Tuesday, 16 December 2008

memory lane

The Hillman Minx, jade-green and bulbous, is hauled aloft by a huge crane and swung across to the Channel ferry. Harwich 1950. An old photo. Its my parents' first trip back to continental Europe, in the aftermath of the war. I'm a three year old toddler, and my romance with travel starts here.

We head for Cologne. Around the cathedral its still a bombsite. I remember none of this, but the ruins must have made an impression. I'm still haunted by images of wrecked cities, the everyday turned inside-out. My childhood playground, in a south London suburb, is a bombsite. Once a big mansion surrounded by gardens, now its a jungle and a pile of bricks. Its set apart from the High Street by giant hoardings advertising Bovril and Guinness. Behind these our fantasy runs riot. Cops and robbers amongst the ramblers. Cowboys and Indians on the ruins of a pueblo. Perhaps the savvier boys and girls played doctors and nurses behind the bushes. I'm still the innocent, but not for long. We cultivated little plots of land, like pioneers, with nasturtiums and runner beans.
I turn ten and what we called the 'Garden' is bulldozed away. Where the mansion once stood becomes a petrol station forecourt, and the old garden sprouts a nondescript office block.

Opposite my bedroom window, beyond the tram stop, stands the ruined hulk of a warehouse, one of several along the High Street. For years I observed its vacancy and its rotting. It became eventually a pioneering supermarket, at around the time the tram-lines were torn up and traffic given free rein on Streatham High Street. These days that dozy old suburban street, once a hamlet on the crest of a rural hill outside London, has become a perpetual snarl-up stretching from Brixton to Thornton Heath.

We travelled on to Austria. It was too soon for my mother to want to go back to Vienna (that didn't happen till well into the 60's) but we went to Berchtesgaden to make sure, perhaps, that Hitler's Eagles' Nest, his mountain retreat near Salzburg, was well and truly bombed to smithereens, and unlikely ever to rise, phoenix-like, again.
Denied the fabulous spa towns of their youth, inaccessible beyond the Iron Curtain, my parents headed for Bad Gastein, where old Hapsburgs had frolicked, and we continued to go there many times, well into my teens.

Every year we packed the car in August and drove to the 'continent' for a month. The Minx was replaced by a Ford Anglia ( a downgrade in difficult years for my parents) , then a Zephyr, a wonderful duo-toned Zodiac with white-walled tyres in renewed prosperity, a Farina-styled Austin Cambridge which meant we had the first tail-fins in Streatham, a series of Cortinas alas when they were already dull and pedestrian, and then a Honda I didn't want to be seen in ( that was years after my father had died).

England remained the foreign country till well into my twenties, when I began forays of my own into the country-side, and felt shy and tongue-tied in the Cotswolds, bashful in Brighton, reticent in Rye.

Fast-forwarding to yesterday, David and I fought with giant breakers in the South China Sea and collapsed, exhilarated in defeat, under a palm-tree. We cycled along the beach, past condominiums and hotel complexes, building sites where foundations may never rise more than a foot above the ground as the recession hits Vietnam.
In the evening we are hit by the shopping bug. Joanna buys silk lanterns galore, and soon I am infected, acquring bedspreads and throws I didn't know I wanted.

The water-front is still flooded; something to do with the fullest of moon of the year, and perhaps not global warming. Nevertheless bad for trade.

Soon I'm off into the streets again, where Father Christmas beckons from every hotel foyer and shop doorway. No escape.