The Ghosts Of Memory

Yes, I have a book just out (The Hanging Psalm, set in Leeds in 1820 if you haven’t been paying attention) and the launch is Thursday, October 4, 6.30 pm at Waterstones in Leeds. I truly hope you’ll come.

But that’s not what I want to write about this time.

I’ve been re-reading a fascinating book (Haunted Weather by David Toop), one section of which deals with soundmarkers that can conjure up memories. This set me thinking about similar markers that bring the past crashing into the present for me.

The most obvious is smell. For me, that has to be a coal fire. Very occasionally, I come across them – early in Spring there was one as we walked by the canal in Hebden Bridge, certainly smokeless now. It tumbled me back through time.

We lived in a 1930s semi. A fireplace in the living room that my mother would clean and where she’d set a fire every morning. It fed the back burner in the kitchen (we also had a gas stove). Another fireplace in the front room, only used on Sundays, where my father would go to write. A third in my parents’ bedroom, which I only recall being lit once. The coalman hauling those hundredweight sacks of slack on his shoulder and tipping them into the coal hole. The coalman was a recognisable local figure, the same as the man who deliver pop (Corona) or the rag and bone man with his horse and cart.

Even after all these years, I could still make a fire, I can remember how to twist those sheets of newspaper and bend them round.

The smell of coal was ubiquitous then. Every house used it for heat, and the air was dirty. Every man and boy had grimy rings around their shirt collars. Ring around the collar was even a phrase used in ads for detergent.

Now, that smell seems as rare as diamonds. Not a bad thing in itself at all. But what it can evoke is more than a single thing, it’s an entire life. My mother would only make Yorkshire pudding in the back burner; probably the way she was taught. And so coal brings the memory of the fat sizzling in the pan before the batter was added. It makes me think of winter mornings with frost inside my bedroom window.

So many things, really.

But what about sound? Perhaps curiously, what springs to mind isn’t any natural sound at all. We lived in the Leeds suburbs, we weren’t surrounded by nature. It’s the radio. My mother loved the serial Mrs. Dale’s Diary – if I remember right, it was on at 4.15 in the afternoon. She play it on the transistor in the kitchen as she cooked. I’d be on the lino floor, taking things from my toy box which sat in a cupboard there. I’d play while she worked. I didn’t listen to the show, but somehow I took in a little of it by osmosis ‘I’m rather worried about Jim…’

And the other formative sound? It has to be this.

Like virtually every child of my generation, Listen With Mother was a ritual. I was lucky, we had a television, so I also had the chance to see Watch With Mother, a double helping. Until I started school, it was one of the markers of the day. We’d be back from shopping, my mother would have a cup of tea, and I really would listen with mother.

The book is right. Sound and smell are portals to the past, the doors that hold the ghosts of memory we believe we’ve forgotten, and on the surface we probably have.

It’s one reason I try to use them in my books, I suppose, knowing the power they have, and can bring, even to people who’ve never experienced a city where you can taste soot in the air, or where bronchitis isn’t a common winter ailment any more. And the sounds of industry, of the wheels of a tram, the calls of traders in the market…all of these things are part of a common memory that can bring the past to life.

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