(This third piece is, I suppose, about the quantum level of the imagination – that space between dream and memory in which the dead do not live, but are, for a strange moment, not-dead. The act of return, of re-viewing, the possibility of material or associative continuities, things the body recognises as much as the mind, these provoke us to resist loss for that moment. And that part of us which is unable to process the fact that the past is gone, which doesn’t understand the concept of death, is wooed yet again.
This is the new surrealism of neuroscience, of the acknowledgement of the gut brain: the realisation that the animal has its own procedures, its own memories, and that we are neither above nor separate from them. It links together all these most recent posts.
It is a key aspect of what I think of as secondariness to confess that, creatively, you are led by the work as the ego is led by this autonomous self, the OS of body and unconscious mind, the actions of which consciousness is continually, belatedly, laying claim to. And this relates directly for me to the experience of musicians attempting to play along with Syd Barrett: that insight that they were always a beat behind.)
I returned this morning to the idea of viewing the distant-but-familiar through other, more recent lenses, as I was out walking toward the Yacht Club. I’d been wondering why my feet prefer to turn right – it can’t just be because I’m right-footed – and that reminded me of the opposite configurations of the stairwells in Beach Crescent and my grandparents’ old flat in Corso Street. The latter was (and remains) counter-clockwise, and so the former always feels odd as I approach it. The flat, however, has enough of the same layout for me to experience that doubled vision effect.
The rooms stem off from a central hall with a bathroom then a kitchen to the right, and a main bedroom and a large front-facing room to the left. While my grandparents’ flat then opened onto a large end-room which was used as the main living room, my flat ends in a small single bedroom, also to the right. But it remains impossible for me to enter this flat without thinking of theirs, where I spent much of my childhood.
Essentially, I went there for dinner (lunch) and tea every day of my schooldays at Blackness Primary School (the old, now demolished Blackness, not its subsequent incarnation which took over the premises of what was Hawkhill Primary). I was there most weekends as well, and visited regularly after my grandfather’s death either by myself or with my parents for almost another twenty years. It’s fair to say, a little like the layout of that old demolished school, or the streets between my gran’s and Blackness, or Grove Academy, or the shorefront and grid of Broughty Ferry streets, that the layout, scale and atmosphere of my gran’s flat haunts my consciousness at a, predictably, primary level.
It’s one of my most common lucid dreams to find myself in the flat again, realising with a horrible pang that this means my Gran and Grandad, who are often with me in these dreams, are dead. The dream constructs elaborate narratives to explain why this isn’t actually the case, but still these dreams have the sense of entering a tomb-like space, similar to those I’ve visited in China, a configuration of rooms set out in sacred wood, nanmu, or in the form of the character for scholar or knight, 士 (shí).
So to occupy my flat at all is to be haunted, from the moment I lift the key to the door and remember her Yale key, blurred by decades of use, to the last thing at night, when I glance down the hall before closing the bedroom door. Particularly powerful is the row of hooks immediately to the left of the front door, on which I hang my black cap and the broad-brimmed panama I bought in the street market in Yangzhou for a ridiculously cheap 15 yuan.
In my grandparents’ flat, this was where his bunnets and her long coats would hang, and I remember as a child staring up at this seemingly much higher and much longer coat rail, on which a large number of tweed bunnets roosted out of reach, amid the absolutely secure smell of her coats.
Sometimes I would be allowed to hold one of these bunnets, as though it were some strange breed of hollowed-out pigeon, and smell his hair-oil, and look at the label, which under a thick plastic proclaimed its origins in one of those places they visited of a summer on the bus tours they took with their neighbours, the Sturrocks or the Flemings – the Jacks never in my memory leaving his fields, somewhere in the hinterland I never knew, or her many jobs, for she was too fond of the siller to waste it on holidays.
I find myself staring at my hand and the black cap it has just placed on the hook, much as I find my feet turning right to take me along by the pebbly beach past all the benches and toward the ancient phone box on my way toward the Yacht Club, the Stannergait, the Strips of Craigie, the Arbroath Road, the town, and, eventually Blackness and Peddie Street and Corso Street itself. And I wonder for a moment if I’ve just come in, or am just about to go out. Whether I’m dreaming or awake. Whether my grandparents are alive or dead. While my hand stays on the cap, and the cap stays on the hook, it seems that both possibilities are true.