There's a place I went to as a boy that I've wanted to go back to for a long time. Only went there the once, when I was maybe eleven, because it was on the other side of town from where we lived and did all our walks. I remember it as a ruined abbey in a meadow near a farm. And in my memory, there wasn't much left of the building, just some bits of crumbled wall and fallen stonework. There was a small pond nearby, or perhaps a patch of flooded field. And, in my memory, there was low lying mist curling around the base of the ruins.
A month ago I found myself found back in England for a melancholy reason, and while I was staying with my mother, I said, "how about we go and visit that ruined abbey?" She struggled to remember, but when I told her roughly where I thought it was, we drove over.
When we got there, though, there was no sign pointing to a ruined abbey. We asked a local, a woman heading out for a jog, but she'd never heard of it. Another lady, walking her dog, thought for a moment, and then said, "Oh, you must mean Marlin Chapel. Right near Marlin Farm." She led us to this tucked-away entrance to a narrow path that wound its way between the back gardens of houses and then out into the farmland.
Nothing about this journey so far corresponded to my memory. The really big fissure in the elegaic and idyllic mind-picture I'd cherished for years was that the bypass had been built some years subsequent to our visiting the abbey. Designed to relieve traffic through Berkhamsted, it cut right through the farmland. After descending some steep steps cut into the embankment, Mum and I took our lives in our hands and dashed across the road when a gap appeared in the oncoming 70 m.p.h traffic.
On the other side, things still weren't ringing any bells. We carried on - it was a bright, blue-skied with brisk-moving clouds kind of day, the air a little crisp - although the going was hard because rain had saturated the ground and horses had churned up the mud. We were just on the point of giving up when I saw buildings behind some trees and said "That must be Marlin Farm".
The muddy puddles were making it even more difficult and we really were thinking about just giving up, turning back. Then I saw an old chap who seemed to be the owner. I asked if he knew anything about a Marlin Chapel. Oh yes, he said, just keep going another 100 yards. He explained that this had once been a pilgrims pathway and that Marlin was a corruption of Magdalene, as in Mary.
We pushed ahead - the marshy mud worse than ever, our shoes utterly caked, the path almost impassable. If we hadn't seen that farmer, we'd surely have turned back by then. And if we had we'd have just missed it: the object of our own pilgrimage, Marlin Chapel. As he'd promised, it was only a a few minutes further up the path.
It looked nothing like my memory. Nothing at all.
For a start, there was a fence around it, which definitely hadn't been there the first time.
But the stonework didn't resemble how I'd pictured it in memory - more like standing stones, or reclining stones, as some had fallen over. Nor had they been covered in dense ivy like the ruins I now beheld. They'd been bare stone. And where was that pond?
The other big difference was that there was a sign with information about Marlin Chapel. That wasn't there before.
Generally I had noticed on recent visits to England that the countryside is a lot more "curated"
than it once was. Lots of helpful information, but also signs telling you what you couldn't do. At another local nature spot, what I'd hitherto regarded as just a hillock, now had a fence around it and a sign saying it's a barrow - a burial mound or "funerary monument" of some kind going back to the late Bronze Age.
The Marlin sign was highly informative, I'll give it that. I learned that the 13th Century chapel had been built out of clunch - a local stone from Totternhoe. Never heard of either of those before, despite growing up in the area. The chapel was a private one, built by a local lord. Its proper name is The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene. And so forth.
As we walked away I mused about how different my memory of the chapel had been - a memory that clearly had been partly rewritten by subsequent rememberings (which apparently is what happens each time you retrieve a memory: you change it).
The low lying mist, in particular, was clearly a poetic touch added after the event, a romantic embellishment.
While vaguely disappointed that the actuality didn't correspond to the memory, I enjoyed the feeling of a mission accomplished, the new word ("clunch"!) learned, some local history gleaned.
Heading back to the car, pausing every so often to scrape clumps of mud off my shoes on logs and tufts of grass, it occurred to me that there was a parallel between my encounter with the ruined "abbey" in two different phases of life, which were also two different phases of culture.... and with the changes in how we encounter and experience music.
My most vivid memory of "Sara" is hearing it as a single on the radio in early 1980 - hearing it stream out of my parents' old-fashioned radiogram in their bedroom. One of those cabinet jobs containing a record player inside and a wireless - a machine so old that the tawny-colored glass frequencies display on the front had the BBC Light Programme as opposed to Radio 1, Radio 2, etc.
I would have been sprawled on the coverlet of my parents' double bed, wintry sunlight streaming through the large window, swooning to this sound. Which must have been even more muzzy-sounding coming through the old tubes of the radiogram (mostly likely a Grundig like the one below).
At the time I would barely have known a thing about Fleetwood Mac. Just that they were huge, that they weren't New Wave, weren't my normal kind of listening (Radio One after 6 pm). I didn't know the singer's name, or what she looked like; I didn't know what the song was about. I just swooned to the sound, to the husky honey of the singer's voice and those lines "drowning / in the sea of love / where everyone / would love to drown". Sung so slurred and blurry that "drowning" sounded more like "downdnnn".
