Throughout my life I’ve been a little obsessed with history. Not history in the ‘Norman conquest’ sense, but personal history. I would hazard a guess this has much to do with the fact my father died just weeks before my entry into the world. The only way I could learn about him was through stories from my mother, or photographs and old documents she kept in a little letter case in the dining room sideboard. I used to spend hours, as a child, raking through that sideboard and trying to piece together some sort of personal narrative, though I hadn’t a clue at the time that’s what I was doing. Trying to find myself.
I still have that document case, and it still fills me with questions, most of which I didn’t ask when my mother was around to answer them. My father remains two dimensional and monochrome. I remain open ended and unknown.
This obsession with history manifests itself in various ways.
I keep things that are of significance to me; cinema tickets, door handles, pieces of stone, furniture that looks completely incongruous in any current setting. Things that remind me of people and moments, feelings and beliefs.
I used to have a little metal sweet tin that contained soil from the valley of the Somme. I had become obsessed with the Great War when reading Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong during a holiday in the south of France so, on our drive back to Calais for the ferry, I took a midnight detour to the battlefield and visited war memorials by the light of a full moon. My wife wasn’t the happiest during that little detour, especially when we got the car stuck in a field and thought we were going to have to walk to the nearest farm and beg, in very poor French, for assistance. I was convinced that the soil in my tin somehow contained something of the essence of the soldiers who fought and fell.
I used to have a cardboard sign that read ‘Please Do Not Touch The Dancers’, a memento of a trip to the most incredible strip joint I have ever been in (not that many). That was in Canada and, still, every time I hear ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, the image of a naked woman dressed as a California raisin hammers into my forebrain.
I keep returning to locations that have been significant in my life, the house I grew up in, parks I played in, schools or colleges I attended, places I snogged, argued or fought with someone. This part of my obsession can be quite disturbing as many of these places no longer exist or have changed so much they no longer resemble the place I remember. Or perhaps it’s the memory that’s faulty.
When I was younger and still lived in my hometown I used to go wandering, late at night, after too many beers. I wandered miles round the town, looking over fences into the gardens of former homes, standing in the middle of roads that, when I was a child, were coal bings, my playground. Occasionally I met other wanderers. I recall meeting an older man one time, this guy had been a famous hard man, a well used, very well used, bouncer at local night spots. He was also looking for something of his glory days and we sat against the wall of a funeral director, sharing a can, while he told me stories of fights he had won, long forgotten by anyone else.
I think I wanted also to be remembered as part of something. Once, on one of my late night rambles, I came upon a group of young men hovering outside a closed off licence. I started talking to them, needing some sort of recognition of my place in history. I ended up with a bottle smashed over my head.
Smells trigger memories for me. Very strongly. When my mother died, 24 years ago, I kept a cardigan of hers when we got rid of the rest of her possessions. For a long time, years, when I was upset or lonely, I would get out my mother’s cardigan and smell it. When I did that, she was there. Eventually it didn’t smell of anything any more and was just a cardigan again, so it went into a clothes bank skip. Lavender takes me back to my grandmother, who kept little sachets of it in with her clothes. The smell of hot tar draws me instantly to road-menders outside our first house, sitting in their little hut drinking strong, sweet tea, which they’d brewed on top of their brazier, out of old tins. Many smells do things like this to me.
I, as most people probably do, go over conversations in my head but with wittier or wiser responses than the ones I actually gave. I’ve been known to drive past ex-girlfriends’ houses with tears in my eyes and ice in my bowels, even years after the conclusion of a relationship. I worry at things like a dog with a bone, never satisfied until I have explored every possible alternative interpretation of events and found reasons for whatever has happened. Often this can be painful and even disabling, but my end result is always to come through with a deeper appreciation of what has gone before, if no greater understanding.
I sometimes, often, wonder about memory. Is it fixed? Is it accurate? Does it tell us anything at all? I’m convinced that I slowly modify and manipulate my own memories, unconsciously, to suit my self-understanding. Therefore memories of long ago now almost always underline and confirm beliefs I have about myself. In the past this has not always been a good thing, my self-belief being somewhat distorted and twisted by accusations thrown at me by people I loved or cared for, broken by perceived failures or unmet promises.
The internet has opened up a universe of memory for me, meeting online with friends from pre-school days, giving me photographs and descriptions by others of the things I remember, showing me I am not totally wrong.
I traced my ancestry, through my father, back to a small village just outside Cambridge, and the year 1607. I come from a long, long line of journeymen, and one pauper. It comforts me to think I am keeping with tradition, somehow.
Is it useful, this obsession? Not in any obvious way, though I do keep my finger on the pulse of who I perceive myself to be. Is it harmful? Certainly there are aspects of it that do less for me than others and, when I feel lonely or down, isolated and alone, I have the tendency to disappear in spirals inside my memory, recounting other lonely moments, periods of rejection, abandonment, wishing for home.
In fact, I think that’s exactly what the whole thing is about, a seeking after some sort of home that I can return to and feel safe and comforted. I’m homesick, Homesick for a history that may never, ever, have been.
Who am I? I am the accumulation of everything I have ever seen, done, read, heard and felt. I am also everything that assimilated experience has become as shaped, moulded, broken and rebuilt, by my imperfect and very cloudy eye.
I wonder if this seeking for a national identity that seems to sound so loud in the public consciousness today, what that identity is and what it means to each of us individually and all of us collectively, is that what this September is all about? All I know is, I want to keep looking. I want the freedom to discover, and the freedom to create my own history in the nation I choose, and which seems to have chosen me.
Can any of us ask more?
Photograph by Liz Miller