I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately. About how it works, how it changes, what it means in the shape of our lives and how we see ourselves. I’ve always spent a lot of time in my own distant past. I say ‘always’, but it probably only dates from when my mother died, so from when I was fourteen. Because of that, I have memories from before then which are highly polished, burnished even; treasured. I have visited them often and I suspect that with each repetition, they alter just a little, until they take on a sort of mythical quality.
I know from experience that memory is unreliable, because in my early twenties, I had to make a statement to the police about a violent incident I witnessed at a football match just two days earlier. I was horrified at how many details I had forgotten already, in spite of the fact that I had spent the intervening time thinking of little else. I have found over the years that despite both of us being at the same event, my partner and I (and sometimes one or other of our children) often have very different recollections. We can’t both be right, but, I suggest, neither of us is necessarily wrong either.
Much of it is to do with the way the brain stores memories. We may like to visualise it as a computer or a library, but the shelves aren’t filled with fixed pages of data. The organic molecules that make up the human mind adjust the images, mutate them as they save them and again as they retrieve them; such is the nature of us. I am sure that I recall hearing about the assassination of JFK at home, on the radio, because I had a bad earache then. I recall having an injection in my gluteus maximus (which to my five-year-old mind made no sense for a pain in the ear), and I associate the two memories closely. But I suspect they were not simultaneous events. Perhaps not too far apart in reality, they have become inextricably linked in my head.
This seems to happen with the long-ago memories more and more. I have to fight hard to place things, events, in their proper order. And it’s hard when you have to argue with another person who is convinced that their version is the correct one; you start to question your own. And it’s tempting, of course, to choose the best one. The one where you come out the hero, or you remember the big moments of human history (although, to be frank, I am old enough to have lived through quite a few of those now), and to sideline the uncomfortable truth that you weren’t aware of the world-changing event happening, or at that concert or that demo, or you didn’t ever get to meet your hero or see your favourite singer play live.
Given all the difficulties that aging brings and that I’ve been on medication that messes with my brain a bit too, I’ve been trying to think more about memory in the past few months. It started because a few years ago I began to write stories. Stories which weren’t about me at all. But if I wanted to describe, for example, what it was like to be a teenager in the lower sixth form in 1998 or thereabouts, I’d have to call on my own memories of being that age and mingle them with those of what I knew of my daughters and the students I encountered when I worked in education with that very age-group. Or if I wanted to write about a student nurse in the mid-seventies, that I could do, but it meant thinking about a phase in my life that was long past and one I hadn’t actually revisited for years, not in any depth. And I found that the more I thought about a particular period, the more I – seemed – to remember. It was fun, and fascinating actually, and combined with some novels I’ve been reading, particularly the work of Julian Barnes* and Sebastian Faulks, it got me thinking about how all of this strange business of memory and its unconscious manipulation makes us who we are.
Older readers will be familiar with the phenomenon of short-term memory ‘difficulties’. You know the sort of thing, you can’t remember what you had for lunch yesterday, or why you just came upstairs, but you have no difficulty reciting that poem your English teacher made the whole class learn in Lower III B… I have found that looking back, as I have done a lot since retiring and moving to France, tells me that some periods in my life have not been revisited often. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that these were times of depression, although I did not recognise it as a mental illness, and neither, unfortunately, did anyone else. In my own estimation, my inability to cope with life, my lurches from social anxiety to abrasive apparent overconfidence were character flaws, not symptoms of a treatable sickness.
But since I have come to terms with my mental illness, I can see how it has affected me throughout my life, and I have been able to return to those more painful periods and look with a kinder eye. Events, and people I believed I had forgotten have returned to me, slowly, sometimes only fragmentally, but it has been a rewarding process. But not one without some discomfort. Depressed or not, I have many regrets (who has lived a life without those?) and I wish I could apologise to everyone I hurt, by my actions or omissions.
There have always been those particular memories that never really left – the ones that come to me just as I am dropping off to sleep: the cringe-worthy ones, the embarrassing moments, the awful things I wish I’d never said – I don’t even know why I did… Those are exactly the sort of memories I was talking about earlier. I bet you that if I actually spoke to the recipient of my words, they probably wouldn’t even remember it. But because I felt so dreadful about it, I have been recalling, embellishing and agonising about them for forty-five years, and they have been elevated way beyond their actual relevance.
I had a recent reminder of how different memories can be when my partner Geoff and I vehemently disagreed about whether or not we had been on a particular preserved railway in Wales or not. I have a clear memory of going on a trip, he does not. But then, often he has vivid memories of places or events that I barely recall. In the end, we had to agree to disagree about the Vale of Rheidol. Now, if I can just dig out the right photos…
Note: I apologise for the long absence from my blog. I have been struggling with my mental health. I hope that this is the beginning of a better phase for me.
*The novel The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes is an excellent study in the nature of memory, as well as a cracking good read.