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Memory And Writing

How much do we actually remember?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I am blessed and cursed with a good memory. Blessed because I can often recall with frightening accuracy the minutiae of events that happened decades ago, and cursed for precisely the same reason. I mean, who wants every last faux pas and embarrassing utterance they ever made cluttering up their head?

I am fascinated by the mechanism of memory. The ways in which we remember certain things and forget others, the way time distorts, conflates, falsifies. I am particularly intrigued by its uses as a writer’s tool, the way it gives validity and veracity to lived experience and sidesteps the need for endless research. I have on numerous occasions pinpointed historical or cultural events down to the actual day. Knowing who said precisely what to who, where and when, means I don’t have to spend hours trawling through archives. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy immersing myself in archives. It is one of the integral pleasures of my work and I have spent some of the happiest hours of my professional life going goggle eyed at old newspaper print or scanning through microfiche. It’s just that you can save a lot of time if you have a one-man Dewey system running through your head.

Of course I’m not setting myself up as some freakish Total Recall Man here – but even on those occasions when I find that time or misperception has tripped me up and I have distorted, conflated, or falsified I remain obsessively interested in examining which component of a story I have misremembered. Faulty memory itself becomes part of the narrative, a way of reflecting hypercritically on the nature of remembrance and evocation.

I have recently finished writing an autobiography, chronicling selective aspects of my life, when perhaps what I should have been writing was a meditation on memory itself. Indeed, subconsciously perhaps that is what I was doing all along. It seems to have been what I’ve been meditating and musing on for much of my adult life.

What is a memory anyway? And what good is it to the writer? Is it a recollection of past events, tidily stored and faithfully retrieved? Or is it merely a recollection of the first recollection, already degraded or misfiled and therefore susceptible to further distortion with every successive regurgitation? Is it a tale, frequently told and subconsciously reinforced, until the detail becomes plausible, the tapestry animated, and the recipient willed into belief? And who does the telling anyway? In early life there’s a fair chance it’s your parents.

‘Boo!’ went Mum as she burst from the cupboard and I burst into tears. ‘Oh, you did roar’ she said, and said again over the years. We were playing hide and seek apparently. She hid in a cupboard and when she jumped out I burst into tears. In a mother’s fond retelling the bond is implicit and unspoken. Just her and her firstborn, me and her using up time on a winter’s evening, while Dad’s away up north working as a service engineer. The story is told and retold until all that’s left is a faint echo of the original telling. There must have been a time when I remembered the actual event. There may also have been a time when I became aware that the memory was being eclipsed by the reminiscing. Or perhaps there never was such a time. Perhaps my memory is based entirely on that first childhood imagining of an incident retold by a mother fondly recalling. A sensory impression. The fleshing out of detail. A dimly lit cottage room. Shadows cast. Time passing. Where is she? And then suddenly — Boo!

That game of hide and seek is one of my earliest memories, it happened at about three or four years old, pre-school certainly, that first period in my life when I am aware of cognitive recall. All events from that time are remembered episodically and in isolation. There is no continuity or grand pattern, just evocations of a childhood that was lived in a permanent now. These memory fragments form in my mind like sepia-tinted prints, blurred at the edges, the faded topography of a reality long passed. And they are as I said largely received and handed down from an adult narrator, a guiding parental voice.

I interviewed the polymath Ken Campbell in the 1990s for a radio feature. We got talking about the entertainer Max Wall. I’d seen Wall performing live about ten years earlier in the 1980s, when he was in his early seventies. The hall was barely a third full and before the show commenced the MC invited us all to bunch up in the front seats to make the threadbare gathering seem more abundant than it was. I marvelled at a supreme showman at work. Wall did that thing that all great performers do. He shrunk the room with his intimacy. His conspiratorial asides and casual ruminations were virtually whispered in your ear. A few months after that live show I saw him again in a Channel Four special where he drew upon much of the same material he’d used that night. All those asides and ruminations were there again, scripted to the last um and ah. Great showmen do that — they deceive you. Sleight of hand and sleight of mind. They make you think you are witnessing original thoughts at their first occurring. There was one great bit in Wall’s live show about Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square that I couldn’t believe hadn’t been ad-libbed, but there it was again in the TV special, word for word, nuance for craftily crafted nuance. I mentioned this to Ken Campbell. The Churchill ad-lib that wasn’t. ‘I bet it was once,’ he replied. Memory is like that too. And writing about memory is especially like that. Events flow from a spontaneous source, get rehearsed and polished and their essence becomes dulled by over-use.

Good writers evoke the past with conviction. They negotiate the pitfalls of memory with nuance, empathy, and self-awareness. Dishonest writers lack plausibility. In bad life-writing you can see the puppet master jerking the strings, often projecting onto the younger self insights and outlook he never possessed at the time. (And for some reason it usually is a he.) There is a particular school of autobiographical writing I call the ‘even then I knew’ school. ‘Even then I knew’ they will say as they evoke some aspect of their childhood and then reward themselves with powers of perception and ironic distancing quite unknown to most ten year olds. To the sceptical reader (i.e. this one) the only honest response to ‘even then I knew’ is ‘I bet you didn’t.’ Such conceits provide the raw material of the nostalgist’s narrative. ‘Even then I knew’ is lazily utilised in the absence of more plausible or authentic strategies. It saves the writer from doing any actual work, of interrogating events scrupulously in order to re-examine what was really going on. The irony tic is bolted onto every gesture, not the kind of focussed irony that implies aesthetic commitment, but irony as a default, as a cop out. It is received wisdom masquerading as insight and it’s a device that creeps into a surprising amount of autobiographical writing.

That push and pull between individual memory and the social and institutional construction of nostalgia has informed my own writing for many years. I have come to recognise that our collective folk memory is the sum of its individual parts and it is to be valued and cherished. Every time you hear a sub-cultural commentator say ‘1967 was like this’ or ‘Punk was like that’ and you respond with a heartfelt ‘No it wasn’t’ you are committing a necessary act of defiance.

When my own daughter was growing up, like any parent I was fascinated by her emotional and cognitive development. In particular I was intrigued to see when memory kicked in. After those landmark moments like first words and first steps it was probably the next most important thing to me. Sure enough it occurred at about the age of three to three and a half, probably the same age as I was when Mum emerged from that cupboard and scared me with a boo that wasn’t meant to be scary at all. I’m already finding myself doing that thing my mother must have done, reminding my daughter of things she did when she was three or four, which to her is over half a lifetime ago now, light years in child time. Some of these things she remembers, some she misremembers, and others she has little recollection of at all, but she will have now because I’ve remembered them for her. I’m doing what my Mum unintentionally did to me, narrating her life back to her. After all it’s my turn now.

Rob Chapman is a music biographer, cultural historian, fiction writer and serial tweeter. His biography of Syd Barrett A Very Irregular Head (2010) and his exhaustively researched 225,000 word doorstop Psychedelia and Other Colours (2015) were both critically well-received.

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