“The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” Walter Benjamin
Officially, I hate the place. I’m as rude about it as I was about the pissy little villages that posh girls at university came from when I thought I came from somewhere big. It’s boring, it’s a desert, it’s too far out of London; it has all the multicultural mix of the inner city with none of the excitement, it’s a pit. But lately it’s become the kind of rude that only I’m allowed to be, a kind of family rudeness.
And rather rudely, my mum’s selling the house I grew up in. I go back, to fetch the last few things of mine, and then again, to help her pack books into boxes. I don’t feel much when I look at the pebbledashed front of the house for the last time, but as I go up and down the stairs to the loft, bringing piles of books down from the boxroom I remember how long ago the loft extension was built and I’m slightly amazed that the bare wooden stairs should remain so sturdy, so solid. I spend a last night in my old bedroom, now decorated more tastefully than I ever had it, and it strangely doesn’t feel like mine at all.
I go back so infrequently that changes there happen faster, like a time-lapse flower opening. On one visit, a jackhammer-tongued demolition vehicle is chewing at the steel-reinforced concrete of the bridge we used to cross to get from the end of the road to the green. A few visits later and new flats have already replaced the car parks whose up and down ramps helixed inside each other like DNA. The old tower blocks opposite the green where Vince (now dead) and Helen (last seen on Western road in Brighton, repping for Turnaround) lived the summer I was fifteen, were taken down layer by layer, brick by brick, too perilous a prospect for the Hackney-style dramatic blow-down.
Even the fabric of the little Y-shaped corner that was my own has rippled and shifted, mostly with houses built where once there were not houses. It’s a long time since the old kosher food warehouse and factory became houses, followed by my old school. The gaps are filled in: the corner just beyond where the Ruganis’ corner shop used to be, the garages at the end of the road. All now houses. Looking for links to point at, online references, I realise that one of the hardest things to find on the web is a record of the middle-distant past. If it happened five years ago and someone noted it at the time, it may well still be there. Fifteen years ago is a desert. A name changes, a school moves, and the only record left is locked up in a library, a dusty archive of local papers.
Digging out the last of my stuff I find a poster I made of photos R and I took of our mammoth graffiti mission around Enfield: all night we drove round Edmonton, Enfield, Southgate spraypainting slogans on walls and bus- shelters: against the poll tax, for freeing the Tottenham Three, even daring to add our own slogan to the A10 bridge over the railway known forever as the “Hello Auntie Jilly” bridge. The evening culminated in painting red stencilled hammer-and-sickles on the windows of the Southgate Conservative Club, then Michael Portillo’s constituency headquarters. The next morning, we got up and retraced our steps, photographing our handiwork. Alas, by the time we got there the Conservative Club had already cleaned its windows.
The paint has gone, the house is sold, a new family are moving in. It’s not just the past that’s a foreign country.