Proust and I are not well-acquainted. I know his name, can spell it, glibly delivering fragments of half-remembered sentences (gardens, beds, beds of roses) stolen from other people’s mouths. But recently, he has put me in mind of gorse. The shrub. From Middle English gorst. Synonyms: furze and whin. The swarming yellow mass - which, I’m reliably informed, is a member of the pea family (oh, secret shame) - has reappeared in my life, unrepentant and still beautiful. For the first time in years, I bent down to smell it.
And it got me thinking. We don’t seem to cultivate gorse in Cardiff. We didn’t in London, or Brighton. In Aberystwyth, it chose to gather on the highest part of Constitution Hill: but sporadically. Litmus paper would probably explain the reasons; but I think it has to do with a deficiency of ravens. Because ravens and gorse flowers go hand in hand (beak in bud). It was my father who first identified the connection. Years ago, walking through Rhoshirwaen lanes in heavy peninsula heat, mayflies in our eyes, the smell of the flowers would hit the back of the throat before we turned the bend and saw them. It’s better than honeysuckle, the smell: more peppery, dusty, fast. And we’d look at the gorse bushes, and my father would point at the sky (vast and constant) and sure enough, we’d see a black shape circling. Sometimes two of them. “Ravens,” he’d say, pausing, “and gorse”: as if the equation were something a nine year old needed to recognise in order to meander on through life. But I only half-remembered.
An anagram of ‘gorse’ is ‘goers’. People who go. Walkers, doers, breathers of clean air (maybe). Last week, along open common-land heavy with flowers I went back in time. And so to Proust, and the terrifyingly large book (7 volumes) which continues to nail my kitchen table into the carpet. Which I bought out of piety and guilt. In Remembrance of Things Past, or À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, he writes:
“Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.”
I’m not so sure. You can revisit the past with your body intact. Things are never as we remember them, I’ll give him that. And so we may return to the real-time heat of a winding lane strewn with gold, that had turned gauzy and permanent in our memories, only to find that the road had never curved at d. but rather at h. To find the ravens gone (to find that they were never there at all, except that one time, on a different road; that we had made ravens of linnets). But in having to reassess memories built from badly-remembered pictures, we assemble new ones. On a path leading out of Nant Gwrtheyrn, I will superimpose ravens to hang above the gorse (which in my memory will be sharp as pepper, but which in reality smelt of empty buds and paper).
Yesterday, I asked my father about the road, and the ravens, and a song which he used to sing as we walked. “Did you sing it?” I asked him, “or have I made that up?” And he wrote back to me, saying: “I can always smell the warm gorse and hear the buzzing of the may bees whenever I hear it.” And so the place is fixed again. “You remember how the tune went?” he asks. And it’s soldered on my brain. “Yep,” I write back. Though I hadn’t thought about it for years. (The beauty of folk songs is that you can change the tune a little, if you like. But it’s always nearly the same. And the nearly-remembering is good enough. It’s not a hazard to admit that you may have slipped a note, or forgotten a word somewhere along the way). And I did go back there, to 1997: albeit via a different path, in a different month, on the other side of a peninsula, with no ravens. That other road was never far behind.