Tag Archives: Memory

Standing on West Street, NYC

One World Trade Center, September 2018

One World Trade Center, September 2018

Marking the passing of time by registering certain dates seems remarkably futile – after all, why should a one year anniversary hold any more meaning than a one year and one day anniversary?

And yet. As I stood on West Street in downtown Manhattan this weekend it occurred to me that – 20 years to the day – I also stopped on the same street, perhaps even at the same spot, to take a photograph of the Twin Towers.

Back then I could barely visualize 20 days into the future, let alone 20 years. Staring up at One World Trade Center, I wondered where they went.

What of the hundreds of people I’d known, or worked with, or briefly encountered during those years? Or the smells and sights of the places I’d been? Or the high highs and low lows of those intervening decades. How many of them could I recall? Were they already disappearing? Twenty years hence, would I even recall the day I first stood on West Street?

In other words, what is the point of marking the passing of time? Shouldn’t I take a hint from this most famous of forward-facing cities, and focus on the future, leaving the past to the past?

And yet, and yet – I still found myself standing on West Street, looking at the impossible skyward glass, absorbing its curious mix of hope and fear.

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Every picture tells a story, or does it?

New York, 2003.

New York, 2003.

The past picks curious times to come back and haunt you.

As I picked through boxes of old paperwork last weekend a picture fell out. There I was, back in the early Noughties, looking bedraggled as I perched on the edge of a bunk bed in a divey hotel room.

The image is black and white, which suits the grimy surroundings of the place – a fleapit hotel north of 100th Street on New York City’s Upper West Side.

At least I think it was.

I’d like to write that the picture brought me back, unlocking a store of memories from the time. But this room’s closed to me. I’ve no idea what circumstances led me to the hotel, though a shortage of money on a trip to the city was surely the cause.

Likewise this was – I think – taken on a visit during which my friend S and I played a series of open mics, but in the absence of any instruments I can’t say for sure (is that a leaning guitar case on the right hand side?)

As for my shoeless tee-shirt look, I’d most likely put that down to a late night – of which there were a few at the time. Or, more charitably, it could be the sweat of humping a backpack and a guitar case uptown on the subway. Or the absence of AC in a $50-a-night room.

It’s the sort of image that calls for a good backstory, that cries out for a New York anecdote to put Patti Smith’s Just Kids to shame. But if there was one, it’s gone.

That’s sobering. How many more days, weeks or months have I lived and lost to memory? Conversations, experiences, thoughts and emotions that will never be recalled? All pushed out by a new password or a shopping list or an email I’m writing to a colleague.

At least it looks like I had a blast, somewhere in New York, sometime in 2003.

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I love that book – what’s it about?

What was that last book about?

‘What was that Camus novel about?’

Four months ago I read Haruki Murakami’s short novel South Of The Border, West Of The Sun.

Today I can barely remember a thing about the book. The characters (I’m sure there were male and female ones, maybe one of each), the plot (a quest of some sort, maybe involving travel across borders?), the ending (not happy, I’m fairly sure of that) – it’s all a blank page.

Now the book sits on a shelf, needling me from across the room. The problem is that it’s stacked alongside a Dave Eggers’ short story collection and a Jay McInerney wine book – and I can remember very little about those either.

What’s going on? Do I pick forgettable reads? Is my empathy through the floor? Or my concentration shredded? Am I reading on autopilot?

Part of this is age-related, of course. At 38 I’m likely experiencing the onset of age-related memory impairment. But I read Ask The Dust after Murakami’s novel and I recall every rooming house, bar and street corner.

About a boy. And a girl.

About a boy. And a girl.

Sitting on my shelf next to Murakami and Co is Patti Smith’s memoir M Train. In this account of her mid-life years, Smith is often preoccupied with the irritants of ageing. At one point the poet-singer (a Murakami devotee herself, incidentally), re-reading Albert Camus over her black coffee writes of “an intermittent, lifelong enigma”.

“I finished many books in such a manner…closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content…I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember”.

That’s the thing. If I forget writing that was forgettable to begin with, that might be understandable. But some of the great long and short works that I’ve loved – Goodbye, My Brother; Great Expectations; The End of the Affair – are lost to me, in details if not in spirit.

The downside of this is that I often have a vague notion that a book is great but can’t really recall why. The upside? I’ve an excuse to read it again.

But not South Of The Border, West Of The Sun. It turns out it’s about a boy and a girl. The boy travels on a navel-gazing quest into his own past and winds up at sorrowful, empty ending. Sometimes your memory – or the lack of one – is enough.

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My old self came knocking at 4am

Notes taken

Notebook keeper

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

In an era of relentless self-improvement, of life-affirming social media shares and leaning in, we can be quick to forget our former selves.

If only they felt the same. Or kept sociable hours. Instead they return, as Joan Didion points out, unannounced and in the small hours, demanding our attention.

Sometimes this means attractive company. Who wouldn’t want to meet the courageous, if shaken, mountaineer who stumbled off Mont Blanc after a successful ascent? Can I hear his story? Again?

But for every Jekyll in crampons there’s his alter ego, the past self we’d prefer didn’t exist – or stayed incarcerated in whatever mental chamber we imprison our inner Hydes, our Walter Mittys or Ignatius J Reillys.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner realised. The same sentiment runs through Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping A Notebook’ (anthologised in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and quoted above). She suggests writing down ideas and observations; the information, reviewed years later, will provide us with clues and details about who once were, and who were are now.

Past self

Past self

It’s 50 years since Didion’s essay was published. For most, notetaking in 2016 takes the form of social media posts, and reviewing idle scrolling, or clicking Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ button. The difference now is that our notes are public and, usually, sanitised. The 4am callers tend not to appear.

