Sunday, February 19, 2023

Memory and the mythology of place

Hello blog! I've been so weighed down by viruses - I had a hacking chest cough for five weeks - and preoccupied by difficult family matters, that the only times I've had alone with my thoughts or with enough energy for creativity have been spent immersed in my current WIP. Anyway, things are looking up, I'm feeling more energised and the brain seems to be firing up in different directions and making connections again, and after I looked at this highly appropriate photo I got to thinking about the matter of photographs versus memory.

I saw this sight, and snapped it, when I was walking to Didsbury village at Christmas. I thought of sharing it on social media then, but hosting a big family Christmas put the whole thing out of my mind, after which I immediately became ill, and for weeks then I was so low that all I wanted to do was curl up away from everything and protect, as far as I could, the developing world of the novel inside my head, and think about nothing I didn't have to. I did go out now and then, and I even took a trip to London to the event for the Edge Hill Prize which was deservedly won by Sabba Sams for her collection Send Nudes. I probably shouldn't have spent the next day wandering around London in the cold and drizzling rain, because after that my cough worsened again. But the point here is that on that walk I was arrested by a curious sight: a high stepladder open on the pavement in front of an ornate door, and, perched on the top, a man working on something, maybe an electric light, most of him hidden by a light-coloured umbrella protecting him from the rain. It looked so strange and quaint, like something from the nineteenth century, and it was so picturesque, the steps and the umbrella creating a pale mushroom shape in front of that dark ornate nineteenth-century door. It reminded me of the photo above, and the two images instantly created a pair in my mind. I took off my gloves and got out my phone to photograph it, but then saw that John, who was with me and hadn't realised I'd stopped, had walked on and disappeared out of sight, and, feeling miserably cold and agitated by the cough, I gave up and put my phone back in my pocket and rushed to catch up with him.

So I didn't take the photo, but the image has stayed so vividly  in my mind. I wonder now, though, have I remembered it correctly? Was the umbrella really light-coloured - actually mushroom-coloured? Or did my mind manufacture that as a consequence of my registering that the whole construction was mushroom-shaped? Could it be the case that if I had taken a photo it would show something less poetically resonant and fitting (a darker, less dramatic-looking umbrella)?

Last week I went to a family birthday celebration at Croma restaurant in Prestwich. I had only ever been there once before, years ago, when it first opened, and although I had perfectly remembered the interior, I was staggered to find its location so different from that in my memory. It's on a side road off the main street, but I had remembered it very particularly as being on the main street surrounded by its busyness and lights - probably, I suppose, because I knew the manager, and it was an occasion of excitement at the opening.

This is the way that memory and imagination mythologise things, including place. It's something I explore to some extent in my story 'Looking for the Castle', which is included in my collection Used to Be, in which the protagonist-narrator returns to a long-ago childhood home.  I know there's a lot of current interest in literature of place, and I know many readers like it, finding in it the comfort of familiarity, but it is precisely because of this last that I sometimes - even often - don't name places in my writing. If, before last week, I'd wanted to name and describe Prestwich Croma in a fiction, I'd have had to travel up there to make sure I did so with accuracy - but in doing so, I'd have destroyed a very thing that would have most likely moved me to include it in the first place - that distorted image I've been carrying in my head, which would have been the locus of the atmosphere, emotions and even theme I would have been wanting to convey. It is the mythic version that would be relevant and resonant for the fiction, and in order for that not to be destroyed by contemporary readers' different potential associations with the place, it would need to be unnamed or renamed.