Well, it’s happening. Happened, I mean. Stuff I thought would last forever -film titles, the actors in them, scenes of novels and their plots, not to mention quotes or even who scored for England in their recent qualifier against, er, who?- is now vanishing.
I don’t mean vaguely receding, tip of my tongue, gosh, just give me a minute, wait, hang on a sec, erm, no, it’s gone, I mean actual vanishing. Like the polar ice caps. Or the Great Barrier Reef. Or the planet Pluto. Gone.
You go up the stairs, through the bedroom, into the office, pull open the file marked ‘Billy Collins: Poems of’, and you come up with air. Trust me. You don’t? I had to look this up:
It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbour
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones. (‘Forgetfulness’)
Sometimes I don’t even remember why I went up the stairs in the first place.
I do remember being shouted at at school. ‘Pay attention, Wilson! Useless! What are you Wilson?’ ‘Useless, Sir.’ ‘Fifty times, Wilson, by break.’ And scoring a try, once. It was March. Amazing to still have that, locked away, but not the year that Chelsea won the double.
My students laugh at me: ‘Google it!’
‘You have no idea what it has already done to my brain,’ I tell them.
Or my father, one Sunday lunch, saying ‘Look at the light on the willow tree!’ Or my first Latin lesson (‘Caecilius est pater’), or the curl of the lip of my French teacher when he was cross. Or the smell of the basement in my grandparents’ house in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a mixture of damp and mothballs. Or the way my grandfather would yell at us ‘Attention, les gosses!’, as though we knew what he meant (somehow we worked it out). I remember that. I even remember having ‘remember’ rammed down my throat (‘Fifty times, Wilson…’).
Newcastle lost to Liverpool 3-0 in the 1974 Cup Final. I played it out afterwards with my brothers (the score was reversed). How do I still know this? I can still see Stan Smith hurdling the net at Wimbledon to embrace the defeated Nastase in 1972. Oh, how I cried.
Certain meals. My honeymoon. The birth of my children. Seeing my grandmother for the last time. The Rothkos at the Tate. Yes. The faster the rest of it fades, the more these seem to grow stronger.
For this reason I have been thinking a lot this week about Robert Lowell’s lovely late poem to his son, ‘For Sheridan‘. It begins with lines you could puzzle over for a month: ‘We only live between/ before we are and what we were.’
He is speaking in the language of what he calls elsewhere ‘the photographer’s sacramental instant’. The child is a ‘lost negative’; three ages pass ‘in a flash/ the same child in the same picture,/ he, I, you’. The backward-looking note of resigned wisdom is transparent, verging on unbearable: ‘We could see clearly/ and all the same things/ before the glass was hurt.’
The poem manages to contain immense moral force while remaining firmly in the demotic of intimate address. Lowell had more cause than most to know the impact of human behaviour, public as well as private, on those who were closest to him. Few have bettered the whispered plea of forgiveness with which the poem closes:
Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense
of suicidal absolution
that what we intended and failed
could never have happened—
and must be done better.