Last year I went to Basel, Switzerland, where I spent quite a few months in the late seventies. It was slightly strange returning after all those years, with fond memories of playing music and girls and obviously, being Switzerland, making loadsa money for once.
Walking through the centre of the city, there were one or two landmarks which seemed vaguely familiar, but the general impression was of a place I'd never been to before, a feeling which was confirmed when I arrived at a rather grand hotel where, every day, I would order coffee on a silver tray, read the 'Herald Tribune' and pretend I was Ernest Hemingway. It was here that I read that Margaret Thatcher had been elected Prime Minister. The place was hardly recognisable and more downmarket than I remembered, with that horrible, non tax-paying American coffee chain occupying what was once a magnificent cafe terrace.
The whole thing lingered disquietingly in my head for some time after the visit, as I ruminated on ageing and memory. I was rudely reminded of it a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to visit a place I hadn't been to since I was about ten years old: Hullbridge,. Hullbridge is on the River Crouch, which rises in Essex and flows out to the North Sea. My grandparents lived there for a few years when I was a kid and I spent many school holidays there, swimming in the river, messing about on other peoples' boats and breaking my collarbone.
I started out, passing through some surprisingly pleasant countryside dotted with impressive historic buildings. Battlesbridge was the same as I remembered; still a rather dreary place, with a few ancient looking commercial vessels lying around in the mud of low tide. So far so good.
Ten minutes later, I arrived at my destination. When I was a kid, Hullbridge was a small, rather run-down village, with one main street which petered out when you arrived at the river. There was an old fashioned square with, I remembered, an ancient and abandoned wreck of a car, on which I used to sometimes play. It would probably be worth a fortune now. You arrived there after a few hundred metres of housing.
This time, to reach my destination, I got lost in the modern sprawl of bungalows and those modern arse of the bag, (excuse my French), 'closes' so beloved by the Brits. I eventually got to the river, which hadn't changed a bit. It was everything else that was completely different. Gone was the funny old square, having been replaced by a sizable bus garage. The only thing still there was the pub, 'The Anchor Inn,' now 'The Anchor.'
Back in the day, my grandfather would sometimes go there for a pint at lunchtime. The clientele at the time wouldn't have been out of place in 'Treasure Island.' They didn't have peg-legs and eye- patches, although I wouldn't have ruled out scurvy. Had I been old enough to drink, I would have been on the lookout for a shilling dropped into my tankard.
It was therefore both a surprise and relief to see that the Anchor was still there, but the difference was staggering. Stopping in the private car park, I approached the entrance, which displayed a Michelin Pub Guide sticker and went into the rather chichi lobby. I was greeted by a lady who showed me to a table, where I ordered a very good lunch from a menu which featured items normally found on superior food-porn programmes. The last vestiges of my youth seemed to evaporate as I found myself telling the young waitress that I was visiting for the first time in nearly fifty years. She didn't exactly start talking to me in a louder voice, but I felt a subtle change in manner. The implication was clear: silly old bugger. No more getting lost down memory lane. The past, for me, is literally another country.