Jean Charles de Menezes

The waiting room

Much to consider following the After Sebald weekend in Suffolk. The discussions focused primarily on the notion of place and its meanings, and although memory and history came into these discussions, less was said about Sebald’s portrayal of time in relation to place. In his world, time is slippery, hard to pin down. There are clocks in train stations or hotel lounge bars which might tell you the time at that moment, but Sebald is concerned more with continuum: what has happened here, what might happen here. What is happening is less certain, as the mind leaps from one thought to the next, as one voice gives over to another.

What Sebald is suggesting is that a place is never just what we see before us, so burdened as place is with event. The most terrible events are not forgotten, even with the passage of time. Nearly every day I pass through Stockwell tube station, and nearly every time I do, I notice the plaque (now a permanent memorial) for Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian shot dead by police marksmen one ordinary day in July while he was on his way to work – a case of mistaken identity (for which the police have never been called to account). He is forever linked to Stockwell tube station, a random location recast as the site of a horrible tragedy.

I’m reminded (again) of the beginning lines of ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ by Derek Mahon, where the poet lists sites of abandonment, ‘places where a thought might grow’, before he focuses on the location of the title, where ‘a thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole’ in the shed where they have lived ‘a half century, without visitors, in the dark.’ Mahon sees them as outcasts, the forgotten victims hidden away in a forgotten location. At the end of the poem, he compares them to the ‘lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’, locations which are not forgotten, which are only recalled now for their tragedies, and to that list we could add other major locations such as Lockerbie or the World Trade Centre, and smaller and smaller places, such as Stockwell tube station, or any number of roadside shrines where flowers are placed, which in turn wilt and die. The shed in the poem becomes all of those places, where time continues, but only through the process of decay.

Grant Gee, director of the film Patience (After Sebald) which had its premiere at the weekend, came closest to finding an analogy for Sebald’s timeframes. He talked about the slow fade as a cinematic technique to pass from one scene to another. Sebald’s own analogy is to photography rather than film; in Austerlitz he talks about ‘the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.’

My analogy goes back to poetry, and something I just mentioned in a previous post; the stanza break represents a moment when time can be altered, when the poet might clear his / her throat and start a new idea. The white space represents a silence, a moment in time captured, a freeze frame.