It’s funny when life takes you back along roads you thought you’d left behind, either literally or metaphorically. Last week I found myself on a new route to a new office which turned out to be an old route to an old office.
Driving the route through South London took me back 10 years and more, to a different era of life. The route ground through the urban sprawl of Wallington and Mitcham, struck a glancing blow on Croydon, and wound on to Balham.
Then the memories really started kicking in: past Clapham Common, where I used to jog, picnic, run a football club and generally hang out. Past the gym where I pounded and rowed and sweltered in the sauna. Past the road where I lived for years and then rented out my flat to a selection of fine and horrid people.
Memories, emotions, hopes, joys and fears associated with that era came flooding back. I found myself remembering lovely neighbours who’ve also moved out of London, others whose personality flaws I never did quite figure out, dear old gardening customers who have long since died, and some of the things they taught me: Maigold roses and larkspur and myrtle. “I can’t abide straight lines in a garden,” one dear old man said to me one day. It made me realise something pivotal: that there are very few straight lines in nature. Most things are curved, jagged, wrinkled, patterned (or as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it, “counter, original, spare, strange”). It’s man who likes straight lines and neat solutions and seeks to impose them on a round planet.
Anyway sorry, I digress, but that’s what a trip down memory lane does for you. Back to South London, with its potholed and shabby streets. The same scruffy lawyers’ offices were still pleading for customers, timber yards and bed superstores were properly in place, all frozen in time from a decade ago. The only significant change was the number of Tesco express stores, breeding like some kind of urban rabbits. Oh, and the Olympic lanes, but let’s not dwell on that particular nightmare.
The new/old office took me back even further, to a time when I started working in London for the first time, when my dad was alive, when I was young and the world seemed a promising place. Like a song or even a smell, a journey can take you back to a specific time and place, whether not you want to go there.
As life’s odd timing would have it, the day after this journey to the city of my past, I set out on brand new roads for a few days away in the country. A bizarrely binary route of the M11, A11 and B1111 took me to new discoveries and old friends. I awoke at 5 o’clock the next morning to find the Norfolk sun streaming in the window of the beautiful old cottage I was staying in.
Navigating new roads sparks its own mental processes – including, of course, the “Where the hell am I?” question – and does something special to the soul. It’s easy to close down life and either avoid taking the old roads, for fear of the memories they stir, or new ones, for fear of the unknown places they might lead. Both have their place and I’ll hope it’ll be a while before I stop experiencing them both.
I heard the other day about of a group of 80-something-year-old women from Providence, Rhode Island, embarking on an extraordinary new journey: reading the complete volumes of Remembrance of Times Past by Marcel Proust. It’s a challenge which I suspect will see most of them off. They may actually die of boredom if my memory of the first interminable volume in French is anything to go by. (I’ll return to their heroic example in a future blog.)
But the point is they’ve taken a new road. Go sisters!