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Sunday, 3 November 2013



Stories, poems and memoirs might be based on, affected  by our thinking about the status of memories of different kinds.   

When I remind my wife of how, when we were courting -  she so desperately she craved my embraces that  my merest touch made her gasp and shake all over - she pretends she can’t remember and changes the subject.   Or sometimes she even puts it down to a temporary mental condition called ‘infatuation’ from which she’s since recovered  (Shakespeare’s audience also thought of love as a form of madness).

Why does she do this?   Is that because she feels she’s too dignified now to acknowledge all that?   Is it that she has genuinely forgotten and is in denial?   Or could it be (heaven forbid) that I myself am exaggerating my effect on her?  Or (even worse) that I have unconsciously invented it?  Or (even very much worse), that I have mixed her up with some other fixation of my youth?  

All very silly, of course.  

But it’s worth thinking about the status of memories.  Not all memories are true,  or  nostalgic.    People deny or repress memories after terrible experiences.  They may, like war veterans, never want to talk about their experiences,  even to those closest to them.   Or it may be a bad memory from childhood which goes on affecting the person’s life without their realising it.  In other words memories may be there but not there.

Memories are often changed over the course of time.  Shakespeare’s Henry V refers to how in time to come they will remember their deeds in battle ‘with advantages’,   a military equivalent of fishermen’s stories.   The person remembering sees the memory in such a way as to sustain their self-regard,  or to impress someone, or to deny (in fact they weren’t brave, but ran away).

And the same event may be remembered by different people in different ways.  Or someone may have a ‘memory’ which never happened, but which they were told about when very young but which now seems theirs.   

Sometimes we struggle to recall memories.  Much of Edward Thomas’s poetry is about this, trying for example to find why a particular scent affects him so much, and being unable to place it in any actual garden or field or time in the past.

We may be uncertain about our own memories.   Apparently witnesses in court can sometimes swear in good faith that the man they saw was wearing one sort of coat when he was wearing another.  Or worse.   I once returned to the grounds of my now ruined school, and was sure that there had been a tarred path through the woods.    But there was none. But then I got a stick and dug at the dead leaves and moss until, yes, there it was.    This increased my confidence about other memories I feel certain about.

Sometimes we can’t remember and keep trying to.  Perhaps we go back to the place to see if that will stir the memories.   Often places and objects do, or a small piece of extra information.   Michael Frayn’s novel Spies is a wonderful treatment of how a man goes back to the place of his wartime childhood and pieces together what his memories really want to tell him, are haunting him with.

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