of the sun on an Autumn’s day when I walked home from school in 1981. The dual carriageway leading into Bolton. The painted lanes for the Isle of Wight ferry in Portsmouth. The cedar tree in the grounds of Reading University. The sound of Holly Johnson’s voice singing ‘The Power of Love’ at the Darton High School Christmas disco in 1984. The bite of the wind on the mock battlements at Raven Hall Hotel on the North Yorkshire coast. The colour of the sky on the cold afternoon of my 21st birthday. Not only our brains but our entire bodies are an archive. Every glimpse is held. Every sensation. No moment is lost. Sometimes the shelves get dusty. We mislay things. The images are obscured. But the past is still alive. The moments are still there. Nothing truly leaves us.
I touch the kind of flammable bri-nylon that Trading Standards made illegal in 1986 and my skin remembers the moment when I stood too near the open fire at my Grandma and Grandad’s. My fingertips recall my first jumper from High School. I hear the start up sound from an Astro Wars and I leap through the time tunnel to Mapplewell Junior & Infant School. I’m punched in the face and my bones re-live my first fight. The time I was involved in a riot in Wakefield nightclub. Adamski’s ‘Killer’ kicking out all around me. A toothache takes me back to being on Hadrian’s Wall. And I taste a Cadbury’s Wispa and I tumble back through my life and land on my feet in a pair of Puma G Vilas.
But first you can stop sticking a stake through your heart. Gets to one then you’ve started your old reason why you’re falling apart. Your time machine needs a new heart.
Marcel Proust most famously of all made this link between evocative memory and the senses: ‘One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ’petites Madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?’
The ‘magic’, as Proust called it, which conjures up the sensations is finite. We mustn’t abuse the incantation. The hit diminishes with each application. I chance a second Wispa. The effect is there but lessened. I look at the third I bought and tuck into my pocket. A spell to be indulge in later. To be chanted in a private moment. The truth, lies not in the cup but in myself.
Jorge Luis Borges: ‘There is no whole self. He defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is disabusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over the years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plentitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind are similarly deceiving themselves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is nothing more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belaboured contradiction.’
We are Pavlov’s dog, salivating at the sound of our own past. Conditioned by time to mourn our own lives. Crying at the sight of a 1970s Dulux colour chart and the little rectangle of Showaddywaddy Blue that used to be on the bathroom wall at Mum’s house. Being heartbroken as a song plays unexpectedly as we browse the shelves in Tesco, desperately looking for Kellog’s Honey Cornflakes. Laughing hysterically at the sight of Oxford street map. Back on Broad Street, browsing for Penguin green and white detective novels in a secondhand bookshop. Stood in Barnsley in late 2008 smiling over the taste of a Cadbury’s Wispa.
Just let’s go back to the bit where it hurt. I was fetching a drink and I should have been there. And where are we now and what’s it to be? Oh, I’m falling.
Love all your senses back against the fence. Love all your senses before they’re too many. Your eyes breed contentment, arms are closed in. Now it’s my turn to state and you’re back in late ’88.