I listened in blissful ignorance.
It's hard not to see this as a pure experience, almost completely unfiltered, unencumbered with information.
The next time I heard "Sara" was when I'd bought Tusk in the late Eighties (along with Rumours and the self-titled LP with "Rhiannon" and Mirage and a Nicks solo LP or two). All off the back of my obsession with Throwing Muses - I'd been struck by a vocal resemblance between Kristin Hersh and Stevie Nicks.
My main memory of "Sara" from that time is playing it - and "Beautiful Child" - as part of a last-ditch attempt at .... not seduction.... more like testifying, or offering. An offering made in vain.
Several years later I wrote a piece about Tusk for a booklet Melody Maker pulled together on lost and forgotten albums: Unknown Pleasures. By then I'd managed to gather up a fair amount of information. I'd gone into Melody Maker's slate-blue file cabinets and photocopied interviews from the late Seventies. There was a Greil Marcus piece from the time of its release reprinted in the collection In The Fascist Bathroom. I'd seen the lyrics too.
Already this verged on too much information. It interfered with the unknowing purity of those first encounters. For instance, I'd much rather that I didn't know that the patch of singing that to me seemed like this twinkling twist of soft-focus sound was in fact "the starling flew for days". I do like those words - so Stevie! - but I'd rather just have the shapeless yearn, the liquid chime, again, if I could.
Fast forward to the present: I know the back story behind the song, various interpretations concerning who it's about and what it's about. If I had a mind to, I could hear demo versions of "Sara". Probably somewhere out there are in-depth accounts of the recording process of Tusk.
The song still amazes - the billowing production, the angel's breath harmonies, the steady yet ethereal drumming. The knowledge doesn't mar the song exactly, but it alters my hearing of it.
These days, "Sara" is most often heard in the the car. Our ten-year-old has developed a love of Fleetwood Mac - rather amazing us. She's fascinated by the Buckingham/Nicks broken romance story-line, so for her benefit I made a CD called Stevie ❤ Lindsay. A recreation of a tape I made that accompanied Joy and me on a vacation through New Mexico and Arizona (Stevie's home state). So that's a whole dimension to listening to the song that is new and delightful - listening with your daughter. A new layer of memory overlaying the memories from the South West driving vacation, the unlucky-in-love 1988 memories, the 1980 first-rapture memories.
I wonder what Tasmin's own memories will be of this song - listening with her parents perhaps, when she still enjoyed hanging out with them - and the others that she likes even more - "Landslide", "Silver Springs". I don't know if she has looked up Fleetwood Mac or La Nicks on the internet, but as she journeys more purposefully into music past and present as she gets older, this will be second nature to her - an inseparable part of the musical-discovery process. For better or worse she will be a far more informed listener than I was, or was able to be.
As for me, I do still wish I could recover that lost-in-music, drowned-in-sound feeling that I had when I first heard that song.
But now I'm wondering to what extent that memory could be faulty. Is this another partly constructed memory, like the ruined abbey? Did they still have that radiogram in 1980? I don't feel I can fully trust my memories - which is disconcerting to say the least.
When I first heard "Sara", I was sixteen - the age of my son now - and the idea of "drowning in the sea of love" would have been my dream. My deepest ache. And at that point something I could not conceive of happening.
One year later, the dream had come true. I knew what that song felt like for real. I understood a lot of pop songs from the inside now.
The "melancholy reason" for the recent trip to England was to visit with my sweetheart of that golden time, who was in hospital, terminally ill.
A lot of memories came up during the week of visiting. Some things that she remembered that I didn't. Some things that I remembered that she didn't. And then there were things that we both remembered, but remembered quite differently. ("No, that was your idea!"). Forgetting is one thing - all of us, our brains are crammed to capacity, something has to go by the wayside. But imperfect or distorted recall, that's unsettling.
This morning Jessica gently faded away.
Today I thought of all the memories she must have had locked away, buried deep, that had now just vanished. Some to do with our time together, moments I'd forgotten. But also memories from all across her interesting, varied, often intense, up-and-down life. All gone now.
I wished that I'd spent even more time concertedly getting her to retrieve the memories - funny, sweet, romantic, sexy, sad... But that would have tired her out. And anyway, some day, sooner rather than later, they would all go when I go. Their interest value is limited to me and perhaps a few other people who knew her, and who anyway have their own cherished sets of radiant memories of their time with her.
Many of which must surely be slightly distorted or prettified. In some cases, memories relocated to different places and settings from where they actually took place; sometimes with people who weren't actually there magically present. Perhaps shifted out of chronological sequence to how they really occurred. Embellished with equivalents to low-lying mist.
My reaction to the deaths of the last half-decade - a brother, a father - has invariably been of the "no more wasting time!" type. Carpe diem. The resolve almost immediately crumbles and very quickly I'm back to my usual time-frittering habits, activities that are neither consequential nor even particularly enjoyable.
Maybe this time...
For now, though, I plan on having a right proper wallow in memories. Unreliable though they may be.