Exploring the powerful allure of the past

The wild beauty of French Pass.
Rick Kelso

The wild beauty of French Pass.

Over the last few years, I've written a lot of columns about growing up at French Pass in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many people tell me they enjoy reading about that now almost lost Marlborough Sounds' way of life.

I know that 50 or so years have passed since I clambered about those hills and paddled along those beaches but I am always surprised at the abyss time has opened between then and now.

Climbing onto the school bus at the top of the hill in a brisk northerly, jumping off the French Pass wharf into the deep green sea, using up a whole box of Beehive matches lighting wiggy bushes on the August holidays lambing beat in the hills above Pelorus Sound, rowing out in the bay to catch a meal of blue cod - these commonplace activities of my childhood really don't seem to have occurred so long ago.

But why is exploring the past so fascinating? I'm not alone in this interest.

My friends are searching ancestry.com, recording their elderly parents to catch their memories and knowledge before they're gone forever and despairing over caches of uncaptioned photographs of people and places that might or might not be of significance in their family history.

And we all enjoy swapping stories of bullying teachers, unsupervised adventures and other minutiae of our childhoods.

Perhaps it's the surprising sense of insecurity and discombobulation that arrives in tandem with retirement age that gives the past its allure.

On darker days, I've come to think that reaching pensionable age feels uncomfortably like a replay of the awkward, uncomfortable teenage years, the only differences being the ever increasing wrinkles and the fact that there's no limitless future stretching hopefully beyond the visible horizon.

In fact, the horizon is closing in, rather like the way the walls of the dome closed in on Truman Burbank in Peter Weir's excellent 1998 film The Truman Show.

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One minute Truman is sailing across the ocean towards freedom and away from claustrophobic Seahaven; the next minute his bowsprit is tearing through the painted illusion of the dome's wall as he comes to a sudden stop.

Likewise, it's with a nasty jolt that you realise those plans to backpack across Africa, swim Cook Strait, or write the great New Zealand novel can be chucked in the bin along with your midnight blue stilettos and that cross stitch kit you can no longer see well enough to finish, no matter how strong a hobby magnifier you purchase.

And just like adolescence, there are big questions about the future: where will I live, will there be enough money, how will I fill my days and what will my relationships be like?

And yes, that's a real question, even for those in successful long term relationships, because if the years have taught me anything, I know that nothing in life, not a single thing, stays the same.

So perhaps this is why looking back is so compelling. It seems calmer and sunnier back there. The days were longer, the rain was gentler, the sun warmer, the winds balmy, the sea caressed your skin as you sank under gentle waves.

Like a reel of film, you can edit your memories as you wish. Unhappy memories, like Melania Trump's face in her official portrait, can be viewed through any filter we choose. But most importantly, memories will, unlike the unstable present, stay constant, ready to be revisited whenever you like.

Interestingly, it seems that our memories are not a mere collection of sequenced facts. Instead, we reorganize everything that happens to us into a narrative, discarding and inventing as we go.

We attribute causality to events, discounting the sheer randomness of life. We groom our memories with the curry comb of our biases and longings into an acceptable and satisfying story that does the essential job of explaining ourselves to ourselves.

For me, there's a particular sense of grief in exploring memories. The past is so present and yet so profoundly gone.

Poet James K Baxter put this well in The Bay. Writing about a boyhood haunt where he swam and played, he concludes with these lines "I remember the bay that never was/And stand like stone and cannot turn away."

Baxter was 20 when he wrote these lines. A Otago University student with a chequered record involving girls, alcohol and a series of failed exams, he laments the loss of innocence inherent in growing up.

He cannot return to that bay because he is not that boy any more – in that sense the bay, and his younger self "never was". He grieves for this loss.

And although I related to these lines when I read them at about the same age Baxter wrote them, having left behind a childhood bay of my own, in my sixties they resonate even more. Like Baxter, I can't go back to my 'bay', but I can't turn away from the power of the past either.

 - Stuff


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