Terry O'Connor

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On lofts, memory and snails


Sitting quietly in the loft is one of life’s simple pleasures. I am comfortably positioned at one end of the sofa, with all the working parts of the house away below me. To my left, a sloping velux window lets in the last light of a grey December day, no competition for the bright fluorescent tube within. The opposite wall is all about skulls. At one end, a horse skull sits neatly lodged on its mandible, positioned on a shelf so that its wedge-shape reflects the slope of the ceiling that reflects the slope of the roof. To the right of it, a fallow deer skull spreads a fine pair of antlers, then a reindeer half-skull, red and sika deer antlers, one horn from an Exmoor sheep, and a Welsh Mountain sheep skull. The bones and antlers are shades of white, grey and beige against a wall emulsioned in default buttermilk. To the right of the skulls hangs a framed poster advertising Greyhound Racing at Dumpton Park, allegedly England’s Flower Garden Stadium. The poster is a relic from childhood, one of the seasonal posters that hung in the porch of my mother’s seaside guest-house. Its artwork of three dogs straining for the lead always appealed to me, even though dogs in general and racing in particular did not. The sofa is another manifestation of nostalgia. For years it did service at my sister’s house, a comfy place to chat whilst looking out at the garden, a spare bed when she needed company. Now she has gone, cut off by cancer, and the sofa remains a familiar place to read and write and a quiet refuge for the cat whose fur marks the cushions at one end. Maureen would have appreciated that.

Around the loft, shelves set into the eaves reflect diverse interests over the years. Boxes of photographic slides and a 35mm projector await their call to action, shelved a couple of metres away from the CDs and digital projector that were their nemesis. There are maps, of course, many of them one-inch 7th Series Ordnance Survey. Why do I keep them? Perhaps it would be more correct to ask why I do not throw them out. If I did not have the maps, I would not seek them out, yet having them by default, I cannot countenance disposing of them. Like the slides, maps encapsulate views and landscapes long gone, a more appropriate way of tracing one’s memories than the impersonal pixels of Google Earth or Bing. Shelves at the far end of what is still Maureen’s sofa carry Really Useful boxes that house a collection of the shells of land and freshwater snails. I am not by nature a collector, and certainly not a completist, but assembling a collection of the often minute and minutely ornamented shells of our unloved and neglected molluscs pleases me strangely. Once again, nostalgia is a factor. Hand-written labels recall places and times, such as the pub garden where I first collected Clausilia dubia, and the companions on that weekend break in Craven, never thinking that we would one day live quite nearby.

Another bookcase is full of vinyl LPs, mostly classical music with a leavening of jazz. Some are our own collection, records that we bought, were given, hunted down in Cardiff Market. Others recall an old friend who was kind to me early in my career ad who left me her books, CDs and LPs when she died. I should pass on most of the LPs to Oxfam but, like the maps, they are freighted with memories. I have planned, still plan and will go on planning, to transfer the rarer performances to CD to assuage my regrets at handing on the LPs. Meanwhile, a Schubert Impromptu plays quietly on the CD player, another technological innovation that has changed the way we acquire and store our chosen ambience.

The loft is a place of past and present. Reminders of all stages of my life are ranged around this small place, yet the current layout and contents are barely a year old. Like slides, LPs and other collections, we reorder our memories, choosing what to place where and what significance to place upon them. And, like those collections, we are reluctant to dispose of anything, however old and worthless. But lofts have to be cleared out and rearranged periodically, reorganized to make them more useful or agreeable as our needs change. How should we do the same with our own memories, decluttering and tidying to make them a more comfortable place to be? That is certainly something to mull over, whilst sitting quietly on the sofa in the loft.

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