How to taste the past

This post was originally written for The Ascent. I’m more active on Medium than here, so you can get all my posts by following me there or, paywall-free, by subscribing to my newsletter.

My most recent tattoo, which I never shared for some reason - done in Cape Town in July. No, the knuckle scabs are not from punching anyone.

My most recent tattoo, which I never shared for some reason - done in Cape Town in July. No, the knuckle scabs are not from punching anyone.

Perhaps the most iconic passage in anything Marcel Proust wrote is the moment from In Search of Lost Time when the protagonist tastes a madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea and is momentarily struck by a wave of forgotten childhood memories.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran out of coffee so I used a stray sachet of Nescafe from a hotel and, anticipating that it would be stale and tasteless, added cinnamon. As I lifted my totally banal cup to my lips, the smell triggered an overwhelming, involuntary wave of emotion. I put it down. Picked it up. Inhaled again. Took a sip.

And for a moment, I wasn’t sat in my kitchen in London. The smell transported me back to a different time, evidently the last time I happened to drink that same concoction.The last time I drank Nescafe and cinnamon was upon settling into my first flat after leaving university, a minuscule, barely functional box.

After days, I finally had electricity and could make coffee. I treated myself to some cinnamon which felt like a luxury at the time. It hadn’t yet sunk in how grim and lonely the situation was. I was just delighted to make my first hot drink as an independent adult, in my own home — it felt impossibly mature.

The feelings provoked by that scent are perhaps not warm and fuzzy, but they are meaningful. The combination of Nescafe and cinnamon smells like freedom. It smells like hope.

It reminds me of how it felt to be out on my own for the first time, doing my own thing, unmoored from everything that tethered me up until that point. It reminds me of my naivety at the time when I had yet to learn how hard things would be. It’s redolent of how much joy I drew out of luxuries as tiny as a jar of cinnamon.

That smell grounded me by showing how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned since then. Without a chance reunion with that particular beverage, I don’t think I would have truly realised that.

There’s a song called Truly by Cigarettes After Sex which describes someone who wears a new perfume for each new city they visit, so the smell will help them remember how it felt to be there. I used to think that was just cute until I realised the power little cues like smells have to let us touch the past.

***

The past is not dead and buried.

It isn’t neatly shelved away. Our memories are not a tidy archive, to be accessed as we wish. They change. They melt away. They reappear, unprovoked, or provoked by something we cannot identify. With each recollection, they shift depending on who and where we are in the present. Memories of the past can only ever be experiences in the present moment.

John Biguenet writes in Silence:

‘Yes, we may dissect the past as if it were a poem to be explicated, excavate the buried memory, interrogate the record, but it is not the past that answers our questions. In the face of silence, we impose what we take for answers. We are at best ventriloquists and the past our dummy. For no matter how articulately we phrase those questions we ask of what — of who — we once were, our past remains as mute as a doll in a child’s embrace.’

Or as Daniel Eagleman writes in The Brain:

‘Our past is not a faithful record. Instead, it’s a reconstruction, and sometimes it can border on mythology.’

Yet our memories are gold, they are the most precious thing we possess.A fact undampened by the knowledge that we rewrite them again and again.

The act of cataloguing and preserving memories has long been one of my chief obsessions. I’ve kept diaries and scrapbooks since I was 6. I’m always the one with a camera at social events. My tattoos are an attempt to encapsulate, visually, who I am at a particular moment in time. I am afraid of forgetting.

On my last day of school, I took a grainy, muted picture of my three best friends and I on an old 35mm film camera. We stand, arm in arm, grinning, visibly both excited and a little scared to be saying goodbye. After being inseparable for years, after growing together, after falling out and making up numerous times, we were about to part ways. I’d known one of them for half my life. Another was the first person I ever had a crush on.

Why did I take that picture, then file it away in a drawer? Because I knew I would forget, someday. I knew I needed a map back to that time. Maybe, looking back at that picture, I’d step straight back into the past at some indeterminate point in the future.

Except, memory does not bend to our will as we wish. The past rears its head at odd moments; a smell, a face in a crowd, a scrap of music, a side street. The past is scattered all around us.

***

There’s a bridge you pass on the way into London by road, right on the edge of the sprawling mass that still manages to call itself a single city in the same way Facebook calls itself a startup, that always fills me with an inexplicable, intoxicating sense of hope.

Compared to the central bridges it’s a throwaway for trains to cross the river. The river so contaminated with cocaine that it poisons the fish and eels purported to swim somewhere in its murky depths.They fish skeletons out of the river. Or lumps of congealed fat large enough to crush a car.

Something about the way this ribbon of filth creeps on its belly through the city unnerves me. But in the darkness, the bridge glows with the same trailing light that suffocates the stars above. You reach for the stars at night and they are a poor photocopy of the original behind a film of smog. Only the buildings glow, and the water, and the bridges.

The first time I saw it, years ago, I was drunk and disassociating, adrift and anxious.

I stopped and said out loud that it was beautiful. Except not the nice-to-look-at kind of beauty. The kind that promises happiness.

Any time I leave London, the bridge greets me on my return and I see that same beauty. These days, I understand that it whispers of future happiness because it reminds me of what I have escaped, of what moving to London let me forget, of what’s behind when I return — I feel as if I have climbed out of the river.

The bridge stands sentinel. It does not let me forget. I would never have expected it to be such a strong harbinger of involuntary memories, but it is.

***

When I moved here, I swore I would never go back to my hometown (and even calling it that makes me wince.) But then a family member became ill and I’ve dragged myself back thrice in the last 6 months.

It’s not a bad place; the sort of seaside town where people go when they’re tired of London. It is a stomping ground for the burnt out who call it ‘creative’ because it’s home to a dozen digital agencies with names that sound like Enid Blyton book titles. You ask people what they do and they say ‘Oh, I’m in dig-strat at TreeJuice.’

But there are ghosts everywhere. It reeks of who I used to be and the people I knew. It reminds me of the unending urge to pretend I never lived there.

There are ghosts in the soulless, neon-lit supermarket aisles. On the trash-strewn patches of balding grass near the river. In the graffiti-coated concrete tunnel leading away from the train station, towards streets lined with retirement homes that smell of cauliflower. Amid piles of cigarette butts and gum at the base of lamp posts. The past is everywhere. The memories flood back.

I can’t focus when I’m there. I can’t sleep properly, can’t calm down, I talk too loud and fidget too much. I feel out of control and the old self-hatred creeps back. When I expect comfort, I find contempt. I fear it will somehow suck me in and trap me again.

Each part of the town inevitably reminds me of the particular way I was miserable in that spot. Each corner preserves a different, mundane memory. They’re not pretty enough to provoke nostalgia.

Mostly, it all reminds me of teenage rites of passage that we all imbued with ludicrous meaning. The whole place is a memory palace. I walk around and think of the days where all my friends and I seemed to care about was kissing strangers and drinking WKD in graveyards and stick-and-poking our ankles and getting away with mascara at school and collecting Tumblr followers.

Maybe it hurts to go back because it reminds me that I’ll someday look back on this point in my life with the same scorn I have for those years.

Hometowns are like that. If you love where you lived as a teenager, you’re probably in the minority.

Memories do fade. But there’s always the possibility of them springing from nowhere. They don’t truly exist as words, they’re something more. John Burnside writes in The Dumb House:

‘From the moment I first learned to talk, I felt I was being tricked out of something…The trick and beauty of language is that it seems to order the whole universe, misleading us into believing that we live in sight of a rational space, a possible harmony. But if words distance us from the present, so we never quite seize the reality of things, they make an absolute fiction of the past.’