Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Now that I've had the birthday, which sped by despite being awake for twenty hours of it (it was the only birthday I am ever likely to spend in three different countries), I am thirty-five years old. A little less young than before, but as I've already pointed out, none the worse for that.

A confession: I am highly prone to sentimentality. Endings cause me difficulty. It's not that I fear or habitually reject change; in fact I can sometimes embrace it. But I do cling to the past in lots of ways, and one thing that horrifies me about having somehow let thirty-five precious years slip through my fingers in the blink of an eye (fingers and eyes in one sentence - how 'bout that?), is the feeling that of all the great stuff I've done, a large percentage has overflowed my memory bank and been washed away in the murky waters of time.

Like everyone, I am an amalgam of the various influences I've been exposed to over time: phrases I've borrowed, styles I've co-opted, beliefs I've acquired. Some consciously, but, I suspect, the great majority without very much thought. The only original thing about me is the precise recipe in which all the exact measurements of the constituent parts are blended together. So in that respect at least, nothing I ever did or knew is lost. In some imperceptibly small way, everything I have ever experienced is retained and used every day just by being me, by reacting to and interacting with my current life in my own unique way. But this isn't the same as being able to recall details of people and places from years past. I dread endings not because of the upheaval itself, but because they mark the start of a long process of erosion, of sharp and highly specific memories being degraded, dismantled, blurred and eventually either lost completely, or, perhaps even worse, distorted and lumped together into generic and vague representations of those original memories.

There are those who keep diaries. Diaries which record notable events from each day or week. Whilst I accept that it might be a good thing to have volumes of memories on a shelf somewhere, this is something I don't seem to have done up to this point, suggesting that I lack the discipline to maintain such a record. Some bloggers use spaces such as this one to document notable events in their lives, but I've so far shied away from anything quite so uninhibited. Whilst that kind of blog is, in my opinion, quite the best kind, for nothing is so interesting to people as other people, my reason for being here is not to record, but merely to reflect. Besides, even a detailed written record can never recreate a feeling or an experience. It might jog the memory, paint something of a picture, and take the reader to the same psychological avenue as the original event, but the event itself is gone. For that reason I'm not sure I would even bother to re-read old diaries had I ever made the decision to keep them.

To re-plot the course of this blog entry back toward endings, here's an example of my behaviour in response to them: earlier this year I moved offices, from a place which had been my location of work for a little over two years, to a new office. Sadly, I'm not generally able to derive a great deal of pleasure from my work, and most days I'd certainly much rather be doing something else. My office was a scruffy one, in a shabby 70-year-old building that was widely considered ugly even when it was newly-constructed. I had a ripped chair and a desk adorned with antique IT hardware adjacent to a window which had a dusty ledge and from which there was no view save for the identical office not ten yards away. The carpet was worn and stained (not by me, I hasten to add), the overhead strip light occasionally flickered, and the room could be either very hot or very cold, but never anything in between. It was a place for which it was all but impossible to have affection - a place I went to in order to do something I didn't want to do in surroundings I wouldn't have chosen. Yet in the closing days of my time there I collected a few souvenirs, and took some photographs of that same desk, that same office, and the view from that same window. From somewhere I manufactured a sadness of sorts, not motivated by the loss of those things I have described, but by sentimentality, by the ending itself, and by the passing of the time I spent there.

Given my reaction to the end of something I didn't even much like, you might imagine the magnitude of my reaction to the still relatively recent news of the state of my knee, meaning that I am unable any longer to actively participate in the sport I love. I can state without trace of exaggeration that the end of my time as a football player has been the single biggest threat I have ever faced to my psychological wellbeing. Apart from demonstrating that I have led an ultra-sheltered life, I think it also shows just how bad I am at endings, less still premature ones.

