Navigating through London
When I was a kid, I was convinced my father knew the way from anywhere to everywhere. He knew every road and short cut in London, and seemingly across the country. He drove with confidence, recognising the signs of building traffic, he’d swing the car into a side street unknown by the masses—never stopping.
I thought he was amazing.
The neon Lucozade bottle on the M4 route into London gave me a rare sense that I shared his super-human navigational skill.
Installed on the drinks factory building in 1953, the iconic Lucozade sign was one of the first pieces of kinetic or moving advertising in the country. Over the forty years of its existence, it gathered a quiet cult of admirers. Even when the factory closed down, the sign stayed alight.
As a kid, I was oblivious to the history of the sign.
I only knew that it provided a joyful landmark that briefly overcame the disappointment of a holiday’s end. The small bottle of golden bubbles that poured endlessly into a tall-stemmed, bottomless glass was the one bright spot in a dreary sea of deteriorating 1950’s concrete that resembled a post-war Soviet cityscape. I wondered what strange trickery kept it running, its bubbles perpetually flowing, even once the building became obviously derelict.
And when I saw it, I knew for a brief moment where I was.
Between that point and the streets immediately surrounding home, I was lost again.
Now, thanks to Google, I know that the owners of Lucozade, chose to keep the sign running, as a cultural icon and popular landmark for the entry to London, even when the company had moved.
Somehow, knowing this doesn’t make my story any better. It diminishes it. Makes the magic less. A corporate decision rather than the sorcery that I had imagined. And knowing everyone else loved it somehow makes it less special. Less mine.
It was only when the building was demolished that the bubbles finally stopped pouring.
How you form place memories
You lock in memories by linking them to multiple stimuli—smells, people, sounds, and possibly most important of all, a single place and time—that put that memory in context. These integrated associations are how you form long-term “episodic memories” that help you remember something particularly important.
While you walk into and through a thousand places every week, you won’t remember the arrangement of furniture or colour of the walls if nothing significant happens there. But if it does, layout and details will be committed to your memory.
Lost sock memories
I have other place memories without context. Vivid, technicolour memories where I can see the detail of a door knob or the pattern of wallpaper in a bedroom. But I have no context for these memories. No larger space to contain them. Detached from time and place their purpose is lost.
I refer to these as “lost sock” memories.
The first time I was stung by a bee was in a garden full of poppies. The busy flower border lay near a large stone-built house and extend away from it, into an immaculate lawn. The family who owned the house had, in these pre-AirBnB days, rented it to us while they were on holiday themselves.
But the memory starts with the colour of the poppies. With the wonder of a sudden searing, stabbing pain from nowhere. Followed by the sight of a sad, flat honey bee, wandering out from under my foot and into the manicured grass.
And my mother’s detached observation that I had never been stung by a bee before and wasn’t I lucky.
But I have no idea where in the world we actually were.
I could ask my parents. But I know the memory won’t be as vivid for my mother as it is for me. My mother’s attitude to memory is fairly abstract. She’s unconcerned with the placement of details, especially those that don’t affect her directly.
My father’s memory is aided by meticulous notes and diary entries, catalogued, cross-referenced and highlighted to the point that he can extract any moment from time and place it in context. But he would’ve had to be there at that moment. He wasn’t.
Perhaps the geographical location doesn’t matter. What matters is the colour, the smells, the warm summer warmth and the first experience of that specific type of pain.
The clash between memory and now
The world changes despite your memory.
Places in your memory never quite match the present day reality. However reliable your memory, the world changes.
My partner laughs at my indigence when favourite places aren’t quite as I left them.
“No one asked me!”
Of course, I don’t literally want everyone to ask my permission before moving on with their own lives and projects, but there is something unsettling about visiting a place you remember a certain way and finding it’s changed out of all recognition.
Often, it’s the changes that stand out. And while you may not remember precisely what that new shop front replaced, you know it isn’t what it once was. Seeing what’s changed, forces you to search your memory bank for an image of how it used to be. And in the process, triggers associated memories.
Oddly, it’s sometimes the places that have changed the most that’re the most evocative. When everything stays the same, you stop noticing what is right in front of you.
Removing yourself from a place and coming back helps to see it afresh.
Sometimes, the greatest changes can be in you.
Now, the M4 flyover has changed beyond all recognition. The empty soviet blocks have gone, replaced by shiny new glass and steel buildings in the shape of ships and, well, of shiny glass and steel office buildings.
When I drive that road now, I always search for exactly where the Lucozade bottle used to be. It’s probably a point in space above or within a one of those new office buildings. I can’t be sure. But I know the way home. I know enough of the side roads and short cuts to still feel a sense of kinship with that childhood version of myself who so idolised her dad.
Ways to explore
1. Take a memory walk around an old neighbourhood
Seeing what’s changed forces you to search your memory bank for an image of how a place used to be. Go back to old haunts. Find somewhere to sit and observe.
- What’s changed?
- What’s the same?
- What happened in this spot 20 years ago?
2. Take a walk on Google Street View
If it’s not possible to revisit old places, take a virtual walk instead. Make use of the timeline feature to take a walk through time. If you’ve never used this feature before, this article shows you how.
3. Review your memory notes from the Memory Toolkit
If you’ve downloaded the free memory toolkit, or used the tips in the other memory trigger posts, you’ll have already uncovered memories related to place. Go back to your notes and explore these memories further. For example, where a smell memory takes you back to the place, what else was significant? What happened there and with who?
4. Hunt down your “lost sock” memories
Do you have stray memories that you can’t connect to a place or time? Keep your memory journal or audio recorder with you, ready to capture detached place memories that pop up as you go through your day.
- How old are you?
- Who else might have been with you at that age?
- Who might be able to remember the same place and fill in the gaps? What other clues are in the memory?
Your turn …
What’s your most evocative place memory? Let me know in the comments, or drop me a line by email. If you haven’t already downloaded the Memory Toolkit, you can find it here.