Walking through Chinatown this evening, there seemed a sense of detachment. San Francisco is the place of the cop shows of childhood days, but life seems not to have the intensity of those times. Moments from childhood holidays remain fresh long after recent times are forgotten.
We had an old Austin Cambridge, (I knew it was old, there was no letter at the end of the registration number and this was England in the 1970s) it was slow and steady and very spacious. The back doors had windows that wound down and triangular shaped quarter-lights in the curve of the back door that let in air without causing discomfort to everyone else.
The quarter-light was my plan to stay awake. We slipped away from home at just after midnight; the three children sat in the back with pillows and told to go to sleep. We rolled through the deserted streets of the little town nearby to our village and I unclipped the quarter-light and gently pushed it open. I had figured that I could lean against the door with my pillow, appearing to be asleep, while my elbow was pushed out through the quarter-light into the cold night air; the chill would ensure that I did not fall asleep. We were heading deep into Cornwall in August 1973, it was five years since I had been in the county, and I was going to savour every moment of this holiday, including the night journey westwards.
Of course, at twelve years of age, staying awake through the early hours of the morning doesn’t come easily, especially in the back of a big car. Inevitably, I fell asleep and woke with a numb elbow, somewhere in Devon, before dozing off again to wake again in broad daylight. What mattered was making the most of every moment of that holiday, one which I still remember in great detail.
There are moments when there seems to be a heightened awareness of things, moments when the layer of time between things long past and the present reality seems very thin. There are moments when you almost expect to see people as they were in the scenes that replay in the mind.
There is a moment in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveller where there is a character riding through rural Mexico at daybreak on a day long past, the moment described has the intensity of a childhood memory, every sense seems alive to the overwhelming reality of the surroundings. Travelling to Cornwall in an old Austin Cambridge does not compare with the genius of Calvino, who sweeps through a series of plots and characters in a book that seems more a kaleidoscope than a novel, the picture changing with each turn of the page, but for a moment you feel you know what he is saying. The scene has the heightened reality of a night drive through the West Country.
Perhaps there is a natural sense of intensity when we are young that must be sought after as the years pass.