Archive for the 'memory' Category

No room for mourning

February 22, 2010

Over at my futures blog the next wave I’ve written a post about our changing relationship to the land, partly based on some reflections about my grandfather prompted by a recent walk in Wales.

When he died I wanted to read Sidney Keyes’ elegy for William Wordsworth at his funeral (it’s an astonishingly accomplished poem for a man who was killed in action short of his 21st birthday). But in a pre-internet age we couldn’t find it in time. So here it is in his memory now.

Return journey

September 15, 2009

newc

I thought about writing something here when the journalist and novelist Gordon Burn died, quite young, earlier this summer, but realised that I had nothing to add to the encomia that littered the obituaries pages.  “One of the greatest – and arguably underrated – British writers of his age*, said one, and I don’t really disagree with that. His journalism – for me a former journalist – was exceptional. In a world where there is plainly too much journalism I’d seek his pieces out.

But looking through an old notebook I found recently – which read a bit like a longhand blog – there was a piece on an article by Burn from 2005 that was worth sharing, a meditative reflection on a return home to Newcastle after the death of his father, even if his memory, perhaps appropriately for such a genre, is playing tricks. The whole thing is worth reading, even if you know nothing of Newcastle and care even less, but there’s a striking quote and a striking image.

The image is of some elderly Tynesiders singing songs in a pub in the late afternoon. It turns out that they are tourists, living in Greece now, come back for a nostalgic visit. “They were voluntary exiles, travelling in the opposite direction to the economic migrants from the former eastern bloc and elsewhere for whom they had made space; ex-pats come back to revisit not what was actually there, but what they wanted to see.”

The quote is from the American writer Toni Morrison:

“They straightened up the Mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.”

Towards the end of the article Burn acknowledges that he has only recently “admitted” the claim of Newcastle on him.

“It is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go “home” was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of “community” and everybody belonged to one.”

Irish routes

March 25, 2009

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I’m going to the north of Ireland on holiday quite soon, so I’m tuned in to stories about Irishness at the moment. The writer Nick Laird was complaining about the way he had been classified by his publisher, as an Irish poet (the Heaney effect?) but a British novelist:

On forms, under nationality I write Irish/British, though I’d be happier with Ulsterman, since Ulster itself (incorporating Northern Ireland and the Irish counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) is a province administrated by both Dublin and London. The poet John Hewitt put his own position thus: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

It gets more complex. Later in the same article Laird explains how he evades the certainties which Americans try to pin on him by establishing his religion – by drowning them in the detail of family history:

In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic? … I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I bamboozle them with detail. My mum was raised Covenantor in Armagh and my father Church of Ireland in Donegal – part of the republic but in Ulster. My mum’s family’s originally from Cork (where, as Protestants in the 1920s, they were burnt out and fled north). They glaze, and change the subject. But why should the situation not be complicated?

I come from England, as does most of my family, albeit from one of those peripheral regions far enough from London to have an identity of its own. But some of my family detail would be complicated, too, for despite the trite conventional wisdom (that in the olden days everyone grew up and died in the same village) in the past people moved around far more than we imagine. It should be complicated, for our histories and identity lie inside that complexity.

On museums and monuments

March 14, 2008

Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Mandan Lynn

This quote from the film-maker Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah, among other documentaries:

“Museums and monuments institute oblivion as well as remembrance”.

The full interview, about his film on Sobibor, is here.

The photograph, of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, was taken by Mandan Lynn.

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