Memory

Remnants of Empire draws on memory and if there is one thing that is sure about memory it is that it is unreliable. The psychologist Charles Fernyhough’s excellent book Pieces of light: The new science of memory introduced me to a wealth of research on how people remember and why reminiscence is so very important to our identity within society. Fernyhough also disabused me of any belief that memories are filed anywhere in our brains, explaining that they are things we do rather than things we possess. It takes a while to adjust to believing that memories are the result of work and (just like our strength) deteriorate if the right work is neglected.

Everyone knows that old people reminisce more than youngsters (obviously we have more past than future) but we don’t always recognise that a lot of our memories have been worked up recently – modified, honed, embroidered in the light of the present. Around the age of sixty people hit the so-called “reminiscence bump” and start thinking back frequently, but their memories are predominantly of young adulthood and late adolescence, rather than across their whole lives. Like all of the people who took part in the research, I am old now but when I remember Northern Rhodesia I can do so only by calling up my young self. The past I recall shimmers, partly because of the unique light that few can dissociate from their remembrance of youth in Central Africa, but also because the now familiar sluggishness of old age has no place in that looking back. Draaisma’s Why life speeds up as you get older is very revealing not only of the malleability of memory, but also of the value of this for our sense of self as we age.

Here’s the song prompted by the book that Louis Barabbas wrote and performed to cheer me up for being forced to turn seventy just after I finished writing it. It is totally loony, he’s deliberately playing on the way that memory is selective and distorted. There are no prizes for identifying the references to elements of the book, they should jump out at anyone who’s read it!

Our Memories Are Our Own

Our memories are our own and when we try to overlay them with someone else’s there is rarely an exact fit. Though I sometimes challenge people on particular facts and dates, this is as much to try to sort out my own knowledge of my lived history as to correct theirs. The meaning one attributes to the past is a product of one’s life course rather than something that originated back then; as subsequent lives diverge, so do the memories of a shared past.

Doing the research for this book has made me realise that a deliberate examination of the past prompts the realisation that much of our life never was given enough attention at the time it was lived for it to become a resource for remembering later. I have also realised that context changes how it was that memories were laid down, just as much as how they are retrieved later. Memory is unreliable for the retrieval of “fact”, but it can be very useful for unearthing sentiments and emotions, what was important then, now and along the path between the two. I’ve spent rather a lot of time over the past few years reading and listening to other people’s memories and sizing them up against my own. In this section of the site I want to ponder the nature of memory and I feel that I am entitled only to analyse the meaning of my own recollections, not those of others – the section called “Instead of Forgetting” presents what other people think is significant. I want to start here with some thoughts about memory and the emotion of terror.

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