Nostalgia, Spots of Time and Ourselves

My Dad is getting more forgetful. True, he has just made his 95th birthday but like that stain that slowly spreads into “a gigantic ace of hearts” at the murderous climax of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a growing realisation among family members that this is a bit more than a run-of-the-mill absentmindedness.

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Do we vanish with our memories? I’ve been repeatedly reminded, in judging a poetry competition recently, how much poetry depends on remembering, how much any of us depend on memory for a sense of who we are. So perhaps memory is a candidate for what makes us distinctly human – better even than language, the uniqueness of which has been challenged the more we understand of the animal kingdom (See Christine Kenneally’s book, The First Word)? Recalling moments from our own lives – Wordsworth’s “spots of time” that retain, he believes,  a “renovating virtue“ – seems to have something to do with identity, mental health, even our own ethical behaviour: they shall not be forgotten, we have been saying a lot recently.

A few months ago, I read a Guardian piece about nostalgia and have kept a copy of it with me since. Nostalgia as a term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who traced the fragile mental and physical health of his troops to their longing for home – nostos in Greek means home and algos is the pain they found in such thoughts. So its roots are in mental disorder or depressive illness and for centuries it has been considered unhealthy to dwell in this way on the past, a yearning for something lost, a debilitating rosy-tinted malady.

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But psychologists have started to think of nostalgia as a more profoundly rooting experience, even a stimulant to optimism, to psychic health. At Southampton University, Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut have shown the universality of nostalgia and, among its measurable effects, it is now seen as a driver of empathy and social connectedness, an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Nostalgia, by connecting our past and present, by proving the temporal oneness of being, points optimistically to the future, acts to protect against negative thoughts and situations.

The article quotes Wildschut: “Nostalgia compensates for . . . feelings of meaninglessness or discontinuity between past and present . . . it elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity.” Anecdotal evidence comes from women in concentration camps who “responded to starvation by waxing nostalgic about shared meals with their families and arguing about recipes”. This is a sort of imaginative “as if” loop that writers will readily recognise and evidence suggests it can temporarily affect our body states.  Concentration camp survivors recount: “We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere.”

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Remembering our past serves to remind us of who we are, what we have been, what intimacy we have achieved, what we are capable of, then and now, in the future. It builds resilience because, though often concerned with trauma and sadness, it is posed in a redemptive sequence: ‘look we have come through’ cries D H Lawrence and even Larkin’s depressed-sounding “first boredom then fear” might be read in this light. As to ethical consequences, apparently, in strongly nostalgic states individuals are more liable to act altruistically; the value of money is weakened; couples and families bond more closely; gratitude and connectedness increase; children grow less selfish.

Meagre comfort when it’s you, or your father, losing the ability to recall; really this makes the loss of memory associated with old age that much more devastating. But at Southampton they are investigating nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses, including clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s. Robert Lowell somewhere talks of the Christian trinity of God, Son and Holy Ghost, being replaced in the 20th century by Dad, Mum and memories of my family. Perhaps now we are gathering scientific evidence (if it was ever needed) that such a shift in focus was as much gain as loss. My poem ‘Four trees fallen’ (from The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014)) recollects the observation of trees fallen, the roots up-turned an image intended to evoke the unearthing of past experience:

this tree up-turned

with its metres-wide plate

of spreading roots tipped fully

ninety degrees from the horizontal

so what lay underground

is now exposed to the air [. . .]

I imagine it must have been

this same wind though perhaps

in the tempestuous pitch

of night that blew with such power

to topple a tree like this

to lever its roots up-turned

from almost immemorial dark

into the temporary dark

of one night’s storm—if it was

at night—left exposed at dawn

to new sunlight to noon and sunset

The final section remembers a pair of those fallen trees you sometimes come across where people have hammered coins into the rotting bark – a form of payment perhaps, but what for? A journey we hope always to be able to make.

