Get in the car. Adjust the seat and the rear-view mirror. Strap yourself in and turn the engine on. Push the gear lever into reverse and enjoy that little moment when the car rolls back onto the road. Change into first gear, check your blind spot and drive off.
This is a run-of-the-mill journey. You have done it so many times. You’re going coffee-shopping. There’s only one supermarket in the entire borough that stocks the coffee you like and you go there at least once a month to purchase it. You know the route by rote. You could even drive there with your eyes closed. Every street, every traffic signal invites recognition. Even the people are the same. London can seem so provincial sometimes. As you come closer to your destination you stop at a set of traffic lights. Ahead of you the road curves upwards, thus, becoming the surname of this north London quartier. The light changes to green and you continue up that hill now, placidly, humming a tune or listening to the football on the car radio.
And suddenly it happens.
There, to your right there’s a road. Not just any ordinary road, mind. Or rather, it IS an ordinary road. But not anymore. This patch of asphalt has claimed your memory and left you speechless for a nanosecond.
Because it resembles another road, in another country, in another city.
The truth of the matter is that it does not really look like that foreign road at all. The architecture is different; for starters, the houses on either side point at human existence and the cars on the road betray drivers indoors. That other road, in that other country, in that other city, has fewer houses and a big fan on one side of the street, probably belonging to a factory.
But more importantly, one street is in London, and the other one is in Havana.
Yet you still want this road to look like that other one you left behind in November 1997.
I call this unbidden nostalgia. This is not the usual bittersweet longing for the past that the ancient Greeks labelled thus. This is not the gathering with friends that leads to ‘Do you remember…?’ sessions where tears are shed as photos are passed round. This is an uninvited feeling that overwhelms you wherever you are. It calls no one’s door and yet strolls through the front gate and by the time you realise it has sat down and shared your food.
Unbidden nostalgia is a frightening and yet wonderful feeling that tears through the fabric of your memory. It can be anything, someone moving an arm in an incongruous way on the tube, a starry sky at night or a… road.
Music is like that sometimes, too. Unbidden nostalgia in music is not the type that you carry around on your Ipod Nano or the one you stash away on your computer’s playlists. No, unbidden nostalgia will assail you whilst you are in the pub with a few of your mates and all of a sudden a track that you had forgotten about aeons ago comes on the jukebox. You did not even use to like it then to be honest, but never mind, it is eating you alive. And you stand up, walk down the carpeted floor and approach the machine. And by now, who cares? Someone has turned the tap on and your cheeks are wet and you know you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t want to stop it.