“Yes, he was looking back, because nowadays he had forgotten who he had been when he was young.” Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
This post follows loosely from one I wrote two years ago, about nostalgia. I found the quote above while re-reading Kundera for the first time since I was about 18. In some ways I know I haven’t changed (I can identify personality traits in choices I’ve made and attitudes held going back to young childhood), and in other ways I definitely have.
The image at the top is, as the text says, of an RAF Phantom. This aircraft and others like it flew over my house regularly as a child: Leuchars is only twenty miles away. Our village by the Tay must have been a useful navigational aid on a flightpath towards the Highlands.
I was obsessed by military aircraft when I was young. Between the ages of 9 and 15 I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I joined the Air Training Corps – it’s the junior RAF, after all – as soon as I was old enough, and attended summer camps. The annual Air Show at Leuchars was something I looked forward to all year, and I collected all sorts of paraphernalia including ‘Squadron Prints’, an example of which is the image above.
Squadron Prints is a firm based in Arbroath who produce commissioned illustrations of (mostly) aircraft for (chiefly) military organisations. The quality of their work – the technical draughtsmanship and the design of the finished print – is, as you can see, superb. I had a decent collection of them when I was young (which I gave away), and have a decent collection of them now, but in the attic, untouched for years.
Looking at them gives me a pang of nostalgia for a certain period of my life. But ownership of these is a genuine guilty pleasure, because they also make me feel uneasy. After all, they’re fetished images of multi-million-pound weapons. I may like the aesthetics, but ‘form follows function’: their aim is (by and large) to kill. I’m not a pacifist: there are wars the fighting of which is justified. And I know that nations must defend their borders, interests, territorial integrity, whatever.
But it’s not just the prints. As an adult I’ve built Airfix models of these Cold War-era jets (and it may be telling that I’ve no particular interest in the military jets of other nations or eras). Is it hypocritical to appreciate a piece of functional design when you’re not comfortable with the reality of that function?
Do I feel guilty for liking them? A little. I’ve no interest in the air force nowadays, and I dislike the militarism that the media is so often complicit in celebrating. I can’t easily reconcile a fondness for these with the other aspects of my personality, unless I admit that I only like them because they remind me of a particular time (even though I’m embarrassed by the callow youth I was).
Soon afterwards, the “me” who was into planes and becoming a pilot was left behind and forgotten. The air force paraphernalia was, with very few exceptions, thrown out. A further obsession had been horror fiction, another still was environmental issues (the ozone layer was topical, and global warming – “the greenhouse effect” as it was universally called then – was first making the news).
All these different versions of me co-existed. They were compartmentalised and never impinged on each other. In that regard, I haven’t changed. I subscribe to the modernist belief that people are not unified wholes. I don’t know that there’s a single “me” to “be true to”, despite what Hollywood wants me to believe. There are lots of bits of me, contradictory or complementary as the case may be. We all “contain multitudes”, as Walt Whitman put it.
As an example, some time after I’d grown out of the air force obsession, my friend Will and I discovered the works of the Czech emigre novelist Milan Kundera. The jacket design of his Faber books were a huge draw and I still love that late 80s/early 90s house style:
Kundera’s work seemed sophisticated, European, adult and cool. He wrote about sex in a way that was completely different from the pulp horror authors I’d previously enjoyed (Shaun Hutson and James Herbert being the worst offenders). Sex in Kundera’s books seemed more grown-up, more strange and probably a bit unnerving to a shy, bookish teen¹. Re-reading Kundera now, I also can’t believe that I would have understood what was going on beneath the surface level of the story. The ideas and philosophical arguments that he constructs were surely above my acne-dotted head. But my point is that there’s no obvious evolution from liking planes to reading European literature. We move in jumps and starts, especially at that age when we discover new things that promise to open up the world to us.
A fine copper beech tree in our housing estate was felled recently. Fungus had attacked the roots and it was standing dead. Kids played on the stump and clambered over the pile of lopped branches (Health and Safety!) until the tree surgeons tidied the site. The tree was a good century or so old, as evinced by the rings which the stump displayed. Every year of it’s existence – every version of itself – was stored, having hardened and been grown over every year.
People don’t carry their past like that: memory prevents it. In my earlier nostalgia post I mentioned how Beckett said Proust had a bad memory, in that it was his ability to forget his past which meant it came rushing back in all it’s unadulterated clarity when he tasted the madeleine. Every time we recall something we change the original memory; time after time we remember previous rememberings. The original event – even if it seems to take more definite shape in our minds – becomes mutated. Only by forgetting things entirely can we preserve their original intensity and (contentious word) ‘truth’. Any act of recall invites mutation: a little airbrushing here, a nip & tuck there. But what sort of things do we want to forget completely? The painful or the shameful: by and large not the things we would want to recall in future days, but it’s those memories that sit as if trapped in amber, awaiting release.
Our conscious memory possibly prevents us from ever honestly and objectively examining our past, and those past selves – barring some sudden, personality-altering trauma – don’t sit as neatly stacked on top of each other in the way tree rings do. The branches of the tree would be a better analogy: some clearly grow from others, but the rest may be discontiguous.
¹I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but his writing is also problematic in it’s rendering of women.
Image credit: (c) Squadron Prints