I spent yesterday wandering around Stratford-Upon-Avon on foot, taking photos and nosing around to see what I could see. I knew it would be my last full day here for some time and I wanted to make the most of it… Sort of see what off-the-beaten-track type stuff I could find. I wasn’t even supposed to be here, really, but the theatre company whose show I was meant to be reviewing in London last night texted me at the last minute to say that their show had sold out and there wasn’t going to be a seat for me if I came so… Luckily I hadn’t bought the Nat’l Express tix back to London yet because that would have been a huge waste. So I had an unexpected extension to my stay.
I found this model rail museum in a crabbed little house on Rother St — less a museum and more of a display of a huge and elaborate model railway in someone’s front room. This five hundred year old house with short doorways, crooked timbers, and twisting stairs. Harry lives there with his wife and lets people come in on weekends to look over his two sprawling models of this area as it looked in the 40’s and 60’s respectively. And to listen to him talk about the history of the area (and the history of many other areas too, it turns out). Harry must be in his mid-seventies, and he has these two remarkable (not least for their size) models, both works-in-progress (I imagine these things are generally almost always works in progress). His son is an amateur photographer, his daughter lives in Pennsylvania in America, and his wife enjoys a tomato for lunch. On the walls there is an endless array of old photographs, drawings, and yellowing newspaper articles, many of them annotated in Harry’s careful hand, showing the rails of England and, in particular, of Stratford-Upon-Avon throughout the years.
I spent about an hour listening to Harry talk about the various landmarks which had stood here or there over the last seventy years or so, how this line or that one had changed hands, about the Great War and the Second World War, and about Flowers’ Beer. We talked about Shakespeare, America, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the RSC, and what I was really struck by was how exhaustive Harry’s body of knowledge was, how keen his memory, and how current. It wasn’t like he had a great mind for things up until about nineteen seventy, and then and there lost touch. At one point when I mentioned I had worked on Measure for Measure at RSC, he told how he had just gone and seen it the week previous and about how much he’d enjoyed it, offering a brief commentary. His abilities are undiminished with his age and he remains a sharp observer and analyst.
And it got me thinking about my own memory. Which is… Not as impressive as Harry’s. This is something I’ve thought about on a number of occasions: the seeming decline in memory-related skills I (and possibly the rest of my generation) suffer. I’m good at looking things up. I can search for and usually find pretty much whatever information I’m looking for, as long as I have access to a resource containing information on the topic. But I retain very little. Now I don’t know if Harry and his scary mind are an exception to the rule, (I suspect this is at least partially true), but for me… If I don’t scratch it down in my book, or pop online and punch it into my blog, the odds are that I will not remember some little detail, some brilliant idea, or even a name the next day. I use my aids, not as aids, but as extra memory. And it’s not that I’ve already got too much in there and I need extra space… I just remember less. Less than Harry, less than my own grandfather, less than my father. And I wonder if I am remarkable in this, or if this is a condition I share with most of my contemporaries. Is it a symptom of living in the times that I live in? Of having grown up with television, the internet, Nintendo, micro-blogs, and Sixty Minutes? Or is it just a question of laziness? A sort of lack of mental discipline afflicting my own drive and ability…
After I left Harry’s, I wandered down Scholar Ln to where it becomes Chapel Ln, and strolled into the Birthplace Trust exhibition on the site of the New Place there on the corner across from the Guild Chapel. I looked out over the gardens and examined the artifacts on display from the various levels of the digs at the former home of Shakespeare, and then, when I had had enough, I went down the street to the Garrick where I had a beer and some fish and chips. It was a strange day, outside of the pattern of the last month; the last several months. It was like a blank day. Like a day outside of time. Inside of Garricks, I chatted with a couple who were visiting for the day from just outside of Birmingham about the archetecture of the area and about whether or not the ornamental beams and Tudor-style of the facings was genuine and original or not. The man said I should visit Tewksbury if I was interested in original Tudor architecture because there were a ton of original building faces there. He talked about an inn there with a tunnel running from its basement to the cellar of the local abbey which had been built against the need to evacuate the abbey. It put me in mind of the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and when I asked him if that was when it had been made, he said it was so.
I was so … I dunno … proud of myself for being able to conjure up that little bit of information. As though I had been on Jeopardy and triumphed. But it was such a little sort of thing to remember. An obvious connection to make. And the knowledge was newly turned in my mind, as one of the plays running in rep at the Swan is about the authoring of the King James Bible. But the whole episode, the visit to Harry’s, the conversation in the pub, my minor elation, made me wonder if it would be possible for me to somehow build my memory, sharpen my retention skills, to be like Harry. If it isn’t physiological, this debasement of recollection, then there should be a way to shore up the sagging walls, buttress my mental collecting facilities. But if it’s a sign of my times, related to the digital revolution, then maybe I just need to reassess my position on the issue.
Walking home from the Garrick was cold business. The wind bit at my face and hands and chilled me through despite my several layers of clothing. Winter is coming on fast and hard and, from the looks of it, aims to take no prisoners. One good thing — I invented a new, green refridgerator… My unopened sodas lived outside on my window-sill last night. Crisp, cold, refreshing… I imagine that’s a half-remembered jingle. We probably won’t make the trip up here to Stratford-Upon-Avon again before the new year. It’s going to be bitter this year. But maybe, in the spring, if Harry’s still showing his trains, I’ll bring Trish and we can listen to learn the history we missed.