Sunday, October 12, 2008

la vida es una colección de recuerdos

One Wednesday afternoon in September I visited a seaside fishing village (named Kalk Bay by the locals) in Cape Town, South Africa. In search of memories, I might add. But where should one start when searching for a memory? A memory is intangible, transient yet strangely permanent, finding rebirth in a strangely familiar smell, touch, sight, or sound. It is as if a memory were an old forgotten object stowed high away on a dusty shelf, without existence until one day somebody remembers, and takes it down to have a closer look. I find memory to be a personal recollection of thoughts, thoughts that were once strewn apart like newspapers during the South-Easter, which then suddenly come together again and form rhyming words. Memories are things that look good in shop windows. Souvenirs of our past, memoirs and traditions and courtesies and curiosities and small children in 50s bathing suits, all tucked neatly away in a box marked ‘memories of old’ in black ink. Memory is only made by the passing of time, and so a watch, a broken watch-face, stilled in time, frozen in its very essence, is a memory in itself. A memory of a moment that will never happen again.

I made a fascinating discovery at the Kalk Bay Trading Post while hunting for age-old ‘souvenirs’ – that is, the memories of people who had lived, but are no longer known, yet their black and white prints, wedding photographs, military badges and greeting letters (stamped sufficiently) from holiday places somehow found their way into a penny box for strangers to delve through at a trading post (we buy and sell). It was a piece of sheet music for a song called ‘Among my Souvenirs,’ which reminded me of memories, so I bought it and took it home. Only later did I see that it had been signed by the original composer, Horatio Nicholls, 1927.

When I think of memories I am reminded of a son’s return home from war, alive and well, in uniform, and with his appropriate decorations and aviator shades. I think of the waving goodbye of a thousand passengers on the maiden voyage of a Liverpool ocean liner, bound for a journey across the Atlantic. I think of stamps, well-travelled all around the world to bring news safely to the envelope’s addressee. I think of sheet music, forgotten for decades, and found, like I found it, in a dusty box and suddenly the dust is shaken off and the music resurrected when the notes are played once again. I think of a still life, an arrangement of objects in a shop window, displayed like pieces of memory. Memory. It means that old book smell, the musty yellowing old pages of a grandfather’s Bible. Perhaps a postcard from a Briton beach holiday or family anecdotes from past generations. Perhaps memory begins in the most human of condition, in a mother’s womb at the beginning of life’s anatomy. A memory may be past eras, bioscope dates and dinner invitations, discos, railways and sepia tone loving. It may be seen in the eyes of a family portrait, or in burnt out cigarettes, letters from a soldier to his love, or in oily marks that appear on walls, where pleasure moments hung before, Tom Waits lyrics (‘note the rain washes memories from the sidewalks’?). I may have memories of cracking crème brulee with a teaspoon, of washing lines, film negatives, foreign language poetry and taking photographs in photobooths. I have memories of wreckage, of abundance, of abandonment, breaking down walls and remembering pleasure moments, because now I’m going to gather all the courage I have, knives and brushes and hands and eyes, and just paint paint paint !

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