May 23, 2022
A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is widely regarded, especially among those of us who have not read it, as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Its most famous passage occurs early on, when the narrator is transported, involuntarily, back into his childhood, by some cake crumbs in his tea. So begins a seven volume sequence of reflection and reminiscence which redefined the limits of the novel, and indeed of the average reader’s patience. Patience, I am assured, well-rewarded.
For many years, though, I would read the first few chapters of that book over and over, and fall asleep feeling puzzled. Could the past really lie dormant in anyone’s mind, like a Sleeping Beauty? Waiting for the kiss of a Madeleine to reawaken the whole castle and cast of characters among whom one had lived and danced so recently? My own past did not seem so remote.
When I learned that Proust had begun his novel, and so presumably seized upon his conceit, before he was 40, my scepticism only deepened. Perhaps it was a French thing, but that struck me as a young age to go into reverse gear.
I am 57 now, though. And the sense of the past being, if not lost, then certainly behind frosted glass, does not strikes me as contrived.
Memory is no longer stretched smoothly across the span of my life, like a tablecloth across a picnic table, or a patient etherised upon a table, awaiting dissection. Past events are no longer presented as a feast in buffet form for me to hunt, peck and nibble as I please. Rather, remembering alone, is like reading the past by lightning – or, to continue with the buffet metaphor, a seemingly random selection of well-lit bowls and platters are there, but separated by dark pools where I cannot even be confident there is table, let alone food.
So, yes, it does take certain triggers, certain stimuli, to awaken the scene again, and to hear the laughter, and allow the bowls to rise again like lilies on the surface of that dark, silent pool.
One such re-awakening occurred recently, perhaps because I had sensed at the time that it one day would. Twelve years ago, we were living in a house that had a central, narrow hall, with a lounge on one side, and a kitchen on the other. And one day, I was sitting in the lounge, watching my daughter, Matilda, then aged six, walk back and forth across that frame, the window of those two open doors. Anxiously back and forth she went, collecting up her things. She was wearing her new school uniform, and I think she was anxious about school. Briefly visible again, and then gone. Visible, gone. And I suddenly had a vision, of this being a sequence of her growing up, like a little flick book, of her being a little older each time she crossed the gap.
I think it was probably inspired by a John Lewis ad then popular – She’s Always a Woman to Me. I was certainly aware that it was already a “trope”. But that made it no less powerful. I suddenly saw her at 9, 12, 15, her schoolbooks a little larger and more cumbersome each time, and her anxieties too… and then at 18, passing one last time, before she swept out of our lives for good.
And then like the destructive beast that she was, she burst the bubble. The next time she crossed back again, she saw me, and came and jumped on my lap, and my reverie ended.
Last Friday, the prophecy was fulfilled. It is arbitrary, of course - there is no decisive event, with these things, you have to choose one. Matilda is still living with us – and yes, she’s still anxious, anxious now about her first A level which she has on Monday. But on Friday I picked her up from school on her last “real” day. No more lessons, no more school run, no more screaming “Tilda!!!” up the stairs at 7.45am. Just for fun, they all wore their old uniforms to school one last time – not required since the upper fifth – and waiting outside the school, seeing her in uniform one last time, books tucked under arm, the Madeleine landed on my tongue like a magnesium flare. Rather than her 18th, or getting her grades and her place at Uni, or our first visit to A&E at 2.00am on a Friday night, this day chose itself, as the decisive moment. Matilda Rose Evans, all grown up.
What happened to those twelve years? I swear, gun to my head, I could no more than shrug and gesture at the sky. Is there any greater cliché, that separates the old from the young, than that the old cannot say where it went?
Earlier still, eighteen years ago, when she was barely three months old, we took her, in a papoose, to Charleston Farmhouse, the old rural retreat for the draft-dodging Bloomsbury set, where they weaponised their, let’s say, unevenly distributed artistic talents to justify their understandable disinclination to fight.
An old volunteer NT lady was standing sentry on one of the rooms over which this uniformly over-indulged set had scrawled their nest-fouling decorative improvisations. This woman caught my eye as I entered the room with Matilda’s bobbing head vaguely cradled in my inexpert hands, smiled and said, in a sternly prophetic voice - somewhat at odds with the evidence all around us that some of them never do so at all - “They grow up too fast.”