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Walking on—and with each step

I remember a third fallen tree

this morning this one skirted

some miles back beside a stream

yet this other trunk bristled

weirdly with half-moons of coins

in its papery folds each hammered

by walkers till the coins were bent

and stressed from blows

of rocks needed to sink them deep

and this tree I also remember

was not the first of its kind—what

year was it what walk beside

what stream of whisky-brown waters

did I stand by a fourth fallen trunk

in that same way gleamingly

scaled with hundreds of coins—

some had planted light-hearted

coppers while others had

invested more heavily with silver

or the thick edges of pounds

and even two-pound coins—

I suppose just taking a breather

or something to amuse the kids

while others thought playfully

to placate the spirits of the place

with its damps and shades

and slippery rocks—perhaps to give

a gift that could never be spent

digging deep in their pockets

as I too hammered and thought

I might pay the fare for a journey

yet to be made to find my way

back to dispense with the need

for daylight tempests or storms

in the pitch of night to retrace

my steps to the original place

whether it might be noon or dusk

or rain or shine a decisive taking

back a preternatural reprise

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Old Stokes’ Garden Nursery 1970 – 2014

An interruption to blog-casting over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been away from the desk, here and there, partly in Wiltshire visiting my 90-year old parents.

I’ve long understood that one of my triggers as a writer is the simple disparity between ‘then’ and ‘now’. I have grown convinced that an individual’s mental health is partly dependent on the free flow of thoughts and feelings between personal present and past, the integration of personality, a sense of coherence, or organic change, over time. There has been a good deal of research recently on the idea of nostalgia as a healing force (hence some of these dips into autobiographical mode) and I’d like to talk more about that sometime. But for today, while staying in Wiltshire, I came face to face with a pretty powerful example of this disparity between past and present. Here it is:

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OK – it’s not much to look at, but this is the final route of the Hilperton Relief Road, designed to take traffic away from the village where I grew up in Wiltshire. My father has been praying for this to happen for years, convinced the thundering, articulated transports that pass the house originate solely from ‘the Continent’. It’s true they do have to manoeuvre through the village itself, but the route cuts across green fields just a stone’s throw from the little village church of St Michael and All Angels, fields where I’d mooch about as a kid with friends from the self-build estate of Marshmead.

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So a personal wound to my memory – but also an ecological blow to the rural area. Within a few years – though the local authority currently denies this – the meadows surrounding this new road will be filled in with houses and the ghastly sprawl of Trowbridge town will engulf another village. More lucrative land for developers is the prime motivation for building the road after all these years. More personally, on the bulldozed soil in the first photograph once stood a few ramshackle buildings, little more than large garden sheds and fogged, filthy-windowed greenhouses. This was the site of Stokes’ Garden Nursery where I worked a few hours a week at the start of the 1970s.

Stokes’ Nursery is on the left at the far end of Horse Road as you head into town. I cycle along there one Sunday and find Old Stokes out in the open, moving up and down the sunlit rows of chrysanthemums, lifting the still-tight flower heads to examine them, pinching off a browned leaf here and there. It appeals to me – the money and the work.

The following Sunday, on my first morning, he musters a smile of sorts in greeting. He is bent with age, rather hump-backed and moves with a limp. His head is small and round, a few wisps of grey hair, and he purses his lips so that in speaking there is a faint lisp. But he doesn’t often speak and I like that.

I begin reliably turning up and taking his cash, at first just Sundays then Saturday mornings as well. I find myself beginning to identify with him in little ways. His wife is invisible. Their detached house is set off to one side of the grounds where he has several glass houses and outdoor growing areas. The house always appears deserted, with the curtains closed for the most part. Nothing moves or changes. No-one sees her. Old Stokes never talks about her. I never ask. She suffers from agoraphobia, or so my Mum tells me.

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One morning, he leads me through the rickety door of the main glasshouse into its humid, stuffy other world, reeking of compost, plant rot, fertilizer, cell division. “Pricking out”, he murmurs and I wonder if I have heard him right. At an earthy metal bench, backed with a window so filthy nothing can be seen but a fuzz of sunlight, we stand side by side and he shows me what to do. The seedlings are new-grown in their first trays and each has to be gently teased out of the loose soil and away from its clinging companions. Then each spindly seedling, green leafed, pale-stemmed, white-rooted, is tucked into a new hole (drilled by the ‘dibber’) in a newly prepared tray. Pricking out is boring and brainless. It’s not something I am unhappy doing, bearing in mind I am getting paid a few shillings – after February 1971, thirty or forty pence – to do so.

