Smell has always been the most powerful agent of nostalgia. One whiff of a perfume long since smelled, or a dish long since forgotten can impel to the forefront of the mind the most vivid recollections. I had thought this method of unwarranted recall insurmountable in its effectiveness until recently.
Buoyed by teenage rebellion I had, in days past, unconsciously rebelled against my Dad’s (actually pretty strong) taste in music and instead find my entertainment in chart-toppers and alternative genres such as ska and reggae. For a gangly white boy dressed in baggy t-shirts and skater shoes, this was a… questionable look even for the 90s. Luckily I had other positive influences around me that I chose not to ignore, first among them a pair of friends whose tutelage would resurface many years later when I realised that Reel Big Fish were not, in fact, the Eagles of our generation.
These friends, twins, were heavily involved in the trendier aspects of culture at the time. They were cool. That is to say they gelled their hair, wore branded jeans and smelled overwhelmingly of Lynx Africa. They introduced me to bands I would otherwise have dismissed as nothing but noise against the carefully choreographed choral hooks of RBF, bands such as Radiohead, UNKLE, the Verve and Rage Against the Machine.
Their influence spread so far as to influence to my choice in cinema too. I was never quite as behind the times here as I was with music but their parents’ propensity to allow late night viewings of 18 certificate films (something fiercely forbidden at chez Godwin) opened my eyes to new genres and new experiences.
One of the films championed was Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Now, I’ve ended up with a deep appreciation for Luhrmann but in 1996 his cacophonously messy take on Shakespeare was a just too much. His use of sporadic framerates, jarring zoom-cuts and a soundtrack that veered from the noodling strums of Johnny Greenwood to a full-blow dragtastic version of Young Hearts Run Free sent my youthful mind flailing for something recognisable to latch on to and, finding nothing, sent it reeling away into frustrated confusion. Which, I suppose, was sort of the point.
It was this film I watched recently and found, half-expectedly but still surprisingly, a flood of memories returning unbidden. These were no fuzzy recollections, these were that rarest of recalls that encompass a very real sense of place, and context and of emotion. And it was the soundtrack, rather than the film itself which allowed this to happen.
As soon as the Des’ree song Kissing You started behind the balcony scene, I drifted away from the romantic tryst occurring onscreen and was transported to a specific moment in time; the twins’ bedroom on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the sunlight beaming in behind closed, semi-transparent blinds, the three of us thrown messily across the room reading various magazines and listening to the soundtrack on an old portable CD player.
The vividness of the memory was shocking, as was how sad it made me. The overwhelming feeling was that of a wild teenage potential, clashing against the rather more adult cynicism that had replaced it back in the real world.
I grew up listening to parents and teachers repeat the old adage that school years are the best of your life. I didn’t believe them at the time, but who can? At that age and with those experiences you are completely unable to grasp everything the statement encompasses. It is not a warning nor a piece of implied advice, it is a statement on the presence of unfulfilled potential.
Not that we were aware of this back then. To us the world was complex and full of worries, but the worries of young men and women; test results, double maths, unreturned looks cast sparingly across classrooms. I had nothing to compare life to besides this, and I was completely unaware of the sheer amount of potential whirling around my head.
I lived a privileged upbringing. I had no worries about money or poverty. As I would later learn, my very race and gender gave me multiple unspoken privileges and advantages in life I hadn’t even considered. Looking back however it is easy to wonder ‘what if’ or ‘why didn’t I…?’ but I cannot say I have any particular regrets about this stage of my life. Looking back on potential and feeling the absence of it now is not a lamentation of wasted opportunity but a strange nostalgia for an unfettered life free from responsibly and social conscience. It is an inherently selfish impulse, one that could, if indulged, lead to bitterness and anger.
As the song faded so too did the images. Radiohead’s Talk Show Host, littered throughout the film like an analogy of loneliness, stoked different memories and the sight of the childlike leads did similarly for disparate pangs of late 90s angst. But that specific memories of freedom did not return
In a way, I don’t think it ever did.