(note: it took three years to gather my thoughts enough to write this post.)
I was watching a series about Perfume a few days ago on BBC4 and the most intriguing idea was discussed. Christopher Brosius, an ‘alternative perfumier’ was making a custom perfume for an Anglophile designer who wanted the smell of England (from his apartment, it was clear that this meant Victorian/ Edwardian). He highlighted the smells of wet tweed (pungent due to the urine traditionally used to make it softer), whiskey and scotch, pipe tobacco, cobblestones and old books. Brosius then travelled to London in order to find the scents that would be recreated in perfume form. He was dismayed to find that the London he loved as a young man had disappeared; all the familiar smells of pub smoke, worn taxi leather and phone books in phone booths had vanished. Only a few recognisable scents remained that hinted at “England’s sense of eternity”. For Brosius, his memories of the city all revolved around scent.
It made me think about how we process our memories of urban space and cities. My memories of London (and England as a whole) are visual and auditory. For me, music is how I recognise and remember London. There are songs that represent London as I first witnessed it, when it was both new and achingly familiar. The Clash reminds me of 2003, when I was a college freshman in my dream city for the first time, in a Dead Kennedys shirt with Walkman in hand. Music acts as personal memory and archive. Blur’s ‘Oily Water’ symbolises my first trip alone on a London bus, seeing South Kensington for the first time in 2005. Entire albums and oeuvres act as representatives for certain periods in London, and my past can be charted through track listings and now obsolete audio devices. My personal London could even be divided into the Walkman/CD era (2003- early 2006), with music that was mostly Anglo-American and 1970s-90s inclined— and the MP3 era (late 2006 onwards), which represented an explosion in how I experienced music and the city. The act of hearing the scratchiness and skips of songs taken from LPs also were important parts of the urban soundscape for me, lending an air of the cinematic and creating an optimistic feeling that this was the day that everything I knew to be true could change forever. Music also allowed me to experience London when I wasn’t in it. Through familiar sounds, the sites that I held dear were transported to my local surroundings. There were times were I felt the presence of London so strongly whilst listening to something in Maryland or Philly that it felt physical; the clarity made me feel like I was hallucinating.
I also trace the histories of streets and neighbourhoods with music; New Cross and Lewisham are mapped by post-punk and Northern Soul. Through these sounds I see an area rebuilt after the destruction of WWII, hear echoes of melodies in buildings that have been transformed over and over again for each successive generation. Through music that combines English and Caribbean rebellion I see the resistance of communities and activists against the National Front and racist authorities in the 70s and 80s. Listening to certain music from the 50s and 60s allows me to think of a country in flux, where 50s rationing gave way to new ideas of social housing and architecture, and how Britain changed with the coming of high rises and estates. Music allows me to walk through these varied timelines; to understand the shadows of these changing geographies as they coexist, like translucent map overlays. With music I am an urban flâneur attempting to understand the soul of London and other cities, towns and villages across the country. English pop music is extraordinary in its geographical abilities; streets, architecture and various mundane artefacts of modern living are described in anthropological detail through pop songs. Riots, subcultures, people and histories can be understood through albums, making listeners into historians. My archives are vast, with England existing in every scratched LP, cassette tape and CD I own. It is even digitised, with music folders on my computer carefully labelled with the places and years that I first heard tracks.
The most interesting aspect of having music assist memory is that places are constantly revisited in a way that sidesteps nostalgia. Memories and areas already seen are deepened by a steady flow of new music that reminds me of barely remembered details that are then given a new significance. London is a series of physical, social and intellectual spaces that constantly change and expand, and I consider myself quite fortunate that music will always be there to help me find my way.