Ian McMillan: Déjà vu all over again?

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I’m not much of a believer in déjà vu, that odd feeling that people say comes over them when they think they’ve been there before.

As far as I’m concerned it’s because they have been there before and they’ve forgotten.

Something happened the other day, though, that made me think that déjà vu might be true. I always think in rhyme, by the way. All the livelong day.

One of my earliest memories which, over the years, has morphed into a kind of black and white film, is of me and my mam going to Plymouth to visit my dad at around the time he left the Navy, which was in 1958 so I would have been two-years-old. In the memory we rush to Darfield station, my mother clutching a case that seems too heavy and we almost miss our train.

The train’s arrival is announced by wreaths of steam and as I write the words I can see the train approaching and I can see the station man in his hat. I think I can hear his whistle down the decades, shrill as history. I can’t remember much of the trip apart from looking through a train window into the dark and seeing myself reflected back, and visiting my Dad on his boat and seeing a man asleep on a chair and my dad saying, “Don’t wake him up: he’s on the four hour watch”. For years afterwards I thought a four-hour watch was a cheap one that only showed the time for part of the day.

The memory really glides into 3-D when we go to the hotel we stayed in in Plymouth; I remember it being huge and fancy and imposing. I remember being amazed by a piano in the entrance and by a staircase that felt like the sort of staircase somebody really posh would walk down towards a ball. We sat in a vast dining hall for our tea and then, as now, I couldn’t shut up rattling and a man leaned over to my mam and said, “One day that boy will be Prime Minister”. That tale is one of those family sagas that gets repeated and rehashed over the years and I guess it’s been embellished and decorated but, like some of those novels you read, it’s based on a true story.

Then, a few days ago, I was in Plymouth and I walked into the hotel I was staying in and I went cold and hot at the same time, like you do when you can’t work the shower. It wasn’t any old hotel. It was the hotel, the one from my distant childhood. The entrance was still imposing; there was a piano over there and the staircase seemed to reach to heaven and beyond. I went to my room and sat looking out of the window at the water and a ferry about to go to France. Ghosts of the kid I was and the younger people my mam and dad were danced around the room. I put the kettle on and ate the harsh hotel biscuit. There were tears prickling my eyes.

It might not have been the hotel, of course; memory is a funny thing and it plays more tricks than Derren Brown. But for a moment I was back in that dining hall in 1958 and that man was leaning over and I can see his red face and his blue tie.

But was this déjà vu or had I really been there before? You decide. I’m off to 10 Downing Street.