12 February 2019

The weirdness of memories

At Leon Kinvig hut in the Pohangina headwaters in November 2018. The pen is a Lamy Al-Star with a Fine nib, the ink Noodler's 
El Lawrence, the notebook a Moleskine extra-large cahier. This combination works better for me than any other — so far.

It was the middle of the week and early in the morning, yet I almost walked away from Jacko’s café because even at a quarter to nine more than half the tables in the main area had been occupied and I expected the remainder to be taken soon. But I didn't want coffee or hot chocolate; I wanted tea, passable tea, tea made with leaves, not tea bags, which are inventions of the devil, and I knew at Jacko's I could get tea made with leaves, and the secondary seating area still had enough free tables, so I ordered jasmine green tea and picked a table near the window.

The tea arrived a minute later, meaning it would have been steeped in boiling water and therefore ruined, but I’d given up being a tea snob and no longer asked them to use water well below boiling point. I used to visit regularly, and they’d quickly and happily learned to let the water cool, but that was the problem with Jacko’s — the café was too good and therefore too popular, so I seldom had a chance of getting at least a full hour to write without feeling guilty about monopolising a table that could have been taken by more lucrative customers. I’ve never felt comfortable adopting the café-as-office attitude. Consequently, I stopped going to Jacko’s when I couldn’t find a time I could be confident of an hour’s relaxed writing, and by the time I started visiting again the staff had changed and I didn’t want to start over with the request to let the water cool.
Rainbow over the back hill, the last sunlight of the evening just leaving. Mown
areas beginning to recover.

That’s one reason I chose jasmine green tea — because its strong flavour meant no one except a native green tea drinker would notice the difference, would notice any subtleties missing from the green tea, and, to be honest, nor could I.  Like my liking for instant coffee made with milk — if I wanted to sound less like a bogan, I could call it café con leche and say it was the norm in much of South America when I'd travelled there — my taste for jasmine green tea brewed badly could be rationalised by considering it a different kind of drink, more akin to a herbal infusion, the way South American café con leche was fine if you didn't expect coffee. Mostly, though, I’d given up asking for the tea to be brewed at a better temperature because I didn’t want to be an arse.

I sat at my table and sipped my jasmine green tea and jotted down three ideas I’d thought of as I’d driven to town. First, shortly after I'd driven through Ashhurst, I’d caught a momentary whiff of freshly mown hay, the scent no doubt accentuated by the heavy drizzle saturating everything including the faded-yellow stubble — all that remained of the once-lush paddocks — and the first idea I jotted down was the way that that mown-hay smell reminded me of two things. The first was one of the few facts I’d retained from my second-year plant physiology course; namely, that the smell of cut grass came from a class of plant secondary compounds called coumarins. Why on earth had I remembered that when I’d forgotten so much far more important information? (In the same class I’d also learned how confectionery manufacturers got the soft centres in chocolates, but why had I remembered that trivial fact, which had also only the most tenuous link to plant physiology?)

The second reminder was of the smells of midsummer, which of course meant Christmas and therefore reminded me of the smell of freshly cut pine branches (the poor person’s Christmas tree; we, being poor, spent significant effort sorting through the heap of branches to select the one that looked least like a hacked-off branch and most like a murdered baby tree). The memory of that pine smell, mingled with the hay scent, was so strong that I could easily have believed I was actually smelling it, that I’d just driven past a roadside stall selling Xmas trees (I hadn’t, but the sense was that strong). I’d read somewhere that humans can’t remember smells the way we remember sounds or things we’ve seen, but that struck me as nonsense. The recollection of particular smells, like ripe apples in a pantry or sun-crisped wrack among tide pools, was as vivid for me as any piece of of music or sight of a landscape. I'm not talking about what a smell evokes — that's something else entirely, and although smell seems better than the other senses at evoking strong memories, I'm talking about remembering the actual smell, almost as if I were smelling it anew.

Mad summer blackbird delousing on a Christchurch, lawn; last days of 2018.

The pine smell memory in turn reminded me not just of Christmas but also of a fountain pen ink I’d recently tried: the Sailor Tokiwa-Matsu, a beautiful, muted green tinged with blue but protean in the way it adapted to different papers and varying light. I wouldn’t be abandoning my favourite ink (Noodler’s El Lawrence) any time soon, but the Tokiwa-Matsu could easily have seduced me if I could have justified the expense and if it had at least some degree of water resistance (it had none at all). The thought of losing months of handwritten journal entries because of some accident like a bad spill of improperly brewed jasmine green tea or a spaniel wilfully pissing on an unguarded notebook (anything is fair game for a spaniel), ... well, that's one of the main reasons I use the El Lawrence.

What struck me so strongly about these memories was how they linked in ways that were so unpredictable that the links could be understood only after they’d happened. A smell reminded me of another smell, a midsummer smell, which reminded me of two apparently unrelated things: Christmas and ink. On another occasion I might have ended up remembering something totally different: not Christmas and ink but India, for example, or nearly drowning, or the wilfulness of spaniels. Someone  else noticing that cut-grass smell might have — would have, surely — been reminded of something utterly different, like nearly losing a finger to a lawnmower, and that might have triggered other memories, like the disinfectant smell of a hospital ward, the excruciating sting of a local anaesthetic, the weird, unsettling tug of stitches being tightened. I suspect the strangeness of memories mostly consists in the way they can be triggered by almost anything.

The second of the three ideas I wanted to jot down was about the T-shirt a friend had been wearing — a plain black T-shirt that read, ‘There are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data’. I don’t know what had prompted the memory of that T-shirt, and I also couldn’t remember why I wanted to remember it, and that led me to wonder why we’re so bad at remembering. Maybe if we remembered everything, or even most things, our heads would be so full of unimportant memories that we wouldn't be able to retrieve what was what important? This reminded of something another friend had once said. We’d been chatting over a beer at the Celtic after our team had once again failed to win the quiz night, and he’d said, ‘It’s not my fault! I have an encyclopaedic memory — it’s just that I’ve lost the index.’

The third thing I wanted to remember? Well, I’d been driving and didn’t want to pull over to write it down, ... and I’d forgotten it. If the book of my mind had stored that topic, the index had no entry.


The small gorge in the Pohangina headwaters between Leon Kinvig hut and Ngamoko hut; midsummer, January 2019. Home to one
of the biggest eels I've seen — judging from its size, it's likely to be older than me. Long may it live there.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor