Reclaiming the past

What is it about a song that it suddenly transports you back to another time and place, and evokes all the different emotions associated with it? There are some places in the recesses of my memory that I’ve haven’t visited for a very long time. I’ve not experienced major trauma in my life, unlike some of the people I met when I was a practicing clinician, but I’ve still locked places, events, moments, away in the corners of my mind and every now and then something triggers them back into my consciousness.

I was at a concert the other evening when I heard an old Scottish folk song I hadn’t sung since my childhood. Suddenly I was transported into the past. I hadn’t thought about it in years but I could remember singing it at school, and at home with my mother, who loved singing too. We often sang at home- it was probably the only time my mother and I were ever in harmony.

The feelings stirred up by those ten minutes of music have stayed with me all week. I’ve been dreaming again about my childhood when I’ve not done that for some time. There are some things I want to recall, and others I don’t but my mind seems to want to churn away at those memories until I’ve unlocked a few more dusty cabinets in my brain and rifled though them. It’s at the very least a disconcerting feeling, yet it doesn’t stop me brooding on it.

Repressing memories and the feelings they arouse is something everyone does, but some of us do it more than others. I know why I do it. I’ve managed some difficult times by packing away memories and the people and places associated with them. It’s remarkably easy to do. You simply move on and start again, promising yourself that you will get in touch with the friend who has been bereaved but to whom you find it hard to talk because it evokes too many memories of losing people who have been important to you; go back to the place you lived at a complicated time in your life when both wonderful and awful things happened to you, because you cannot face dealing with those emotions again- so you lose touch with all the people you knew there. It’s just too painful so you avoid it. You don’t go back.

The danger of doing this repeatedly is that you can become almost a person without a past- and that isn’t only a potentially lonely place to be. It also means you cannot always be sure who you really are. You tear up your roots each time you move on leaving little trace behind, either where you have been, or in your conscious memories. Or at least that’s how it’s been for me. Sometimes I find it difficult to make any sense of my life because for many years I almost never returned to anywhere associated with the past. This included my childhood home, place I visited in my youth, even the city where I went to university. For more than two decades I avoided going back to the town in which I spent the first 18 years of my life. What I do know is that it’s not easy to exorcise ghosts, but it is possible. A consequence of psychotherapy was that I was able to do quite a lot of this emotional work, its just not complete yet. I’ve been able to revisit many of these places in recent years, but it still doesn’t feel like I’ve completely reclaimed them, and allowed myself to acknowledge their importance in my past. I’m not entirely sure why.

And the Scottish folk song? It was Charlie is my darling sung by Eddie Reader in concert with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, although she performed it with the more racy lyrics written by Robert Burns than the version I remembered. My mother was Scottish, and when I was a child in England I was very conscious, and proud, of being half Scottish and half English. We visited Scotland on holiday, but not the part that I live in now in Orkney, or the tourist routes of Highlands with the views I still associate more with the pictures on tins of shortbread than reality. We went to North Lanarkshire, where my grandfather had been a miner, and my uncle a steelworker at Ravenscraig. I shared a bed with two of my cousins in the overcrowded house in which they lived on the Whitehill estate- which has the dubious reputation of being one of the first places in Britain to impose a youth curfew, to try and get children off the streets at night. It wasn’t pretty, and I was always aware I didn’t fit in somehow. I didn’t speak with the same accent, didn’t have (quite) the same approach to alcohol and I wasn’t at all preoccupied with whether you wore blue or green on a Saturday. I wasn’t used to knowing who was a protestant and who was a catholic in your street like my cousins were. But I am aware that my grandfather, who I never knew, belonged to the local Orange Lodge. He was active in that sectarian tradition of central Scotland that I totally abhor. And when my relationship with my mother deteriorated to the point that we cut off contact, it became somehow harder than ever to feel an affinity with the place of her birth. But if there are Scottish genes in me, that’s where they come from. I still feel a bond with Scotland. I went to university there. I’ve travelled all over it. I was even married to a Scotsman- for a while and I live there some of the time now. But at the same time, it sometimes feels like I can’t really claim an honest connection because that part of my early life that provides a tangible link has been locked away. I haven’t really dealt with it because isn’t ‘me’.

A couple of years ago, I travelled to Glasgow by train for the first time in 30 years to examine a PhD student, and was suddenly and powerfully transported into the past as I walked out through the concourse of Glasgow Central. I remembered going into the city for the day on the train in the 1960s, across areas that were almost derelict and due for demolition. For someone from the rural east of England, it was like travelling through another universe. I’ve driven up the M74 many times, past the exit for Hamilton, and all the signs for the places that remind me of day trips in my childhood. But I’ve never been back to where my family comes from. I’ve lost touch with both family and place and in doing so I’ve cut out another part of my life.

Perhaps the real message of the song for me was it’s time for me to revisit the place that evokes those memories, if not the people. It’s far too late for the latter and I doubt I would ever be welcome. But I need to reclaim the past, to reconcile myself a little more with who I am and where I come from- while I still can.

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