My daughter moved into a new flat recently, sharing with three other students in north London. I visited her, and as we sat having tea at a café it occurred to me that my dad had grown up in the same part of the city. A few years ago I researched my family history, and while my parents were still alive, I had asked them to write down the details of their early lives. When I dug out these notes, I discovered that my dad had been born in the exact same street where my daughter now lives.
My dad’s family lived in one flat for a few years, before moving next door. While that seemed a bit mystifying, when I looked at Google Maps, I saw they had moved into the house on the corner of the street which overlooked the park. He went to the primary school in the next road, so I imagine he must have walked past my daughter’s flat most days. I picture him as a small boy in shorts, and it feels as if he is here right now. Once again, I think of the great quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This sentiment seems truer the older you get. The past seems ever-present, the dead and lost seem to be with us still. A few days after the discovery about my dad, Ben and I celebrated the 40-year anniversary of our first meeting. It is a momentous milestone to have reached, and as I looked back, I thought about how you can’t recognise the pivotal moments in your life while they’re actually happening. It’s hard to tell the difference between an average day and a life-changing one.
I found my diary from 1981 and looked up the entries for the week I left home to go to university. I’d spent the Saturday night of my 19th birthday playing a Marine Girls gig in Covent Garden, followed by an all-nighter at the Scala cinema in King’s Cross. During the week that followed, I’d hung out with friends at their newly rented flat. In some bizarre gothic mood we had decided to paint the walls black – which matched my frame of mind, since I was immersed in a fruitless, unrequited passion for a boy who was just a friend.
[see also: Onstage for the first time since the pandemic, my public and private selves are in conflict]
The night before I left home for university, I was at a party until 4.30am. I recorded nothing in my diary about packing, or being sad about moving out. There had been no shopping trip to buy lamps and cushions; there was no mention of my parents. Apparently I arrived in Hull on the Saturday at about 2pm, and my first meeting with Ben is mentioned only fleetingly. We went back to his room and listened to the Durutti Column. I didn’t record any first impressions.
Well, I didn’t know he was going to be so important. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d added more detail, as I’d like now to have a clearer picture of the evening. Ben remembers that, while we stood in the union bar, the record playing was “Souvenir” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. When I look up the lyrics they seem significant, as if someone scoring the soundtrack had wanted to make a point.
All I need is/Co-ordination/I can’t imagine/My destination/My intention/Ask my opinion/But no excuse/My feelings still remain.
Here we are, 40 years later, and my feelings still remain. When I tweeted about the anniversary, and how glad I was to have met Ben, the replies flooded in. Many people shared their own memories of meeting significant others at university, and many more said how grateful they were that we’d met because of the music we’d gone on to make. That’s a big part of it for me too, but it is outweighed by the life we made – the home, the children.
Except that when, sitting at the dinner table, I begin to tell one of those children about the anniversary of me meeting her father, she grimaces. I realise the idea of so many years is horrifying to her. When you’re young, large timescales are unimaginable, meaningless. The future is impossible to see and you’re not really even looking for it. The present is everything, until suddenly it is the past.
[see also: Covid has aged us, but a seaside sundae makes me feel ten years old again]
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West