I have lots of memories of being a kid growing up in Blackbird Leys in the 1970s, on the outskirts of Oxford, a good number of them marvelous, some of them comic, and several that I’d rather forget because they were just unpleasant, or vaguely criminal, or downright depressing. Blackbird Leys, back then, was a tough place to live, a depressed and often violent council estate. Fighting was pretty much compulsory.
We chalked stumps onto the brick wall and played cricket with a ratty tennis ball. We stole apples from the covered market and slouched around the block spitting arsenic-laced seeds onto the sidewalk. We went over to the playing field with a soccer ball. We rode into the surrounding countryside on our bikes and climbed into barns full of hay, where we’d loll about all day pretending to read newspapers we’d nicked off the delivery boy on the way out of town. Later on we smoked menthol cigarettes in furtive groups, until someone read that mentholatum was a sperm killer and we figured that was something we should worry about sooner rather than later.
On the weekend there was a flea market up at the greyhound track on Sandy Lane. I don’t think they were called flea markets back then, or maybe they were; I just remember them as something akin to a circus sideshow; I remember mutton chops on the men, and scratched black cars with tan seating, the smell of leather sliced into not-quite-straight belts, and odd waistcoats, milk cartons full of record albums, and the smell of meat smoking. It was a place where men of unimaginable experience gathered to sell goods of exceptionally dodgy provenance.
I also remember that my parents liked to buy a pint of prawns once in a while at that market. A pint mug trawled through a bin of steamed and fetal shellfish, and then tipped into a brown paper bag. We ate them at home with salt and vinegar. I can taste them still. Fantastic, they really were. But I don’t think I’ve had a prawn since the day we moved away from Blackbird Leys, first to Garsington, a little village a few miles further out of Oxford, and then to Canada. Plenty of shrimp. But never another prawn. Which strikes me as a little odd.
But life is full of routines suddenly abandoned. Restaurants that are regular haunts until they’re not. Bands that are favourites until suddenly they are completely irrelevant. I can’t remember, for instance, the last time I listened to a U2 album. I do remember trudging through the desert in Las Vegas in 1997 with about a million other people (and a very unhappy girlfriend) to see them at UNLV. They were important. It was close to a pilgrimage. And then, months later, they were dead to me. I’m sure I could come up with a dozen examples of the same phenomenon.
I’m not sure really where I’m going with this. I’ve written myself into a bit of a cul-de-sac. The original intention was to talk about taste sensations that make for as pungent and persistent a set of memories as an early love. I was going to move from those pink prawns to the Campfire ice cream fashioned in nearby Bloomfield, which time and time again is as surprising and transporting a taste as I know of. But I reckon that transition might well underwhelm you, as it does me, to be honest. But the train of thought has at least opened up pathways I haven’t explored for years. It’s taken a scythe to greying weeds that have sprung up in the headspace. I hate with fresh vigor that bastard David Jones who lived around the corner when I was about ten and made my life hell, and I love to death the damaging scrape of a willow cricket bat over oil-stained asphalt, the flat, adolescent clatter of our footfalls as we tried to outrun our enemies, or chase them down.