I decided to do a walk today, one which I would record in single words or very short phrases. I am interested in how we relate to single words and phrases when trying to picture a past experience, particularly of someone else. The following passage from Neil Hanson’s book, ‘The Unknown Soldier,’ gives a very distinct and accurate picture of a scene one of the millions of soldiers witnessed:
“Decayed sandbags, new sandbags, boards, dropped ammunition, empty tins, corrugated iron, a smell of boots and stagnant water and burnt powder and oil and men, the occasional bang of a rifle and the click of a bolt, the occasional crack of a bullet coming over, or the wailing diminuendo of a ricochet. And over everything, the larks… and on the other side, nothing but a mud wall, with a few dandelions against the sky, until you look over the top or through a periscope and then you see the barbed wire and more barbed wire, and then fields with larks in them, and then barbed wire again.”
The simple use of words makes this passage very stark and easy to imagine. We can see it because in our own minds we can easily conjure objects such as sandbags, boards, empty tins and smells such as old boots and stagnant water. My walk around Oxford would therefore be described as a list of words.
The route was as follows:
In total the walk was around 4,300 steps and I wrote 631 words, some of which are listed below:
sunshine – dappled
“…do you remember…”
smell of rubbish
red telephone box
pinks, reds, blacks
and so on…
On returning the studio, I wrote up all 631 words on a long piece of paper stuck on the wall
What I was struck by, was how they reminded me of the names carved into the walls of the Menin Gate; column after column of words which at first meant nothing, but all of which had their own unique reference. I decided to create a virtual wall of these words which gave them a very different quality:
I had thought of writing all the words as in the extract above, in a prose form, i.e. something like: “a man wears a luminous jacket, another pulls a suitcase. There’s a machine for maps and the market is on. Bicycles are propped against the wall. Nearby is a litter bin…” Adding words however makes it less authentic, and writing them in this style at the time would be far too time consuming. What is interesting however, is how the mind knits the single words together and in a way the prose form is that process – the mind fills in the blanks.
“a man wears a luminous jacket, another pulls a suitcase. There’s a machine for maps and the market is on. Bicycles are propped against the wall. Nearby is a litter bin…”
I refer to a previous entry, Reading and Experience in which I quote the following extract from Filip Muller’s, ‘Eyewitness Auschwitz – Three Years in the Gas Chambers.’
“There was utter silence, broken only by the twitterings of the swallows darting back and forth.”
As I wrote: we were not there in Auschwitz at the moment this line describes (the moment before the doomed prisoner speaks up against the camp’s brutal regime), yet we all know silence and have seen and heard swallows. So although we were not there to witness at first hand this terrible event, we can imagine a silence, a particular one we might have felt some place before, and picture a time we saw a swallow fly. We can use fragments of evidence (photographs, documentary footage) to construct a fuller picture, and fill in the gaps with fragments of own experience. When we speak the words of others therefore, those words will form pictures in our own minds drawn from our own experience.
Taking the list above and adding words to turn it into prose, is in a way similar to this filling in the gaps. In this respect, it is worth doing.
I also tried to draw memories of the walk, taking individual words and drawing the corresponding image. It has always interested me, exactly what we see when we remember something. If we could print out a memory, what would it look like? Certainly what we remember is an approximation of what we actually saw, and again, we use words to ‘join the dots’, to fill in the gaps.
I am reminded again of what I read on Memory places:
“It is better to form one’s memory loci in a deserted and solitary place, for crowds of passing people tend to weaken the impression. Therefore the student intent on acquiring a sharp and well defined set of loci will choose one unfrequented building in which to memorise places…”
The image this passage conjures is of a deserted building, one which has seen better days and is perhaps in need of restoration, a shell which needs some gaps filled.