Memories, ah sweet wossnames

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The week has passed, refusing all offers of help as it staggered weakly to its close.

Tempted by an email from Duolingo, who know a sucker when they see one, I’ve dipped into Japanese, and am here to tell you that it’s every bit as hard as you always thought. For a mind used to seeing languages in terms of their relationship to English, it’s quite the wrench to start learning one so resolutely remote from it. Early days yet, of course, but based on my inability to distinguish the characters for ‘o’ and ‘a’, it’s going to be a gruelling few months. But if at the end of it I can surprise one of my Japanese acquaintances by asking them fluently in their own language if their hovercraft is full of eels, it will all have been worth it.

This inability to recall things that entered my consciousness barely seconds ago is at odds with my mind’s startling capacity to summon fully-formed memories from decades ago. Neurological experts will no doubt be able to explain this phenomenon, but it remains a thing of wonder to me. Leaving aside for the moment the tendency for these memories to be of the most embarrassing incidents of one’s life (and if you’re anything like me, there’s a rich seam of those doozies just begging to be mined), it’s the vividness that startles.

Smells and tastes can be a trigger to this internal world of recollection. Give me a whiff of linseed oil and it’s all I can do not to buckle under the onslaught of crickety nostalgia. And for some reason, as I write this, I can recall perfectly the particular bite and ooze of a Findus Crispy Pancake, 1978 vintage (a good year for FCPs). Why is that? Perhaps because they were bloody marvellous. Ah the allure of cheap food.

Sounds set me off too – one woodpigeon coo of the right timbre on a sunny day and I can be back in 1976, loafing the hot summer away and resolutely not writing the holiday diary that was due to be handed in at the beginning of the next term. In my imagination it was packed with vivid accounts of exciting adventures, all backed up with charming line drawings, hilarious doodled cartoons and stunning photographs pasted onto the pages with that Bostik glue that seemed to dry and crack within an hour of my using it. Strangely though, I never actually got round to sitting down and writing it. In the end I dashed most of it off in a panic in the last three days of the holidays, padding it out with things like ‘today was very boring and nothing happened at all’, and changing pens periodically in an effort at verisimilitude. I do recall that Michael Holding got a mention – he’d earned it (bloody hell, imagine facing him without a helmet).

Music, as you might expect, kicks things off in a big way. I grew up with the sound of really really good violin-playing in my head (not mine, you understand – I gave up the violin before the age of six, somehow intuiting that there was an overwhelmingly large shadow from whose darkness I would never emerge).

My father died nearly thirty years ago (thirty years – jiminy cricket, the acceleration of time) and I didn’t start conducting until several years later, so while I try to live without regret, I can never help wondering what it would have been like to perform a concerto with him. Would I have been nervous? God, yes. Would I have dared contradict him if I disagreed with any aspect of his interpretation? Absolutely not. Would it have been the experience of a lifetime? Uh huh.

Working with violin soloists always brings with it this futile exercise in the unfulfilled, and three concertos with three different violinists in the last week has set my synapses buzzing. Each of them was excellent in their own way, of course – one of the privileges of the conductor’s job is to stand close to superb instrumentalists as they practise their craft – so I mean them no disrespect when I say that I would willingly have replaced any of them with one brief shot at a decades-old wish-fulfilment.

Now then. Here’s the weird thing. Halfway through our rehearsal on the Khachaturian Violin Concerto on Monday my brain got itself into a particular position, gave itself leave to access a specific channel of memory, and there he was, standing next to me. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything as metaphysical as that. It was just a very strong sense of what it would have been like for my father to be there, a couple of yards away from me, playing the violin really really well, just as he had done so many times in my childhood. It was a brief and tantalising distillation of Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine moment. Vivid, almost real, gone in an instant.

Ah well. What’s the Japanese for ‘nostalgic sigh’?

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