But I prefer watering; lugging the python-like, yellow hoses up and down the glass house aisles, pulling the trigger on the hose attachment and spraying water everywhere, dampening the already humid atmosphere. Soon I am promoted to patrolling the rows of vigorous chrysanthemums, lifting the heavy weights of the flower heads, picking out ear-wigs where I find them, dispatching them with a curt rolling of my thumb and finger. Crouching down between the rows, I disappear completely from the view of anybody passing along Horse Road. Crouched there, I am in a manageable jungle, happy to be alone, often bringing my family’s old blue transistor radio with me, listening to Noel Edmonds (from October 1971), his Sunday morning slot from 10-12. His kind of drippy folk-rock is (I’m afraid) what I like to listen to and David Gate’s songs like ‘Diary’ and ‘Baby I’m-a want you’. McCartney’s first solo album is being played. Cat Stevens has released ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ the year before and ‘Teazer and the Firecat’ in the autumn.

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Twenty years later, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, Beneath Tremendous Rain, I published a triptych of poems about Old Stokes, his wife and the boy working for them. Here are the two best ones:

The Nurseryman

See how my wife hasn’t bothered to open

the curtains. It’s three o’clock. She must be bad.

She thinks I don’t know what it costs her

to steal a glance at me outside, to brave

these fifty feet of open space, her weak legs

trembling with terror, sick in her belly,

knotting ever closer round her poor heart . . .

I’ll cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

My flowers always please her.

Years ago she’d tell me how it felt.

She’d say a bulb will sometimes come up blind

no matter how carefully you’ve set it down.

It’s the way of plants. There’s no cure at all.

But it’s not only her. Still poor as Adam,

there’s just one thing I have that’s in demand

and it’s not right that a man who’s spent life

tending soil into flower should gain nothing

but a touch for dressing death in glad rags

with some careful blooms on a wire frame . . .

I’ve found a natural talent for wreathes.

My one extravagance:  that I can charge

higher prices than most and though Christmas

is a boon (when my great medals hang on

many bolted doors), yet it’s the year-round trade

in bereavement that keeps this place afloat.

I’d plans once. A shop, new green-houses, a son.

Now I’m forced to take on a series of young lads

who help me out. They’re all more or less sullen.

This one’s so quiet, although he chats to girls

across the hedge, as they all have done –

all playing the working-man, hands dirtied,

with the jangle of my money in their pockets.

This one trails his radio around all day long

as if he can’t stand the sound of himself.

Doesn’t work hard. See where he goes now,

slipping down beside the sheds. No radio today.

Well, he’s happy enough on one-fifty an hour . . .

I must cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

The Wife

I sit beside my beautiful maidenhair fern.

It likes my darkness, is dank, spreads slowly.

I count my books, silent on their long shelves.

I’m dying of pure old age, not experience.

I was not always so understanding – accusations

and resentment shouted him into the garden.

We have not given each other all we’d hoped.

I name children, true pleasure, company . . .

I’ve felt such horror at what lies beyond

the window, where even clothes on the line,

blown by an uncontrollable wind, cardigans

undone and swept open, slacks kicked wide

are too much to bear. He has devoted himself

too much to the fertility of row upon row

of plants and had less and less for me.

But we’re past the allotment of blame.

For years, he’d bring chrysanthemums

to me and watch like a child while I shook

earwigs in the sink, flushed them out of sight.

An absurd ritual I long for, absurdly,

since it ended these past four or five years

before the hedge was removed to make beds

of carnation. And we’ve no boys now –

as if a supply-line had suddenly gone dry.

Don’t parents have children nowadays?

They all blur into one – that particular one

who left quickly. Why do I think of him?

He’s forgotten me. Does he have a wife?

And a child? I remember descending the stairs,

past the grave-quiet telephone, with a jug

of water in my hand. I thought I heard

one of the cats, opened a sliver of curtain.

I would do this all over again . . .

See the boy slumped against the shed

legs crooked and splayed, one hand flickering

on his belly as if dealing a deck of cards –

but with such unrestrained violence.

He saw me. Gave the look of one who has been

interrupted – annoyance, much more than

the guilt I’d expect. I dropped the curtain,

then wanted to open it again – and it’s that

which fills me now when I think of ‘life’

and then I see myself – the dry, pressed flower

I found once in a borrowed library book,

squeezed out now, frightened of the light.