Sunday, 15 January 2017

Down Memory Lane. A frighteningly long way

It was with some pride that I realised, in my thirties, that I remembered events in my life that had happened twenty years earlier, even though I had been practically adult at the time. It felt like a sign of growing maturity. But then, some years on, it struck me that I was talking to my sons about thirty-year old memories, and remembered how, at their age, I’d been shocked when my parents had talked about such things. With my conscious mind, I knew it was possible to remember things that old, but something deeper in my being simply couldn’t adapt to the notion.

This morning I boarded a plane for a destination which brought back a fifty-year old memory. Fifty years. Half a century. It makes me feel like a living history book. Only history measures matters in fractions or multiples of a century.

The destination was Philadelphia – or Philly, as I’m assured I should call it – and I was last there when I was fourteen. Practically half a century, since in two weeks I shall start a year of boring all around me by asking them whether they’ll still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine.

My parents were living in New York at the time. I travelled to Philly with my then girlfriend’s family. They were artists and they were taking us to see an exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Only one canvas sticks in my mind: it was the first time I’d seen a “white-on-white”. The artist – for such, I was assured, he was – had gone to considerable trouble to screen print white paint onto a white canvas.

White on White: profoundly meaningful. Right?
Callow, uncouth youth that I was, I couldn’t bring myself to take this seriously as a piece of art. How shall I put this? Translating a fine old Anglo-Saxon expression into more clinical terms – I don’t want to shock, after all – I was more inclined to view it as extracting the urine.

Of course, fifty years on I’ve become far more sophisticated in my appreciation of art. Today, I fully grasp the concept that behind such a piece of work lies a great mind, a fount of insight, generating a message of complexity and power.

It’s just, sadly, that I still don’t grasp it.

It’s fun to be back in Philly, half a century on. The place where the colonists first declared they’d had enough of their British overlords. It’s a sentiment with which, as a subject today of the descendants of those same overlords, I entirely sympathise.

In fact, it was a little odd, when I made my way into the plane, to discover that the greeting message was being spoken in a British accent. English, indeed. Home counties, even. I’m told it’s an accent, like the Scottish one back home, that’s trusted out here.

My advice? Be less trusting. I know people with that accent who have my confidence but plenty, sadly, who don’t – many of them in government.

I shall enjoy my brief stay here. Even if it does remind me of how old I’ve become. Still, as I always say, there really is only one way of not growing old.

That’s to die young. That was never an attractive proposition. In any case, it’s a great deal too late for me to adopt it.

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