The Future of Memory, the Memory of Place

One night I went for a walk, to dislodge some words that had got stuck at the very back of my head, in the least accessible place. I took my camera and walked down the Iffley Road at sunset. It happened to be a very fine sunset, with pink bleeding into the horizon and gold clouds over the track where Roger Bannister ran his sub-4-minute mile. I took a few photos. I thought maybe it would help if I tried to look at the city, or even the world, from a photographer's point of view, but apart from the sunset I was having a hard time figuring out what to take a photo of. It didn't help that the city was basically empty; it made everything feel static. Very few people seemed to be out enjoying the dregs of summer as I was out enjoying the dregs of summer.

Anyone who was outside, though, was also taking photographs. I began to feel a kind of camaraderie. A camera-raderie, maybe. On Magdalen Bridge a girl on a pale blue Pashley paused to pull a camera from her handbag. In Radcliffe Square, the big Camera dwarfing my little camera, bells began to ring, and I stood taking pointless beautiful photographs, listening to the bells ringing. A family wandered past; I got their silhouettes in some of my shots. They were also taking photographs, naturally: they were tourists, or at least, I imagined they were tourists, because they looked tourist-like, whatever that meant. But I had to stop myself thinking like this when I saw that I could also seem to be a tourist, and in a way I still was a tourist, even after four years, and I would still be one after forty, too. The family skirted around me and went to stand for a long time outside All Souls, though there is nothing much to see there; I have often looked through the gates of All Souls and never seen a soul.

Some girls were taking photographs under the Bridge of Sighs. Three of them stood in a line and jumped up obediently as the fourth took a photo, and then they changed configuration, so the one taking the photo could also be in a photo. I thought it was funny, and a little sad, that no matter how many times they did this, one of them would still always be missing from the photograph.

I went down Queen's Lane, liking the sound of my rubber soles on the street, which was notable for being the only sound I could now hear. When I first started riding a bicycle in the city I had crashed twice in the same spot, trying to squeeze through a narrow gate. Now I had been cycling for years, and I had forgotten what it was like to walk here.

***

Outside the Grand Café, I considered the cocktail menu. I did not want a cocktail. I thought about having a glass of white wine, though I can never see the point of drinking a glass of wine you don't love unless you've got food to go with it. I wasn't at all sure they would have a white wine that I would love, particularly when I didn't even really feel like having white wine. In fact I didn't know if I wanted to go in at all. Nevertheless I went in, and ordered a Kir Royal, and sat in front of a big mirror, on a wicker chair, and read from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. A party in Venice, cocaine, champagne, sex. I read for the duration of my Kir Royal and then felt obliged either to order another or to leave, even though it was still practically empty, just a couple sitting by the window and a pair of girls at the bar. I might well have been on my own, I thought. I did sort of want another, I could have stayed in Venice for longer, but in the end I brought my empty glass to the bar and left.

***

I crossed the road thinking I might like to take a bus home, but I had just missed one and I did not immediately see another coming, so I put some music on and walked home, where I finished the Venice section of the book and moved on to the India section: not just a change of scenery, but also a shift in perspective, a change from "he" to "I". I read:

"Every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth, so a temple built today looks, overnight, as if it's been there since the dawn of time. Every morning is the dawn of time, I wrote in my notebook. Every day is the whole of time."

I made a note of it, because in a way it corresponded to a thought I'd been having, or trying to have, about memory and place. It made me think, in fact, of the epigraph to another Geoff Dyer book, The Missing of the Somme:

"Remember: the past won't fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future"

That was something by Joseph Brodsky. In Jeff in Venice, Dyer writes that "Jeff had never read Brodsky" - but of course Geoff must have, or must at least have read that particular bit of Brodsky and identified it as relevant. I guess sometimes it's better to have a quote without context; it's more malleable, it's why epigraphs work. I love epigraphs in books, but in fact I rarely read them; I always think the epigraph is a representation of the private relationship the author has with a text, and kind of irrelevant to the relationship that the reader will develop with that same text. It's like saying, "hey, in my head this complements what you're about to read. In your head it may have nothing to do with it. Whatever."

***

Maybe it's like writing about place: the place is actually irrelevant to everyone else. I used to like reading about Paris, before I had ever been to Paris, just to see the names of streets and squares that meant nothing to me. I don't think it much mattered that when I first read A Moveable Feast I didn't know where the Place Saint-Michel was, hadn't yet sat in a café there with my lover, both of us poor and a little hungry, sucking down café au laits in the late summer heat. But then I went through a phase of thinking that context was paramount, that to really read a book, it was essential to know the place it was about, to have a map of memories in your head (to "anchor you", I thought).

But then every time I read a book about Oxford and came upon a passage about the Radcliffe Camera or the High Street or the Grand Café or the Cowley Road I would have to go back through my own catalog of experiences, find a corresponding situation, consider the gap or overlap between one writer's view and my own. And that can be tiring.

***

Every day is the whole of time - the thought I had been trying to have was simply this: places trap memory by accumulating it. Like rain collecting in a bucket with infinite capacity. Like Tennyson - "I am a part of all that I have met." And part of a memory is also the future of that memory. Places are haunted by ghosts, but also by those who are still alive.

Before bed I wondered how much of our description of place has nothing to do with place, and everything to do with the "I" or the "he". I've never been to India, but I've been to a place where "every atom of the air is saturated by history that isn't even history, myth". But maybe I haven't; maybe that is just a state of mind, a state of mind you could be in wherever you were in the world.