Tuesday, June 23, 2009

trapped in the past


It occured to me the other day that I am sinking into yesterday.
I only need to say "yesterday" and I think of the sad chords of the Beatles song. And when I think of sinking, I imagine the fabled bogs on Dartmoor and the tales my parents used to tell me when I was on holiday there about Old Uncle Tom Cobley who loaded his friends on the back of a gray mare cum makeshift taxi service on the way to Widecombe Fair.
Widecombe Fair was one of those jolly japes that ends in tears. All the people on the mare mysteriously disappeared - my parents speculated they were sucked up in a bog - but on a ghostly night out on the moor you can still hear the "old mare in her rattling bones."
Dartmoor can be a bleak and windswept place but I miss it to bits.
I have fond thoughts of the weak sunlight on the day I followed a flint strewn path by a clear stream up the escarpment into trees that radiated the reds, oranges and yellows of fall. And the pictures I took of the gnarled trees that had bowed to the wind on the edge of the bare moor.
We stood there smugly in our fake Barbours admiring a distant church tower and heard the peal of bells carried by a hestitant wind on one of those timeless afternoons.
The girl I was with then drifted away later like one of the grey tinged clouds that race across the rocky tors and are a distant memory 20 minutes later.
I don't think about her much now and when I do my thoughts are most pervese.
I find myself wondering what happened to the Italian-bound leather wedding album that cost about $3,000. I mean what good are such fragmented memories to anyone?
Is there a day of the year when someone somewhere brings it out and lights candles for all the failed marriages since Adam and Eve started bickering over fruit?
And how could all those weeks of agonizing about cake colors and who to invite have ended more than seven years later with a phone call that went something like: "How's the cat?"
"He's dead."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't."
And the line went deader than a feline for ever. Just like that. And now I can never think of the conversation without conjuring up an image of Paul Daniels in his faux magician weaseldom.
"You'll like it. Not a lot but you'll like it."
- I'll like it about as much as a dead cat but what is dead can't be made undead nor said unsaid. I think that's my problem.
Dartmoor on the other hand is less easy to erase. It has a lowering presence and majesty.
Back in the day when I was consumed with enthusiam about journalism and its infinite possibilities I went up to Princetown to take pictures of the hulking great Victorian prison whose granite walls cast a shadow that even a sunny day can't dispell.
The jail, like the prison project I labored on at journalism college, speaks to my past but says little of the future.
Back in the 19th century desperate prisoners would attempt to flee the prison's damp and cavernous spaces in ankle chains only to be cut down by the wind on the moor, flurries of snow and those lurking bogs.
I fear the past is becoming my ankle chain too.
I have worked at places where young reporters have looked at me blankly if I've mentioned Duran Duran. When the Reflex was number one in the charts, the only reflex they were aware of was a twitch in the birth canal.
And to the Ipod generation, the charts are a meaningless concept as alien as a granite prison anchored to a moor.
It used to matter to be Number One; but then I suppose it used to matter if your suit of armor was properly oiled.
Mention Top of the Pops and Pan's People - the dance group my father used to be overly attentive to in the five minutes before he was slapped by my mother - today and you might as well say: "I went to school with Emily Bronte - nice girl, a bit gloomy, though."
I'd like to say I'll get over my obsession with the past but it seems to be getting worse.
Today in 7-Eleven I found myself muttering the words of a Doors song and I can't get enough of the Stones every time they are played on the radio; I end up thrashing my arms around in my car, gathering more strange looks as I veer across the Interstate.
The Stones aren't even my generation but I think I need to buy their cassette.
And every time someone talks about Jon and Kate, Kirstie's weight or Cher's daughter's sex change, I alternately want to disappear into my shell or scream.
Then my mind goes into overdrive. I want to find a way I can turn the conversation to Napoleon's ill fated retreat from Moscow but start talking about 1812 at a party and everyone looks at you like you're a freak.
It's worth persevering to my mind. The next time you are wedged in a kitchen sipping watery Millers between two crushing bores in baseball caps who are jumping up and down about the Steelers' latest win, try loudly interjecting with an observation about how Hannibal made a key strategic error in the Second Punic War. It's worth it for the reaction.
Because let's face it - the past beats the present hands down. There were great movements, ideas and thinkers all cast in the foundry of constant fear and the spectre of suffering.
Today's generation has it all at the push of a button. But by being visually richer we are spiritually poorer. Somebody else has given us the imagination thing and we have burned our own imagination out on the X-box.
Meanwhile the answer lies unopened on the library shelf.

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