Plundering memories, by Elizabeth Kay

 As our worlds have shrunk during the pandemic, the new experiences on which I rely for material is dwindling. The sight of a kingfisher on the river I now know like my back garden, an altercastion in Lidl, hunting down parasol mushrooms on the common, collecting sweet chestnuts from the downs.

A pparasol mushroom. Yum yum!
Biggest parasol mushroom this year
All within walking distance, all things I have experienced before. Lidl doesn't change much, other than the designs on the face masks, and the altercations over trolleys - but the common does, the trees are going from green to gold and then to bare branches. Foraging has become more important as anything you can get that avoids the shops is a good idea. It was an excellent blackberry season; fortunately, I still have several tubs of them in the freezer. I made elderflower chanpagne this summer, but that didn't last very long... It's been a good year for sweet chestnuts, too, and they make a great snack whilst watching re-runs of things you last saw in 1992. But none of these are brand new adventures, and that's what lacking. How Jane Austen managed on her little piece of ivory is beyond me.

So it's time to plunder the memory for things that were one-off moments, things that perhaps can't be experienced any more. I came up with two whilst I was writing something the other day, and it's encouraged me to look for things that weren't spectacular. Balloon flights over the Masai Mara and white water rafting in Costa Rica are terrific, but you can only use them once and the details fade with time even more than  events that happened a very long time ago. What I've been trawling for are the little events that were remarkable in their own way.

One night when I was a student I had to catch the last train home from Waterloo. The station was practically deserted, and I didn't want to sit in a carriage on my own so I walked the length of the train, looking for a compartment that already had someone in it. I didn't find one. When I got right to the front the driver opened his door and asked me if I was okay. I explained and he said, oh, you can come in with me if you like. Those were the days; health and safety and tight security wouldn't allow it now. So I rode home in the front of the train, watching the rails stretch out before me in such an unaccustomed way, getting the strangest sense of freedom, of life coming up with so many unexpected opportunities. It was always going to be like that, wasn't it? Those were the days when you could visit the cockpit  of a passenger jet and get the same feeling of liberation; the whole sky was open to me, it felt like I had wings myself and the clouds were a real carpet beneath me, to be dived into like water should I choose to do so. I was brought back to earth a bit when I asked the pilot what those lights were, far below. He got out a road atlas, studied it for a moment and then said, "Milan, I think." It all seemed a bit too low-tech, but comfortingly normal.

Me at art school in the sixties

Oh, the older I get the clearer student memories become, and what happened last week gets lost in the mists of time. There was no student accommodation when I went to art school in Nottingham. I was given an address of a boarding house, but it was full. So we all rented rooms in buildings that should have been condemned, and shared kitchens that were serious health hazards. We painted our walls purple, drank lots of cheap cider and made our own clothes. We hitchhiked everywhere, and met some really interesting people as it was an acceptable and an environmentally friendly way to travel. I had lifts in Bentleys and E-type Jaguars and transcontinental lorries. Those were the Days was a hit for Mary Hopkin at the time, although I was acutely aware that it was a period of my life that would never be repeated. I didn't think for one moment that those days would never end, as the song suggested I would think. I knew I should soak up every bit, because even though I was at art school I knew I wanted to be a writer. And clearly, I did soak it up, and it's verging on the realms of the historical now, and that's a safe time-frame with no Covid and no global warming (that we knew of)  and no AIDS and no cyber bullying.

Remember those little things. Those little details. Izal toilet paper, that was like wiping your bum with transparent colour supplements. Not everyone had a telephone. Or a car. Or even a fridge. We stood the milk bottles in pails of water if there was going to be a thunderstorm to stop the contents going off. Bus conductors, who knew who you were and would ring the bell between bus stops if they saw you. Sweets that came in big glass bottles and were weighed out on scales, and given to you in paper bags. Crisps that came with little twists of blue paper containing the salt. Strawberries were seasonal. You only got them from June until August. The same was true of asparagus, peas, beans, rhubarb. We lit coal fires in the winter, and limited baths to once a week - whether we needed them or not, as my mother would say. It sounds like something out of Dickens, doesn't it? But for those of us of a certain age, it's all still there to plunder as the material we come up with may be fresh and new for millennials. 

I'll just go and douse myself in goose fat and stitch myself into my winter woollies...


This rang a lot of bells for me, but I did live in student accommodation when I went to university. One thing that strikes me, looking back, is that I didn't eat spaghetti bolognese until I left home - although our diets didn't seem all that boring at the time, they did lack a lot of the variety we are now used to.
I don't think people generally understand how different everything was then, particularly attitudes and expectations.
Peter Leyland said…
Absolutely. I remember at my first university lodging house being bawled out by 'Mrs Wilson' because I had forgotten to clean the bath. I rapidly moved to share a flat with three other blokes. I can't remember any housework or washing of sheets there but I do remember making spaghetti bolognese! I often wonder about memory and how accurate we can be. I made a study of this with an artist friend who was researching 'aha' moments. I thought that your story of sitting at the front of the train with the driver was one of those. This piece made a good start to my day Thanks Elizabeth.
Susan Price said…
I remember Izal toilet paper. Whoever thought that was a good idea?

I can remember food being seasonal -- and a time when Easter eggs were limited to a few days around Easter; hot cross buns were only available on Good Friday; and fireworks could only be bought shortly before Nov 5 and were rarely let off on any day except November 5.

I like a lot about the present day (internet, tablets, Skype and Zoom) but I've always felt these festival days were more special when they were limited. You looked forward to them and appreciated them more.

What else do I remember? The houses of my childhood had one heated room. In winter, the rest of the house was arctic. There would be beautiful frost patterns on the windows and ice on the inside.

Going to bed in winter meant being flattened under a great weight of heavy woollen blankets which did very little to make you warm. Your hot water bottle quickly went cold and was icy. You dared not move because outside the precious little bubble of warmth your body eventually created, it was shockingly cold. -- I tell you, the duvets I encountered when I was about 20 were a revelation. Light, and actually warm! I bought one for my parents as a Christmas present and they were so impressed, they splurged and bought duvets for my younger brothers.
Umberto Tosi said…
Your memoir vignettes, so poetically described, triggered my own and inspire me to write them down before they fade back into the blur of hurried existence. Thank you.
Deserted train... much like trains today, then :-)

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