Cast away, the People We Used To Be are surely unhappy to be erased from our histories. “It all comes back,” Didion repeatedly warns, hinting that, even if we live peacefully with ourselves, we can continue to expect those early morning visitors.

And so I’m on nodding, if not conversational, terms with a young man sick and very tired in an Amtrak waiting room in San Francisco, or the same person, a year or two older, who tore off his time, unused, around Dublin in the early Noughties. And with my other, older, Hydes and Mittys and Reillys, all of whom linger at times in the morning gloom.

It’s just as well that they do. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion cautions. And if I won’t remember my past selves, who will?

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A walk in the Raven woods

raven1My first memory of Raven Point is of a summer afternoon when I was five or six.

I am walking with my family after Sunday lunch, along a pathway running through pine trees and around low, swampy ponds. The air smells like the sea, mixed with the scent of eagle fern. The sun is bright and high.

As we walk deeper into the woods a view of the North Slob – the mud flats at the entrance to Wexford Harbour – opens up through the brambles. Eventually the path gives way to the open dunes of the Point itself, an expanse of low grass, sand and an immense, wide sky, framed by the Irish Sea on one side and the town of Wexford, distant on the other.

Returning to Raven Point last weekend it was re-assuring to see the same pine trees over the path, the same heavy green water in the ponds. Amid the changes of 30 years Raven Point stands constant.

Stopping on the edge of the water, at the tip of the Point and surrounded only by sea, sand and sky, it could have been 30 or even 100 years earlier.

raven3The view shared something of the “beauteous forms” praised by William Wordsworth as he looked upon Tintern Abbey:

Oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet…

While the forms remain the people have changed. The six-year-old who came to Raven Point three decades ago lives on only in the memories of those who shared the walk that day. The years since have been full, often happy but not without sadness.

But Raven Point is not a place to re-live memories. It is not frozen in time. The Point was formed as a spit, and its sands are moving all the time – new flats, lagoons and dunes form and fade. The path across the sands is never the same twice.

Nonetheless at moments there is a connection here, in the light and the wind, to people who’ve gone – my younger self, the loved ones who walked the path and are no longer here to revisit it.

And so I was grateful to visit once more last weekend, to stand on the shore with my wife and think of another line from Wordsworth’s poem, thankful for this place, my past and my family.

If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together.

raven2
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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

guitar1

US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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All that remained was long grass

132.Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North coverAnd of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. 
Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.

Will we be remembered after our deaths? Our legacy, for most of us, will be confined to the memories of loved ones and friends. As they pass, so what remains of us ebbs away.

Our grandchildren may remember us, our great-grandchildren may read our names half a century hence, but by then they’ll likely be meaningless, small notches in history. Traces.

The lines above are from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a novel which depicts the experience of Australian prisoners of war forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway in the Second World War.

Memory is at the core of the book – the soldiers’ memories of home during their imprisonment and their memories of the railway, and each other, decades later, as men in the last light of life.

In as much as it can be relied on, memory is a finite thing, a resource that runs down, like our years.

POWs laying track on the BUrma Death Railway, 1943.

POWs laying track at Ronsi, Burma in 1943.

And so a great human outrage – the construction of a railway though 415 km of murderous tropical terrain in just 11 months at the cost of 160,000 lives – fades in the mind. Even this, an experience more deserving of remembrance than most, one of mankind’s brutal catastrophes, slips away.

It exists in commemorations, in records and in pictures. But these are impressions, facsimiles of reality. Even the men who lived it, as Flanagan depicts them, find it hard to remember all the details as they approach the end of their lives.

Reading Flanagan’s book leaves one with a realisation. If the memory of an event wich as the building of the Burma Railway, and the men involved, fades what hope is there that any of us will be remembered after we pass?

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‘I started to imagine another me somewhere’

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC Pic: Anish Kapoor

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC
Pic: Anish Kapoor

“Turning all this over in my mind, I started to imagine another me somewhere, sitting in a bar, nursing a whiskey, without a care in the world. The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.”

– Haruki Murakami, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’

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So how are the other Cormac Looneys doing?

The one I left in my early 20s studying in the library at Trinity College? The one I last saw as he walked to La Taqueria in The Mission in 1998 to pick up dinner? The one who cursed the cold as he slipped half an hour behind while descending from the Zumsteinspitze in 2010?

They’re fixed in my memory, set in linear time.

But are they? Is each one where I left him, back there in my past? Did they move on too, just like this me did? How did their lives develop? Are they happy? Are they alive?

They exist – if you believe (or understand) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This concept suggests that multiple versions of me exist, living an infinite number of  lives, succeeding and failing, living and dying, in parallel with the Cormac Looney who is currently typing these words on a screen.

pic1Each version of me that I can recall (in fact, an infinite number – more than I can comprehend) lives on, as an alternative me. The me that walked to the taqueria is as real as the me who didn’t and who is typing these words.

This begs an unsettling question. As Murakami’s character asks, which one of these is the ‘real me’? Is the ‘real me’ somewhere else, and the me existing here in Dublin in 2015 just a quantum shadow? Does a ‘real me’ exist? Can a ‘real me’ exist?

Am I the total of an infinite number of Cormac Looneys, all bar one of which I will never be aware of? Am I universal? Am I immortal (given that at any given moment I can both die and not die)?

This is all possible, indeed it’s scientifically undeniable.

But one final piece of the jigsaw remains, without which the mind-bending wonder of many worlds remains just an almighty cosmic tease.

How can I be aware of these other me’s?

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‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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