Already aware of a back ache that was soon to grow to near excruciating levels of discomfort before Matilda could reliably walk, I was inclined to say that on the contrary, it couldn’t happen fast enough. But I didn’t. I bit down, and I waited. And eighteen years later, here we are. And she was right.
Time, time, time… See what's become of me.
While I looked around for my possibilities, I was so hard to please… But look around. Leaves are brown.
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.
But now I go further back still, more than twelve years, more than eighteen, before Matilda or her mother have entered my life. So far back, my memory seems almost to be in a different format - 35mm perhaps, or VHS? It's the nineties, and I’m standing under The Westway, near Maida Vale, talking on my pre-smart, pre-camera, pre-3G phone to Mike Logsdon, an analogue friend and one of the very best people I’ve ever known. A dear friend, from the first few weeks of University, in ’83, and never once doubted since. Universally loved, and the heart of many an impromptu family that have formed around him - including the one that has sustained me in the years immediately after leaving University, without having a clue what to do next. Funny, fearless, open hearted, loving and warm but mischievous and cynical too, all in exactly the right proportions. Pretty much bullet proof, in fact. Or so I thought. But he’s about to take the wind out of my sails, big time.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it tonight, sorry. Not feeling too great.” “Oh, sorry to hear that, Mike - what is it? Touch of man flu?” "No, bit more serious than that, I’m afraid … [and here, there should be an ellipsis as long as the orbit of the moon]… HIV.”
I can close my eyes and see the grey skies, the tower blocks, the traffic roaring overhead. I remember the pause as I tried to process what I thought I'd just heard, and where the error was. Because what I had heard, then, sounded an awful lot like a death sentence.
How could this happen? Of course, I knew Mike was a bit reckless generally - on scree, or overhangs, especially, so not hard to imagine, in bed and and in gyms too. And like a lot of gay men – let’s not beat about the bush, he didn’t, after all – he enjoyed the frisson of the bareback ride, and worse. But just like him, I suppose, I never thought… well, you know the song.
And so the clock started ticking. And kept ticking. Yet somehow, the other shoe never dropped. Mike... didn’t die. Somehow, he caught the crest of a medical wave I didn’t even know existed at that point, and for the next thirty years remained gloriously aloft on a growing understanding of how to mitigate and force into retreat the most feared disease of my generation. He lost a good deal of his gym bunny physique, and just a pinch of his devil may care, invincible aura, that eternal summer he had once seemed to carry in his eyes. But long before it was a hit song, he defied gravity, and on we all went.
He then caught hepatitis too, and on being told that he was henceforth no longer allowed to drink, promptly switched his recreational go-to’s up a gear, to substances that it would never even occur to the medical fraternity to warn him against – not least because he was still at this time a functioning criminal barrister.
Gradually, over time, things began to unravel. The forty a day Dunhill habit took its toll – the most ferocious brand loyalty I have ever known anyone maintain, utterly inflexible, perhaps prompted by the fact that he had the classic rolled gold lighter, too. That didn’t help, and nor did the ruinous attempt to keep the loves of his life, notably the gorgeous dancer Chris, in the style to which he had grown accustomed - a weakness which would have been familiar to anyone au fait with the traditional delusions of previous generations of middle-aged lawyers, even if this particular indulgence was six foot four and had muscles like Shergar.
But still, when it was time for the first of the gang to die, it was not Mike who clocked out early. It was poor, blameless Jim, lovable, sweet Jim, devoted to rugby and reggae and his rural Oxfordshire village life, who liked a pint and fag, sure, but got plenty of fresh air and exercise in the form of Aunt Sally in his local every Thursday and never courted disaster as Mike had, and certainly not in the form of the stomach cancer which carried him off almost two years ago to the day. We wept and we mourned, but somehow, I think, we all quietly kidded ourselves that in some strange, ineffable way, Jim had selflessly stepped up and cleared Mike’s debt to mortality.
Fools, that we were. The Big D is not so easily cheated.
This week, that other shoe finally dropped. Wolfie – Mike's very best mate - was expecting him for Sunday lunch. When he didn’t show up, he went to check on him, and found him at home, in a bit of a state. Short of breath, angry, confused, and somewhat scared. He took him back with him and then, seeing that he was still bad the next morning, into St Thomas’s. They diagnosed a badly weakened heart – and to be honest, if it hadn’t been at this point he could have sued Dunhill for whatever the tobacco equivalent is, of watering the gin. They kept him in for tests.
