Sunday 24 May 2015

London Wanderings #5 - Small Memories

London changes incredibly quickly. It's not just in terms of buildings and stone being replaced with glass. It's in terms of feelings as well. When I walk around London, as I do fairly regularly, I see areas that I have specific memories attached to, changed forever.

This is the case everywhere, of course. I grew up in the countryside in Ireland and moved away at 17. I visit around once a year, and it has definitely changed, partly damaged by the recession and partly rebuilt by local fundraising. But the change is slow for the most part.

With London, things change rapidly. You walk from Oxford Street to Goodge Street, or around Soho or Charing Cross Road, for the first time in a couple of months and you see entire blocks suddenly demolished. And where there was stone, there are now wooden walls, protecting the empty space, like stitches after an operation. And then, slowly, something new starts to form.

We all have our own relationship with the city, because we've all formed our own memories. They're not all important or life-forming or necessarily something that anyone else would find relevant. But they're how we navigate London - memory by memory, sense-remembering our way through. A kiss here, a drunken night there, a hideous social embarrassment to the left and a phone call you'll never forget there.

One that I miss is a small one at Piccadilly Circus.

I love Christmas, on a personal and cultural level. I love pretty much everything about it. During the darkest time of the year, we get together and drink and sing and blaze fires and lights, and we tell the long nights that we are not afraid.

I usually go back to Ireland for Christmas and spend time with my parents. I like to take the train and ferry if I have the time (not least because it may be a long trip, but it's a long trip without much hassle, during which I can spend time reading and listening to things and not have anyone expecting me to do anything for a change). It also means that carrying Christmas presents the entire way.

For years, I had something of a tradition. At some point in the week before I left, I'd head to town and buy presents. Usually, I'd look for something in the realm of music or movies or videos or DVDs. Piccadilly Circus used to have a Virgin Megastores and a HMV fairly close to each other. So, with coat, scarf and gloves, I'd search for gifts.

I've always liked shops like that. I'm a movie buff, so I've always liked browsing video and DVD stores in the same way I browse bookshops. And they were open late, so it was always a destination. And with multiple floors, I could happily wander around for a while, searching for the perfect items.

That's a memory that's very strong for me. I could wander the layout of those shops blindfolded. Of course, between iTunes, Amazon and Netflix, there's less need for shops like that, and they were early victims of the recession. Now, the Virgin Megastore is a clothing shop and the HMV sells 'London' and 'Britain' tourist tat like mobile phone covers and selfie-sticks.

I'm almost embarrassed by the way I can have such strong attachments to chain stores, but I do. For me, they were rows and rows of movies and shows I had yet to see, and a way of entering other worlds.

Now, I'm a Netflix addict, and in a lot of ways, it's better. These shops weren't cheap, by any means. But they're my memories, and my Christmas shopping. Small details that I doubt I'll ever forget, because they started off an important period to me each year.

Small, but unimportant. And now gone forever. And, realistically, that entire kind of shopping is gone, more or less.

It'd be nice to have all my memories in the small independent shops, or the beautiful tiny shops that are unique. And I have plenty of those memories too. But they don't feel gone in quite the same way.

The world changed around my memories. And the world changed around the London that I knew. The London that I know now is different, and will be different again.

Small memories. That make up a city and make up a life. What are yours?

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