I have a third example of my sentimentality with regard to endings. Whilst it goes against my professed reluctance to recount events from my personal life, it is certainly the best example, so clearly merits inclusion here. It's actually something I'm a little embarrassed about, and something I have only ever told one person, so let us also consider it a reward for anyone who has read this far. In the early stages of our relationship, I visited my partner's home town for a week. We stayed at his mother's house, went to some local tourist attractions together, visited places he used to live, went to see his old schools, and viewed a few other places of significance to him. When the week was over, I drove home while he stayed on to spend some time with his family. I sobbed like a baby for ten solid minutes as I drove away. Not out of happiness at having found someone so wonderful with whom to spend my life. Not even out of sadness at being temporarily separated from him. I cried because the week was over, and because the special memories of the most fantastic week of my life would soon start to dissipate. I wanted that week never to end.

I know that my best ever family holiday as a child was in 1991. I know who was there. I know where we went. I am able to access one or two fuzzy pictures in my mind of the places we went, what the weather was like, and how those twelve days made me feel. I can even look at the photos, and reminisce with my family. It pleases me that we were able to share those times together. But I still feel troubled that I can't picture the hotel room in my mind, or remember the expressions on faces, or recall conversations at the end of each day where we reflected on what we had done. The sum total of possibly the best two weeks of my childhood is "that was a great holiday". That feels less than adequate, somehow.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Ben:
First, we are intrigued to know just which are the three countries in which you spent your birthday. Jet travel makes so much achievable in the space of a mere 24 hours that our minds are simply agog with the possibilities. Do tell.

Secondly, the knee. We can well appreciate how much of a blow this is to you as Football has played such a significant role in your life. We have no wish at all to trivialise your concerns, far from it, but from our perspective with our additional decades we are truly grateful to get up in the morning and find any working parts in our bodies. Perhaps think on this when next watching from the sidelines!!!

As for memories vanishing, well, we certainly have no wish to hold on to so many of the details and, as the years advance, we find ourselves increasingly concerned with the present, the here and now. Indeed, we find it rather liberating that time has washed away so many past recollections, especially those that were best not given a second thought when they happened.

And so, dear Ben, many, many happy returns.....35....just a child....!!

Anonymous said...

Many happy returns of the day, Ben (and a kiss!). I'm sorry I missed writing it on the right day. This was a beautiful post, to which I have difficulty responding. Perhaps it doesn't need a response. Even if I'd a mind to there's nothing I can contradict because it's your experience. And while I'm feeling sympathy, there's nothing which really indicates you want it, or need it. Your words sounded as tho' they expressed your reality. Maybe no memory, good or, unfortunately, bad is lost, at least until the synapses start to misfire. I'm very sorry you've lost football. I'm trying to imagine what that's like and can only think it must be the same as if I wasn't ever able to ride again, but I don't really know if they're comparable. Footballers seem to have more passion about their game than players and fans of other sports. Weird :) It's so hard to feel other people's passions. I thought your post was wonderfully sincere, but in a way it's armour plated. There is no way in for this gushing sentimentalist. You've covered all the points of entry with hard, bright honesty. It's like a jewel and I love it. Love, Alec xxxx

Ben said...

Jane and Lance:
My Cecil Beaton comment yesterday was a big clue to the first of the three countries. The other was a brief stop in the Republic of Ireland on the way back to the UK, although I did get some time to stumble jetlaggedly around Dublin.
I can well see how ridiculous the whole football business seems to a non-believer, as it were. The best way I can explain it is that I don't miss the act of playing so much as the person I became when I was playing. But you're right, it's downhill from here in terms of joint health, and I intend to make the best of things.
I'm a hoarder of memories. I want to keep them all, good and bad, and I hate it when I lose them. But I said that already, didn't I?!
Child? Guilty as charged.

Ben said...

Such generous and perceptive words - thank you.
I suppose we just have to trust our brains to keep what we need and discard what we don't. I'm sure bad memories are often just as valuable as good ones, and worth storing, even if we rarely need to bring them to mind.
Football does inspire a peculiar kind of passion; one which, unfortunately, it has always escaped my ability to adequately explain, at least any better than in my reply to Jane and Lance above. As you say, it is not easy to see why people become so attached to certain activities. As you also say, weird :)
Sentimentality should be gushing, I think, and I would do well to at least peer over the parapet of my tower now and again. Your reports of shedding a tear or two in Spain partly inspired me to reveal my own nasolacrimalic exploits, and for that I thank you. Please help yourself to a reciprocal kiss (or three) on the way out.
x x x