Today, my brother Simon and I took a trip down memory lane and visited New Marston First School which had opened its doors as part of its anniversary celebrations. The school had opened in 1949 and 27 years later, in 1976 I began my time there, leaving four years later to attend Northway Middle school. Simon had started three years earlier than me and it was hard to believe that some 30 years and more had passed since that time. I can still recall quite clearly my time at nursery (a stone’s throw away) and my first visit to the school when I was four years old. I’d made a picture of a lamb with polystyrene balls – or rather out of polystyrene balls I should perhaps say. And so there I was today, almost ten times the age I’d be when I first walked through the gates; if I was to return ten times my current age I’d be getting on for 400; dead in other words and a little upsetting for the children of 2409.
Almost straight away, as soon as we walked through the gates I began to feel a wave of nostalgia flooding not so much over me, but within me; ‘welling within me’ would perhaps be a better phrase for I could sense the place physically; I could recall walking there as a child. Much of it looks much the same, although of course things have changed, a few new doors, a new bicycle shed (or is it shelter now?) and so on, but essentially little else had been altered. However, after 30 years or more things are bound to be different and nowhere was this more evident than at what had been the swimming pool; a place beloved by my nostalgic mind, but loathed at the time by my feeble little body.
The changing rooms were always, to say the least, basic; sheds (or were they shelters?) comprising holes, breezeblocks and a corrugated roof. They were insubstantial then and just about standing in their decrepitude now, but the pool itself, if anything does remain is now lost in a jungle of trees, brambles and weeds. I couldn’t imagine a scene more different from what I could remember; indeed, if the whole plot had been cleared and a new block built in its place it wouldn’t have seemed as changed. It was shocking to see that part of my childhood had already become in part a ruin – but not just a ruin, rather, one undiscovered in the midst of sprawling vegetation. The swimming pool had become the equivalent – albeit less dramatic – of a Mayan temple lost in a Mexican jungle.
Nature was reclaiming a part of my childhood, much as it had recovered the graves I’d seen at Highgate cemetery and I was reminded of the words of Walter Benjamin and his concept of ‘Natural History’ which is not, as we might suppose, the history of nature, but rather a term to describe the manner in which the ‘artefacts of human history acquire an aspect of mute, natural being at the point where they begin to lose their place in a viable form of life.’ I’d always thought about this definition in respect to ruins and other monuments of the past, and yet here it was, perfectly illustrated at the remains of a pool in which I used to swim (and in which I’d gained my 10 metre swimming badge).
Standing at the back of the pool and looking into the undergrowth, I could almost hear the sound of the water; I could remember the grey clouds which always seemed to gather whenever it was swim-day. And looking at the backs of the changing rooms, I could see in my mind’s eye, the board on which the temperature was always chalked and which was never above 16oC.
Inside, the school had changed very little. The main hall straight in front was everything I remembered it being – although there was a new floor (the old floor was a brown tiled one with a tennis court marked – for some reason – in tape) but before we could go inside we were greeted and taken to the ‘anniversary display’ in what was, in our day at least, the east-end of the school and a very different place to the west. It has to be said that the display left something to be desired. There were a few documents from the 1950s and 90s, but very little from the 70s which rather surprised me. Still, I was rather more interested in looking around and walking the length of the ‘east-end’ corridor the memories soon returned. But these memories were not so much of specific things but rather a general sense of having been there before a long time ago. They were memories insofar as I could recall images, albeit vague, and could recognise differences (it’s in the differences – what’s not there and what has been added – that memories are perhaps most clearly defined), but these memories were as much physical as cerebral; they were sensations rather than impressions. Now this may not be the time to begin discussing the kinaesthetic nature of memory or the notion of consciousness as corporeal (embodied mind as opposed to a mind/body dualism) but I was interested in how my visit to the school would help me in my recent work with phenomenological perception… but more of that later.
At the end of the east-end corridor is a small incline on which we used to stand in line to get our dinner. The canteen itself has now been moved (to what was a cloakroom) but looking at the room from the outside I couldn’t get over how small it was. My memories of the canteen have always been of a large room, full of echoes in which hundreds of children sat and ate their food. Looking at it today I could see how my memory had ‘grown’ the interior to match my body in the years that had passed. It was a fraction of the size I’d remembered.
