The convolutions of long-term memory

Cranbrook columnist Peter Warland on the mind's ability to remember events how it wishes

“I feel that one lies to oneself more than to anyone else.” -Lord Byron

“Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” -Ingmar Bergman

Peter Warland

My memory is what I forget with. I was trying to explain this phenomenon to the lady across the road the other day. She was convinced that, although her short-term memory was getting a little shaky, her long-term memory was still great. I had the temerity to ask, “Is it? Are your memories of years gone by really accurate?”

You see, I am discovering that many of my own recollections of events in the distant past are not true. Well, according to my doddering old friends and relatives they are not. Their memories, they believe, are far more true to life.

One of my earliest recollections is of hurting myself and producing tears in order to extract some sort of sympathy from the family. Grandma, who lived with us, as a rule would snort and say, “Here’s some more Herne Bay water.” The reference being to a little incident in the paddling pool at the resort town of Herne Bay when I purportedly crashed and cut open my head. I recall the insults clearly but have no memory at all of bouncing about on my head.

I think that a large number of our childhood memories are not of the events themselves but rather of what our parents told us. Maybe I didn’t see the rosy glow in the sky when the famous Crystal Palace burned to the ground, the day after my ninth birthday, 1936. I was probably told all about it.

It is strange that I do not remember my sister’s wedding nor our mother’s funeral but I do recall standing with my dad watching workmen repairing a local church steeple and adding a lightning conductor and dad commenting, “See, boy! That’s what I call a lack of faith.”

I do recall the day when I climbed with three other louts onto my bicycle and, during the inevitable ensuing nasty accident, one of us had his face brutalized by the pavement, but I can’t remember which one of us.

When I was in my 20s and still impoverished, I was forced to hitch-hike on my wanderings and, one day in the quiet Kentish countryside south of London, I was given a ride by the famous actress, Margaret Rutherford. She was in no chauffeured limousine; it was a Morris or Austin clunker and it was filled with camping gear. I recall that, after that generous ride, I was thinking ungenerously that she couldn’t have been much of an actress because she was the exact replica of the character she’d played in Blithe Spirit: the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati.

I have often told people that I was given a ride by the Archbishop of Canterbury, although I was requested to sit in the front beside the chauffeur. His lordship did deign to ask after my welfare. I honestly think this happened to me, though I am beginning to wonder.

I was discussing loss of memory with my doctor the other day and she said that smell does not get forgotten. As she was talking, I was attempting to recall any smells that might evoke memories but it wasn’t until much later, outside, that I remembered ‘rotten eggs’. That was the stink that seemed to have pervaded in all English boys’ grammar schools when I was forced to attend them. From each and every ‘chem lab’ rolled sewer gas, hydrogen sulphide, a flammable, explosive substance that stunk up the buildings. I guess that we just got used to the stench but I have no idea who was manufacturing the stuff or why. Is it something to do with sulphuric acid?

Did the same miasma pervade girls’ schools? Is that why girls in those schools suddenly began slathering scents all over themselves?

Incidentally, I clearly remember that I failed chemistry miserably in the sixth form.

I wonder how the lady across the road now feels about our little chat about memory; I hope I haven’t confused her too much.