An Unfinished Cup of Tea and a Madeleine

The following is the product of a long walk after a glass of wine – a potent combination for mentally drafting my bullshit.

It’s funny how things stick in your head.

When I described Rose as my best friend in my Waitress post, I kept thinking of the phrase “my best friend, my number one.”

This is from a poem I read when I was younger, the name and author of which I tried to find but couldn’t (at least before I lost the remaining battery on my phone).

It is a child talking about their best friend insulting them, and, from the pieces in my memory, goes like this:

Today my best friend, my number one
Called me a “dirty darkie”
When I wouldn’t give her a sweetie.

(The narrator describes it and goes on to say, more or less) of all the people in the world, I wouldn’t expect it of you, Char Hardy. The other ones who are stupid and ignorant, yes, but not you.

Char went a very strange colour (and apologised, said she didn’t mean it)
(The narrator responds with the final line)
Well then, what exactly do you mean?

Not being able to find the poem was immensely frustrating. My dad often refers to having an “unfinished cup of tea feeling” – knowing you had drunk half but that you hadn’t finished, that you must have left it somewhere but can’t remember the location.

That’s how I feel when I can’t string together these memories, or when I know the answer but can’t bring it to mind. Known unknowns, or is it an unknown known? It’s a known that you know you don’t know at the time, infuriatingly, know that you did know.

I’ve since searched more thoroughly and the poem is Names, by Jackie Kay. I can’t (quickly) find a good link but it is at page 15 of the collection here.

(I don’t want to imply from this choice of memory that I was a particularly precocious child, wandering around theorising about racial politics… for balance, please note that I can much more easily recite The Day I Fell Down The Toilet (with bits of spaghetti and peas).)

This is hardly an original take, but it struck me how pre-Google I would have had to rely on remembering, asking around, digging out the book of children’s poetry back home. My cup of tea may never have been finished.

I can remember the book too. It was dark blue, with bright pink and maybe also white lettering, perhaps a pink lining to the cover. It was if not square, more square than the average book proportions. Thin, hardback, with the dust jacket pristine – I was fiercely protective of dust jackets.

I remember seeing the same book on a shelf a few years ago, and the memory of it was odd, intense. This led to my learning of “madeleine moments” from my then partner.

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

Marcel Proust

I’ve not read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. My ex, with the Oxford degree that served as a constant reminder of my intellectual inferiority, presumably had. I certainly don’t have any more detailed description of what the madeleine and its memories signified in Proust’s writing. I won’t sully his memory by trying to summarise or elaborate on the meaning of Marcel’s morceau, as it were. (Pause for applause.)

It’s funny how something so universal and relatable as “strong feelings provoked by a memory” can become so much more refined if you attach a name like Proust. Even if you yourself are expressing nothing approaching his (again, presumably) complex ideas, whack in the name of a great thinker and your argument or witticism has gained immeasurable gravitas.

I’m hardly one to rail against elites or intellectuals – look where that’s got us, for fuck’s sake – but it is odd how resentful this fact makes me.

It doesn’t make much sense. I love knowing things. The other day, I overheard a tourist asking for directions. It was the holy trinity of desired directions: I could offer to help unasked (thereby hopefully slightly easing London’s unfriendly reputation for this stranger); I actually knew the answer; and the directions needed were immensely straightforward.

It is hard to tell if I derived more smugness from doing a nice thing, or from knowing something that the other person didn’t. Jesus Christ I hate how I think.

Anyway, given my love of knowledge, you’d think I wouldn’t resent being informed of something. It’s not as though I only derive pleasure from knowledge a companion doesn’t have – I hardly begrudged my teachers at school their superior knowledge (although thinking about it – did I only enjoy learning if I thought my peers wouldn’t remember it as well? Hmm).

But there was only so much I could force myself to have the correct internal response of “oh, that’s interesting, I’m glad I now know that” when the source of the facts was consistently the same person, and I was never giving anything back. That relationship was a barrage of intellectual and factual superiority, a constant blast to the brain, hopefully done without malice but who can tell, really? I began in awe, I ended in self-flagellation.

There’s a fine line between being raised to have confidence in your own opinions, and being a pompous prick. And a “public” school and Oxbridge education are only going to tip my prejudices towards the latter. (In the words of a (nice) ex who attended a grammar school: “We were told at school to have confidence bordering on arrogance.”)

(Major caveat: I’m in the most fragile of glass houses here, I know I have had a fantastic and privileged education. I’m sure it has instilled in me all sorts of confidence that I don’t realise I have. And I’m sure I am that pompous prick in the eyes of many people. Assuming many, if any, people care.)

I suppose the key is for me to have less of an inferiority complex. God knows how I go about that though – perhaps someone better informed can let me know.

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