I went to visit him on the Thursday. He was in excellent spirits. Funny, wry, articulate, his familiar, scrutinising expression and mischievous sense of humour restored and all intact. Teasing the fella next to him, who had lost the front half of his right foot to gangrene, that he now looked like a young Chinese maiden from the olden times, or an expensively packaged golf club. Good, I thought. Mike is back. Obviously, I thought, he had just needed a little TLC. And he was very grateful when I went to get him some earplugs, to help him get through the night - his sleep having been badly disturbed by another amputee, one who had been sawn off a bit higher than the metatarsals, and was clearly experiencing some existential angst.
After an hour and a bit of chat about his health and prospects - a chat that was as easy as it had ever been since that day under The Westway thirty odd years ago - I bid him farewell, confidently expecting to see him again in a few days. But no. Less than 24 hours later, on the very day, the very moment that I was preparing to go and collect Matilda from her last day at school, I got the call. Mike’s sister. Unafraid of cliché, my stomach lurched, and I knew what the news would be, from the very first break in her voice.
They say it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. And of course, they* are right. But more than that, loss is love. Or rather, Love guarantees loss, and loss authenticates love. It is the obverse of the same coin, the Queen's Head, the hall mark, the stamp and seal of proof. It is only when the object is lost, that the certificate comes back with the good news. "You will be pleased to know that the bond you have forwarded to us, was 100% genuine, deep and uncut. We understand that you do not wish to sell, and indeed no longer can. But for assurance purposes, we can confirm that it was... beyond price." And so it hurts, yes, and it is desperately hollow, bewildering and sad. But also, it is strangely sweet.
If you have to ask if you’ve had it, you haven’t. If you wonder if that was it, it wasn’t. Believe me, when it comes, you’ll know. But as a good rule of thumb, grief is when you think you’re fine, and you go to say something about the loss, and the lost, and a memory you cherish, and three words in you find you’re under water.
The impact of loss changes, with age. I was sad when my grandparents died, but it wasn’t loss. Not really. Or at least, I didn’t experience it as loss. Because at that age, I was building too fast, loading up too fast, to worry about what was falling off the back.
Now, it’s different. Now I think I understand something about bereavement in later life, and it’s this. It’s another bank-side tree, on the way to the waterfall, yes. The future will now be ever so slightly, denuded. And of course it’s familiar laughter, that will never be present again - though in truth, I can still hear it now in my head, Mike laughing. It's almost alarmingly close.
But it’s also a candle you’ll never be able to light again, to see back into the darkness whence you came. A Madeleine, you’ll never be able to dunk, and taste, and inhale.
It is always, as men and women of a certain age have been telling the young and disinclined-to-hear since Homer was in short togas, later than you think. And the lights start flickering long before the final curtain falls. I wonder if, on reflection, Proust knew what was coming down the track, and was right to start getting it down on paper when he was only 38, and still had a half a chance of recherching the old temps perdus.
This I think, is why losing a daughter to adulthood, and losing a friend for good, have something important in common - even when they don’t occur with almost absurdly novelistic heavy-handedness on the very same wretched afternoon. What we have lost with both, is time.
So - what to do? Start by admitting, from cradle to grave, it isn't that long a stay? Yes, that is a good start. However surprisingly long and steep the path can seem, when one rests up from time to time, to gaze back down into the valley., the sun sets early in the mountains.
But as for me, I commend Mirth. If there was one quality that Michael Anthony Lancashire Logsdon radiated the live long day, it was mirth. He brought it with him to every blessed occasion on which I was privileged to share the air he breathed, however laboured that breathing became. And to reach for the only authority, the mention of which after that of Homer and Proust would not be an anti-climax - a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.
And every once in a while, pause. Take a slow, deliberate blink. And try and capture a snapshot in your mind. A sight, a sound, or maybe a scent - whether it is the sun setting over Buttermere and Loweswater, or just a friend's laughing face, caught by a perfect combination of firelight, whiskey and fun. Anything that you can use to drop a pin, plant a flag, drive a stake into the shining moment, to find your way when you need to. They will be like train-whistles heard in the distance at night, that map the territory of your past. As I grow older, I'm so grateful for those that I have, to be able to look back and see them glowing in the dark like campfires in the hills - waiting to warm and welcome me home once again.
*The lines, often misconstrued as mourning a romantic love, come from Tennyson's poem In Memoriam, written to process the grief he still felt for his dear friend, Arthur Hallam, dead at just 22, some 17 years earlier.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.