layout: article title: Memory
I can picture the rows of hedges, rolling hills, and oak trees back home - but whether such things really exist, I have begun to doubt. Just like the existence of this place of thick crowds, thick air, and everywhere tall dirty buildings seemed so unlikely when it was a question of imagination a few months ago. They are so different, the presence of one erodes the plausibility of the other. What’s most perverse is not that England now seems fictitious, but the absolute certainty with which the natural order of things will be restored - I will again know my oak trees, and my rolling hills, and so instead it will be the here and now that seems implausible. This table, the lingering smell of vinegar that started a few minutes ago, the fact that it is sweltering hot even in the dead of night. I will go home and these things will become foggy memories. Was it really that hot? How can a smell of vinegar just abruptly begin? The more time passes the more unquestionable truth is replaced by just questions. And of course you can document thoroughly, take photos, record temperatures (the feels like temperature here, right now, at 5AM, is supposedly 34° - I just checked) but that rather misses the point. It’s not that I don’t know what England is like, photos don’t challenge the memory they just reassert it, but knowledge does not bring England here, and it won’t bring this moment back home.
It’s always like that though. Even in just the one place. Every year in summer I think how strange it is that it was once winter. Every time I’m ill, good health is mockingly incomprehensible. This failing of the imagination, a hard limit on the number of realities you can hold in mind (no more than one at a time) is mostly quaint. Don’t you know that things go in cycles? So what if winter sounds like a sort of joke, (you’re telling me this same sun, now oppressively hot, will become harsh and bitter cold, and these green trees will turn to looming wooden skeletons? I just don’t buy it) you will see it with your own eyes soon and summer will be the joke instead. A clockwork forgetfulness, even a little humorous. Humorous, that is, until you want to cling on to something, and something that won’t just come back around like the hands on a clock.
Childhood is the first of these losses. You only have it once, you pay little attention, and then it’s gone. Gone with mine is the memory of childhood holidays, which were often to the seaside, often to Guernsey. One detail that remains is of a game that I loved to play as the tide came in. My sister and I would work together, starting hours before the approach began, digging trenches and erecting walls. Fortifying and establishing our own little enclave backed up against the sea wall - our goal: to keep out the rising tide for long as possible. What begins as a very thoughtful architectural consideration quickly becomes frantic and hopeless - it was a good time. Strangely my memory of this is entirely from a birds eye perspective, as if it is not my memory but my parents. Looking down from the promenade, cheering us on as we successfully diverted a minor flooding, or survived a breaking wave. It’s funny remembering that game, because now it seems like the perfect metaphor for trying to preserve the memory of a fleeting moment. It’s hopeless. Photos, essays, souvenirs - they are your fortifications and they do hold back the tide a little while longer, but with plodding wrath the sea foam approaches. Fighting the tide is symbolic, not effective. It’s something you do for sport, for honour, not to win. The high water mark is feet above your head and no cleverness of sand architecture will stop it from being reached. Soon you have to leave your enclave lest you are washed away yourself, and you will look down from the promenade at the place you saved for a minute longer, now no more than eddies.
So when you’re fond of sand beneath you, and the tide bears down, what do you do? Do you have to fight? Half of me thinks that to fight is to miss the point (the other half thinks fighting is the point). If you spend all your time worrying about the rising sea you can’t enjoy playing on the beach. By always focusing on whether you’ll remember something perhaps you prematurely switch your perspective from that of the child playing, to the parent up watching on the promenade. Living your life in birds eye rather than at ground level. Should you wander the beach and collect shells instead of building sandcastles? Perhaps there will be some peace and serenity in just accepting that your footprints are washed away. There’s something seductive about the idea. That the sea does not rage, but smooths. For every enclave eroded, a whole expanse of fresh sand is deposited. The tide is a gift, a blank canvas! But reality is not so serene I think. Beautiful memories are not lapped at but affronted. Not gracefully broken down but defaced. That awful burden of having to communicate things you don’t have words for. I’ll go home and each time I’m asked what it was like being here I’ll refine my response. That first attempt at a faithful summary will slowly become tighter and wittier, and all the same more untrue. Then all the slight mischaracterisations, made because they played better to others ears, will end up warping my own memory. What mattered to the people who probed about your experience becomes confused with what mattered to you when it actually happened. This warping is made all the more frustrating because you can’t help your own part in it. You will vandalise your own memories, what a cruel trick. Soon enough the person who experienced that moment is a stranger anyway.
I’m reading Anna Karenina at the moment and there are many lovely things about it. It’s a long book, and to get away with being a long book it has to have good language separate from having a good plot - and it does. In the last chapter I read there was one expression that, with the particular way it was phrased, got lodged in my mind. That's only happened with lasting impact on one other occasion: a line from the film ‘Let the right one in’. In both cases the expression is nothing grand just something simply put, but put right. In the film it’s when one character asks the other if they want to ‘go steady’. That is as in, ‘to go out with’ - In England sometimes if two people are relationship we say they are ‘going out’ and you can express your interest in someone by saying ‘do you want to go out?’ (at least you would in secondary school, flirtation is a bit more, or less, subtle after that). I always thought that saying ‘do you want to go out?’ sounded really stupid, and when I heard this other expression ‘to go steady’ in the film, I thought it was lovely and so much better. In the book what stood out was, at a moment when one character is particularly full of thoughts that they struggle to articulate, the description of how these clumsily worded explanations are received by present company. Our hero is delighted to infer, from the looks of understanding he receives, that he has been understood in the right way. That despite having put his foot in his mouth somewhat, the communication of his deeper meaning was not obstructed. How sweet and reassuring that feeling of being understood is (especially if you proper minced your words) and how clearly those words 'in the right way' capture that relief. I like these phrases even more because in both cases the original work was not actually in English, instead it was the translations that contained the lovely expressions. Funny too, because translation itself is the act of trying to understand things ‘in the right way’.
And I think this is the real answer, what to do with that patch of sand you wish you could protect from the tide. Wanting to remember tomorrow the events of today is a conversation you have with your future self. You carry out your half of the conversation with the photos you take, notes you make, and stories you tell. He carries out his part in how he takes the meanings of those things. The best you can do is accept that you will put your foot in your mouth a little bit and just hope that the stranger in the future takes your meaning in the right way. Words are duplicitous, pictures are deceitful, but you hope that there is some essential kernel of truth that, truly understood now, will be truly understood later. It’s made more hopeful by the fact that the stranger is also technically yourself.
I will miss Hong Kong, and I know I won’t be able to get this moment back even if upon reading this back the stranger takes it in the right way. I know that because thinking about this makes me dwell on all the other moments now lost that can’t be gotten back. Trying to reassemble some past reality feels as useless as trying today to place every grain of sand back where it was yesterday. It is blue, but with sorrow comes a gratitude for what is passed. The special and the temporary together will always be bitter-sweet. Sometimes fighting the tide is a game, but this time I am seeing it all in birds eye too soon and resent the sea for its policy of no exceptions.
See you soon England.