Looking at what is now called the sports hall – opposite what was the canteen – I could see that something was different but couldn’t tell exactly what that something was. Initially, and consciously at least, I thought that nothing much had changed, but a change had been registered somewhere, because when we went outside, I could see straight away that most of the old large windows had been blocked off which answered the question ‘what’s different?’ that had been there all the time.
The more we walked through the school, so more changes became apparent. Where the school had previously been one long corridor, there were now several doors dividing it up. This, I would imagine, has as much to do with fire safety as anything else and called to mind how when we were at school the fire alarm was the headmaster, Mr. Norris, who during drills walked through the school ringing a bell. In the event of a real fire, one imagines he might well have run rather than walked and shouted ‘Fire! Get out! Get out!’ just to be sure.
In the main hall, which we’d glimpsed when we first arrived, things – apart from the floor and a scattering of technology – had changed very little. The wall-bars still stood against one of the walls and the stage still stood musing upon my past successes.
Boy in dressing gown was one notable part. A snake-charmer in Little Mookra another. But the crowning achievement was Prince Florenzel in Snow White. When I was meant to be proclaiming to the audience of my love for Snow White I was indisposed in the toilet. The stone steps leading to the stage (from the toilet) are still as they were; as clear and as sparkly as the memory itself. Indeed, along with these steps, there was a lot that was quite unchanged.
The clothes pegs, benches and shoe-baskets of one of the old cloakrooms were still in place. But it wasn’t so much things still in situ or things that had changed which prompted a rush of memories, as the line we were walking.
What was most familiar to me as we walked through the school was the shape of the corridor, the shape of the ‘line’ we followed. Therefore, the nostalgia pangs (for want of a better way of putting it) weren’t so much the result of a mental response to the school but also a physical one. Or, to take the argument I alluded to previously, the response was that of an embodied mind; in other words, we don’t remember things in the mind and as a consequence feel a physical response, but rather they are one and the same thing. The recollection isn’t only triggered through our senses (in this case our vision) but by our physical position in a place, by our being in that place; we sense and think with our bodies.
I felt this particularly strongly in the playground in which there was a notable absence of climbing frames – proper climbing frames that is, with metal bars and concrete underneath. As I walked across the playground to the door which led back into the west-end corridor I found myself ‘physically thinking’ of times associated with my being at the school; my nan’s garden, summer holidays and our house in Coniston Avenue. It wasn’t so much just recalling memories but somehow experiencing them.
After 40 minutes or so we left, and it was a very strange feeling to walk back through the gates, doing something so clearly connected with going home, to where we lived as children. The view up the hill only served to pull the body in that direction.
Instead however we turned left and walked towards our old Middle School – Northway, which is now something of a community centre; I say something, as from the outside it looks more than a little care-worn. Again, the same pangs of nostalgia took a hold as I walked through the gate, and again these sensations came about as a result of being in that particular place. Seeing a photograph brings back memories, but that is very different to feeling them. In looking at a images of something as it was may bring about visual memories. But being in a place makes them physical
Like the swimming pool at New Marston, I haven’t seen something so fundamentally altered (and which has made such an impact on me) as the playground – or rather, the place where the playground used to be. The whole area including a large piece of land surrounding what was the second year area has now become a small housing development. The problem is that part of the school or community centre or whatever it’s meant to be now appears utterly incongruous.
To have a school gym abutting a bungalow is odd at the very least; in terms of my remembering the past and how things used to be it was utterly absurd. Of course things change, but one would have thought that planners could have been a little more imaginative in how the school was incorporated into the development and how in turn the development was incorporated into the school.
Having left the school and returned to the car we drove past our childhood home in Coniston Avenue. All roads from the two schools we’d visited seemed to take us there but when we drove past we saw clearly how the passage of time could change things, again for the worse. Since my dad left a few years back the house has gradually fallen into a state of disrepair, but this has become a whole lot worse and the house looks on its way to becoming derelict. The fences have gone, the garage is boarded up and most shockingly of all, the large oak tree which played such a part in my childhood, being feature of the small world that I knew and fuelling my imagination has been cut down. We drove past quickly so I didn’t have time to take it all in, but in that split second I found a gap which couldn’t be filled by a hundred years of looking.