Sometimes a hint of something is enough to bring back a very strong memory, enough to bring you to the moment with all the senses and feelings that it engendered in its original being. Scarily strong ,the sensations can be almost physical. It can be a pleasure to revisit a past love or special moment equally if it was traumatic in origin then it can be sad, upsetting, and painful. Sometimes we do not have control over what triggers there are and what they will bring to us.
For me music regularly transports me to a memory, though sometimes that brings sadness mostly it brings delight and joy. Occasionally it leaves me with a question which may simply be I wonder where that person is now, a piece of my personal story that is left unfinished or perhaps an unanswered question from the past that remains into the present but long since buried.
I recall being shocked by a strong recollection of my first husband being brought back in a Norwich street. It was the way this man had walked and I gasped and for a split second I was certain that it was him although there was no way it could have been. But I was shaken by the strength of the feeling. Later playing Traces ( Ralph McTell) I understood.The wonderful Ralph McTell who can so simply and elegantly capture the essence of humanity in his writing explained it. I have been fascinated by this phenomena ever since.
“Maybe it was the way she rose from her chair, a trace of something in the air”
Walking the dog recently the scent of the damp grass and the coldness on my feet of the dew took me back to camping with Jack when we had spent the night ” laying on our backs watching feathers fall from angels” to quote one of my other favourite song writers Gerry Colvin. Jack and I had lain there till the dew fell and the grass smelt sweetly of the damp of the evening. It was a flash of a memory before the duties of a dog walker returned me to reality. I wonder where he is today?
I return to Essex fairly regularly so one might expect that the memories would come thick and fast. I sometimes pass somewhere and think Don lived there or whatever but a couple of weeks ago I was driving down the A12 over that horrid concrete slab road surface which has been an uncomfortable feature of part of Essex for as long as I can remember. The bumps in the road took my thoughts to another era of my life and events I had long forgotten. In the days when the new Social Services Department was responsible for homelessness there were in Essex homeless persons units, as there were all over the country. Often based in old workhouse buildings, or surplus forces accommodation they provided families shelter. Frequently we were present at evictions and transported them from there to the allocated unit. One such unit was at Stanway just outside Colchester, this had been a workhouse and was by this time an Elderly persons home and the homeless unit.
St Albrights. It had indeed been a workhouse for the Lexden and Winstree Union, just off the A12 it was built in 1836 for 330 inmates. It had later been a hospital, Elderly persons home and Social Service department offices. Sadly as with many of these wonderful buildings, often of innovative and notable design at the time, it now lies mostly unused and unloved hopefully destined for housing rather than a spa or other leisure facility. I always feel that if they continue as housing or in some other community usage then they continue to fulfil the original mission of the build and the design. There is some justice in this for such a wonderful old building in whose walls so many have lived, suffered, died and frequently been offered safe sanctuary from a world in which they had become vulnerable and alone.
Look where the bumps in a road have led my thoughts. But to return to homeless persons units for a moment. I recall as a child watching the family opposite our home in Balmoral Avenue, Stanford le hope being evicted. All their possessions piled onto the side of the street and they sat there Mum, Dad, kids and the dog. My father pulled me away but I worried about them for days. Where did they go? What happened to them? I was about 10 or 11. I didn’t understand. Later I attended several evictions and transported what I could of their possessions to a unit providing grim, multi occupied accommodation with shared cooking, washing and toilet facilities based in huts once used for the forces or buildings in ex workhouse complexes. It was the saddest of jobs. The smells and noise of those units, the fights , the poverty and hopelessness hanging in the air stays with me today. And we charged them rent! And used to visit to collect arrears from the homes they had prior to eviction!!! When I visited Southwell, the National Trust workhouse there are rooms from when it took in homeless families. As I entered I stopped, caught my breath and fought back the tears, I was literally brought to a standstill. I had condemned people to this,albeit in good faith and it did have the benefit of keeping the family together unlike some other homeless policies. Small comforts; the sickening smell returned to my nose and throat .
The train of thoughts came from those uncomfortable bumps on the A12. These are powerful traces from our story and for me they are containable, understood and controllable. Imagine how it must then be for those who have associations from those traces of trauma, disaster, pain and so on, for those for whom the hint of something in the air does not bring warmth, happy memories, laughter and love but anger, misery ,pain and sadness. No answers just some thoughts. And I am still wondering about where we “watched the feathers fall from angels” and where Jack is now.
- Traces. Ralph McTell. Slide the Screen Away 1979
- Watching Feathers Fall. Gerry Colvin. Back and Forth 2018
- The Workhouse. English Heritage pub 1999
- Southwell, Nottinghamshire. National Trust.