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A short stride and a head turn ago

July 29, 2014


I recently visited the small part of South London in which my family – one brother, two years older, mum, dad and I – lived until I was five.

It was an odd and deliberate unpacking of things: mum wanted to take us back, my brother and I, our own children and families, walking along Kennington Park Road with photographs of us in these places, three decades earlier.

Until now I’ve had a fragmentary hold on these places and images, a swirl of memories from my earliest years of being in London, and another five or so years’ worth from driving up the A2 and visiting at weekends. My parents both grew up in the city, but their families, and our reasons for visiting, dispersed as I reached adolescence, so my grasp of all those images has always been jammed at childlike. A school hall. A new TV.  A concrete ship.

One of the surprising things about aging that I’m enjoying is the feeling of stretching far enough away from places I’ve been and things I’ve done that I feel as though they were visited and done by a totally different person, a person who’s also definitely me. I remember worrying – idiotically, as someone good at education but probably not learning – that I would run out of exciting new things to watch as I raced through the big-name cinema at my University video library (let’s laugh at that guy, because he was stupid, and feel bad, because he is me). Now I’m regularly surprised by how much I’ve forgotten, how much I missed, and how differently the other mes, drifting behind somewhere unreachable but still connected by a thin cord of remembering and responsibility, thought about everything. The idiots.

IMG_20140712_114850I guess what I’m saying is that without the ability to smooth these earliest impressions into an adult understanding of location and relativity, this bit of the past, and all of London, has always felt ungraspable. So being able to walk in a line for 30 minutes and see everything connected, buildings and parks I can concretely identify and have often recalled sat a short stride or a head turn from arrangements and impressions that ping on the deep radar of subconscious, was so extraordinary I should count myself lucky not to have had a Proustian stroke. (And Kennington now looks just the place to have one of these – with microbreweries and fixie cycle shops and a farmer’s market. A couple of guys walked past us with peacoats and jeans cropped just above the ankle and I bet one of them was having a Proustian stroke right then).

So the walk was up Kennington Park Road, past the first house we lived in, and then into the park where I remembered the big, round bird bath. I raced my kids on the white painted running track, then mum passed around photos of her running on the same track against the other parents at a school sports day. She was still cross at losing. Then we walked past the Oval to my brother’s first school, and then down Clapham Road – this bit was more familiar, my daily traipse home from nursery – to Liberty Street, the first place I can remember living. IMG_20140712_132135The things I remember in this flat include an impossible litter of puppies, throwing all of my toys out of the window even though I knew it was wrong, and – still me, still thinking about memory – the first thought I had about a thought forgotten, a very clear memory of getting out of a car and approaching my door with the intention of doing something inside, only to have the buzz of purpose slip unrecoverably from my mind.

From there we cut through to Brixton Road, down to the Stockwell Park Estate where mum had lived with her mum, and then where her mum had lived alone. The grassy square and play area the flat used to overlook has been cut into haphazard gardens, I guess during the council property sell-off, and I was sad that this idea of communal living, even if it sometimes seemed nightmarish and I was scared of the rubbish chutes and their big iron jaws, had fallen into fences and privacy. And then at the back of the block, on the small ramp we used to park on when we were only dropping in quickly, when sometimes my brother and I would even stay in the car, the thin layer of tarmac was potted and underneath was a hexagonal pattern that felt, as soon as I saw it, like something imprinted physically somewhere, in such a way that looking at it also felt like running the tips of my fingers over it: a half-submerged image resurfacing, a metaphor for the visit and all it made me feel that’s so dead-on it’s embarrassing, but also too good not to mention.IMG_20140712_141303

I often wonder whether London constantly reveals itself to people who live there in this same way, or if the way I knew it and then didn’t is behind my impression of the city. I wonder what my children will make of the images and impressions gathered from this visit – a hand-stand in Hyde Park, a frozen yoghurt on the South Bank – and whether they, the best reason Sarah and I have for not living in London, will ever move there themselves. And, though it definitely too late to make this collection of ideas really mean anything particularly to anyone but me, I think about how just a short stride or a head turn ago mum was like me, and I like my children, and how quickly it all happens.


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