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, car-less, where we 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 ruins.
A month ago I found myself found back in England for a melancholy reason, and while I was staying with my mother, she suggested going for a walk, and I said, "how about we go and visit that ruined abbey?" She struggled a bit 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." And she led us to this tucked-away entrance off the main road, leading to a narrow path that winded 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 so long was that a bypass had been built some years subsequently, to relieve traffic through Berkhamsted, and this 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 a little hard because recent 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 mud and puddles were making it even more difficult and again 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, it's right up there. He explained that this had once been a pilgrims pathway and that Marlin was a corruption of Magdalen, as in Mary Magdalene.
We pushed ahead - the marshy mud worse than ever, our shoes utterly caked, the path almost impassable, and if not for the farmer we surely would have already turned back. And then we'd have missed it, the object of our own pilgrimage - Marlin Chapel, which as he'd said, was just 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 - which had been more like standing stones, or reclining stones, as some had fallen over - and they hadn't been covered in dense ivy like the ruins I now beheld, they'd been naked stone. And where was the 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 and managed 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 had once thought was just a hillock or bit of elevated ground, now had a fence around it - easily climbable over, but still indicating that you weren't supposed to do that - and a sign saying that they believed it was a barrow - a burial mound of some kind going back to the Celts, or earlier.
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. I'd 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 embellished subsequently, partly constructed and 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. I was vaguely disappointed that the actuality didn't correspond to the memory but enjoyed the feeling of a mission accomplished, the new word ("clunch"!) learned, some local history gleaned.
Heading back to the car, pausing now and then to scrape clumps of mud off my shoes on logs and 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 on the radio in early 1980 - hearing it stream out of my parents' old-fashioned radiogram, which was in their bedroom. One of those cabinet jobs, with short legs, containing a record player inside and a wireless - a machine so old that the tawny-colored glass display on the front, that showed the frequencies and the various stations, had the Light Programme on it, 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, and 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 blurred and oozy 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). This was 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 - centering on "Sara" - for a booklet Melody Maker pulled together on lost and forgotten albums: Unknown Pleasures. By this point I had managed to gather up a fair amount of information about "Sara", Tusk, and Fleetwood Mac. I'd gone into Melody Maker's slate-blue file cabinets and pulled out 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 / Ranters and Crowpleasers; a piece that applauded the boldness and radicalism of Tusk in its US soft rock / AOR context and resituated it as effectively a postpunk record (postpunk being the remit and theme of Fascist Bathroom/Ranters). I'd seen the lyrics (I think they came with the double-album, but I'm not sure).
Already this - in 1992 or whenever it was - verged on too much information. It interfered with the unknowing purity of those first encounters. For instance, I would 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 whole 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. There are memoirs by the band members I could refer to.
The song still amazes me when I hear it - the billowing production, the angel's breath harmonies, the steady yet ethereal drumming, all of it. 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, as our ten-year-old has developed a love of Fleetwood Mac - rather amazing us. She's very interested in the whole Buckingham/Nicks broken romance story-line, so for her benefit I made a CD called Stevie ❤ Lindsay. That's a recreation of a tape I once 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 also wonder what Tasmin's own memories will be of this song - listening with her parents perhaps - and the others that she likes even more - "Landslide", "Silver Springs", "Dreams". 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, sprawled on my parents's coverlet.
But now of course I'm wondering to what extent that memory is faulty. Is this another constructed memory, in part? Did they even have the radiogram still 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 she 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 myself and perhaps a few other people who knew her, and who have their own cherished sets of radiant memories of their time with her.
All slightly distorted or prettified. Memories relocated to different places and settings than where they took place, sometimes with people who weren't actually there magically present. 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.