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Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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olad-aviaSo, seventy five years from now no one will be interested in the date of manufacture of my first generation iPad. Even I don’t remember. 2010, perhaps? All I know for sure is I’d only had it six months and it was already obsolete. Such is the march of consumerism. I still use it though, resisting the inevitable upgrade because like most people I’ve less money now in real terms than I had when I bought it.

But if it still works, why worry about it?

Shame on me. This is not the spirit of consumerism.

Perhaps the internet will preserve the history of my iPad for posterity. Who knows? That’s more than can be said for the AVIA watch company, its history being something of a blur – no one seeming to have considered it worth the writing down. Like the iPad, they shelled their watches out like peas, entirely in accordance with the bean counter’s credo  that making things has never meant a damn beyond the selling of them.

But I’m an engineer, not a bean counter. I make things and I like making things, and I’m interested in the history of making things, and how things were and are and will be made. And I like AVIA watches, but don’t ask me why. They were a quality Swiss manufacture, the designs possessed of a certain nostalgic elegance that appeals to me. I’ve no idea what my first gen iPad will be worth in seventy five years, but a seventy five year old Avia wrist watch is worth,.. well, it varies, but I just paid £12 for this one, which is next to bugger all.

It still runs, just about, but cleaning and oiling will have it back on form. As for the rest of it,.. well,.. it looks knackered to be honest. The case is very worn, the gold plating rubbed through to the brass, and the face,… well,… let’s just say it’s suffered from a long term overexposure to damp. Clean it up all you like, this old watch is never going to look like new.

I’ve seen pictures of Patek Phillipes, Omegas, Rolexes, all with crusty dials – they call it patina on watches like that, aspirational watches, but on an old consumer grade AVIA, well it’s just junk, isn’t it? Sure – with a bit of patience, I can get it telling time as if it were new – get it going for another seventy five years. But who cares about that? Patina’s only worth it on a watch worth ten grand, and in the eyes of the pillock who’s prepared to afford it. To anyone with less money and a damn sight more common sense it’s just going to look,… well,… knackered, and why don’t you go and by yourself a new watch?

So, maybe I should just have my fun, learn a bit more about what makes old tickers tick, then chuck this worthless old junker away.

What’s that? Sell it back on Ebay?

Why should I? If I’m more honest than the original seller who sold it to me (nice condition, running a bit fast), it’s hardly going to make much of a profit, is it? (Old AVIA, generally knackered in appearance, but keeps good time.)

A fiver?

I asked this question on Instagram. My thanks to @grandadbeard for the reply. If it still works you shouldn’t throw it away. You should use it. But I have several dozen watches, some of them much older  and all of them a damn sight better looking than this one. I’ll never wear it, never use it.

But someone will.

It’s come a long way since those first nimble fingers put it together. Maybe in another 75 years it’ll be more valued than it is now. I sense the responsibility, reach cautiously for the screwdriver.

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.

Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.

I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of  another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):

It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.

I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.

At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.

I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!

I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.

But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!

Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s  uppers.

I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.

I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.

I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.

I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:

Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.

One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.

One day, when I find the time.

Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.

I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.

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They say nostalgia is useless, but I’m not so sure. Okay, it’s a subjective emotion, a sentimental fondness for past days – days you’re probably guilty of viewing through rose-tinted glasses. If we’re wise then, we’ll try to analyse our memories for any falseness, cut though the sentimentality and remind ourselves of the pain we might also have felt in those long gone glory days. If we can do this we realise that, if nothing else, there was at least a keeness to our feelings in decades past. I think it’s this memory of the strength of these former emotions that draws us back, and is the source of nostalgia’s formidable power.

As we grow older our emotions seem only to become ever more dull. A year is no longer an age, more the blinking of an eye. When we are young we fancy we see poetry, love, desolation and loneliness in everything. As we age, we fancy we see those things in fewer places. Indeed experience seems to grant us the dubious wisdom to conquer all the things we were once so painfully sensitive to. Consequently, our present becomes a safe, emotionless desert. It is not the olden days we hanker for then in our nostalgia, but an acuteness of feeling!

Earlier this year, I was feeling nostalgic for my time as a day-release student at Wigan Technical College. The result was a story called The Summer of ’83. I studied Mechanical and Production Engineering at Wigan, on the ONC, HNC and finally the HND courses between 1977 and 1984, what I suppose nowadays would be called NVQ’s. There was nothing particularly enjoyable about my time there – nothing easy about an engineering course. They were long days too, beginning at 9:00 am and ending at 7:00pm – admittedly just one day a week, but then we’d have a further evening to attend from 7:00pm until 9:00, and this was on top of a regular 9-5 job at the factory.

I don’t remember there being anything romantic about Differential Calculus, nor the theories of Tresca and Von-Mises, and I’m sorry guys but I’ve needed neither of you since my final exams. In the quieter moments of my studies, in the contemplative times, between classes, romance always seemed to find a way of seeping in. There would always be a girl on whom I’d betted my life’s worth of sentimental attachment – a fellow student, or sometimes little more than a lovely face on the bus-ride into town. And in the mysterious casino of my youth, it seems the house was always going to be the winner.

In the spring and summer months, when the weather permitted, I’d leave the campus at lunch times and seek solace in the greenery of Mesnes park, which was, in the 1980’s a beautiful place to visit, well planted, lush,… a place to sit yourself on a bench, eat your sandwiches and lose yourself in warm sunshine and a Thomas Hardy novel – a writer who seemed to have understood love exactly  the way I felt it.

Parks breathe life into the soul, and Mesnes park, such a short distance from the Parson’s Walk campus, became a  familiar friend and I remember it now with much fondness. Between Mesnes Park and Thomas Hardy, I survived the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, then met someone by chance and here I am twenty years later, comfortably married and thinking back upon those times with a possibly misplaced warmth. They were seven years, with nothing much to show  for them but a hard-won qualification in a discipline that’s now all but obsolete in a country that’s been de-industrialising with embarrassing haste since the day I got that HND. Seven years of romantic desolation,… but not totally wasted because then, unexpectedly, twenty years later out pops a short story called The Summer of ’83?

It’s had a decent reception on Feedbooks so far. I’m not sure if it’s a good story and perhaps the writer’s hardly the best person to say. That’s it with nostalgia, you see? You’ve really got to have been there. But I managed to relive a little of those olden times in the writing of it, and I hope I also managed to learn a little along the way about the uselessness of at least certain aspects of nostalgia, and why we should never be too hasty in dismissing the present for the mythical promise of a different version of the past.

Graeme out!

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