Saturday, 3 February 2007

Memories Are Made Of This

Memory is a marvellous thing: it comes, it goes, it changes. Memory is who we are - it's our identity - it's rooted in the past but it's also about the future.

If you're embarking on a memoir then memory concerns you a lot. Although, as a writer, it's very important for me to get my facts right (on paper that is: I'm not so good when being mouthy at parties) I must keep reminding myself that this is not necessarily the most important thing. It may be the significance of the memory that's more important than the accuracy: two people with a shared experince can have quite different memories of the same event.

Radio Four is a brilliant service; there are the most interesting programmes on it, albeit at times not always conducive to work or sleep. Last week, getting ready to go out in the middle of the day, I stumbled on a programme about memory between experts on the subject. Needless to say I was late for my meeting.

Discussion about 'earliest' memories was interesting: it seems much psychology is associated with this one. I won't even go there or we'll be here all day. But events that happened between the ages of 15 and 20 tend to be those that people remember most often: a 'reminiscent bump'. It's a period of great change in our lives and memories are often associated with those changes. Music, fashion or even events like going to the fun-fair alone for the first time may feature in these.

Then there are 'self-defining' memories which are often vivid and may be associated with sight, sound or smell. I've never forgotten the smell of a sweetie shop that my grandmother took me to when I was four; I can also remember the paving stones that I walked on, the dark shop and the kind shopkeeper. Very occasionally I come across that smell and it stirs my comforting sweet shop memory. Apparently this sort of memory can affect our goals in life or our preferences: lucky I don't have a sweet tooth.

Among others there are 'flash-bulb' memories - often of major events like the death or President Kennedy or Princess Diana - where we may recall all sorts of other things that are associated in our minds with that event. For example, perhaps we remember where we were, what we were wearing or who we were with when we learnt about the event. But these 'flash-bulb' memories can also be more understated; sitting around the fire, being at a birthday party, catching fish.

Now I can suddenly see myself five years old; my brothers and I in the shallows of the stream with our jam jars, trying to catch tiddlers. And I caught the biggest Stickleback: well that's how I remember it.


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