We all know about the past being a foreign country [LP Hartley, The Go-Between] and in recent days I have come to realise how true that oft-quoted phrase can be.
A large handful of well-worn postcards, wrapped in a torn plastic bag, have taken me back down the years and stirred memories that until now have remained stubbornly dormant.
As one who can hardly recall the detail of events from last month, those of my much more youthful years have long been a blank sheet.
I still remember where I lived, which of the many schools I attended, the places where I was employed. But that is mere outline, the rough sketch drawn before the picture is painted. The details have long gone – dates, names, events, conversations and so much else are almost all non-existent in a brain that otherwise still functions at a satisfactory level.
But now I have my postcards, mostly in my own handwriting to the folks at home, and they are doing a better job at stirring the memory than any expensive session on an analyst’s couch.
Like a SOCO team’s “enforcer” they have battered down a previously unyielding door into the past. Only a few words on each, but enough to trigger a name, raise a smile, answer a mystery and, of course, raise a host of many more.
For example, when did I live in Carvoza Road, Daniel Road or in Hatfield Crescent? All are locations in Truro, the city where I transformed from schoolboy to employee. They are addresses that appear beneath my name on postcards sent by my parents while, so it seems, they were on holiday trips around England.
But the family home was in Falmouth and to the very best of my knowledge it was there – and only there – that I lived throughout the three years of my time working in Truro.
Thus a window into my past has been thrown open but the view it presents is a total puzzle. Was I a boarder? Was the Miss Ditton to whom several of the cards were addressed as being “care off” a family friend, a boarding house owner, a B&B operator?
Postmarks and two separate addresses indicate I “enjoyed” two separate Truro sojourns during July and August 1955 while the rest of the family was tripping around Stratford-on-Avon, Birmingham, Sidmouth, the Lakes District and our wartime home of Fleetwood.
And not a jot of this exile remains in my memory.
Nor does my namesake, another Tony who signs off on two of the postcards sent to Corporal Berry at RAF Abingdon during my two misspent years of National Service.
In one he talks of being halfway through “my grand tour of England” and regrets that “we’ll not reach Cornwall” and in the other he reports the food and weather in Conway are excellent and urges me not to worry as he’ll be back next week.
Fine, but who the hell is/was this other Tony? Why Conway? Why should I be worried at his absence?
Churning over the old grey cells unearthed not a jot of him but his postcards help revive other memories and confirm forgotten details.
Flip through the pack – choose a card, any card, says the conjurer – and I realise I have a random, higgledy-piggledy Reader’s Digest version of my forgotten life.
“Hello from 250 miles behind the Iron Curtain” I write in one. So much was left unsaid.
On another: “Can’t resist sending a card from the most primitive place I’ve ever seen. Just returned from the ritual killing of a couple of sacrificial buffalo, a funeral and a three-day festival.”
From what was still Yugolsavia: “Been driving a car across a lake, it’s that frozen. Spent a whole afternoon on my backside in the snow – it’s called skiing.”
Feeling the heat in Israel: “A temperature of 108F should be enough to give me a tan, and have I got one! Phew, it’s hot. Am the only Englishman is a party of 20 French journalists.” Which could be the reason I detoured home via Paris. That and the El Al air hostess.
From Newcastle: “Awa’ hinnie. Passing the night here for a dinner-dance.” Don’t ask …
The nascent foodie in Barcelona: “Had a meal the like of which you’ve never seen. Paella it is, consisting of prawns, shrimps, mussels, squid in a rice dish plus chicken. The way these people eat in unbelievable.” Well, we were still emerging from food rationing.
And so much more; this was the quick contact pre-Twitter, as many words as you could squeeze into a space rarely more than two-and-a-half inches wide and deep.
Enough to prod at the dark screen clouding my memory and let in some welcome shafts of light.
And this handful is only the beginning. There are many more promised to come. So many memories to revive; so many stories to relive, and perhaps even to tell.
Watch this space.