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Date: 22/05/10

A Few Superficial Thoughts On The Nature Of Memory

If I have a fault - and I do concede the possibility - it's that I remember things too clearly.

This is not the unalloyed benefit you might think. For one thing, I have no power of choice in what I remember, so that my clearest memories are often of my greatest embarrassments, and these can come hurtling back to me without warning. If you ever encounter me in person and hear me going "la-la-la!" quite loudly, it's because I'm trying to blot one of the buggers out.

I'm now at the age where I can have difficulty remembering what I did thirty seconds previously, but memories from ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago can be triggered by something and come back to me with a terrible clarity.

I'll give you a rather specific f'rinstance. At the moment, I'm listening to a lot of old tapes - of the reel-to-reel kind - as a prelude to digitising them just as I've already done with my cassettes and with my vinyl collection.

Most of those recordings are of the former radio programme Stop The Week, and the recordings date from the period 1981 to 1986 (I wrote an article on the subject of Stop The Week a few years ago). Now, between the time that I recorded them and the time when my old Stella tape recorder finally ground to a halt about fifteen years ago, those tapes were on what the radio biz calls 'heavy rotation'. But I haven't heard any of them again from that time up to now, because it has taken me until the past eight months or so to get a replacement machine and to get it working adequately.

Nonetheless, I have sat here most evenings for the last few weeks listening to them (and to recordings of other things) and have found myself remembering - sometimes with a high degree of accuracy - exactly what was coming next. Not just what point was about to be made and by whom, but often a verbatim memory, a playing back of a transcript in my head.

This is quite unsettling, because what it also does is to bring back to me where I was at the time I first heard it and - more disconcerting still - who I was at that point in my life. I am then overcome by a melancholy which is caused by another character trait to which I've referred before; namely, a hyper-acute sense of the passage of time. In the case of these tapes, I am sent back twenty-five or thirty years, to the time when I was young, when - however indolent I may have been, however dithering my sense of purpose - my life still had some potentialities to it, and some things still seemed possible. I am then brought face to face with my own serial inability to break out of my routines of habit, action and thought and actually strike out in some of those directions which were then in potentia.

And so a sense of minor existential despair descends upon me, as I contemplate the fact that I am now quite a way into middle age, have achieved little in general (and certainly nothing of what I wanted to achieve), and have an ever-strengthening sense of how little time I may have left, especially with a state of health which is not so much 'rude' as 'mildly impolite'.

This is the reason why I have never been to formal reunions of anywhere that I've ever been a part of. I made a couple of early mistakes in making rather more informal returns to past haunts which warned me very effectively of the perils of going back.

First off, at the age of eleven. One day - in the November or December after I had started at the wretched dump - our comprehensive school was closed for the day. So, a group of us decided that we would pay a visit to the junior school we had left only a few months before. I don't think our presence was entirely welcomed by the teachers, and it culminated in the grand-scale embarrassment of the four or five of us who had blundered in to this misadventure being required to sing The Little Green Fir Tree to a classful of bemused - if not horrified - six-year-olds.

My next error of this kind wasn't quite as bad. At sixteen, I went back to the aforementioned comprehensive for some reason; some lingering sentimentality, perhaps, as I can't recall any practical reason for the visit. As I was walking down the covered way towards Bottom Block, the geography teacher who had also been my last form master was coming the other way. As he passed me, observing that I was dressed in my usual domestic shabby casual rather than school uniform, he grunted, "Drop out!" and passed on his way. I suppose he thought it was an insult, but I took it as a badge of honour.

I got better at it. After I had left the sixth-form college I attended, I had cause to go back to see if I could get hold of a copy of a college publication in which a poem I'd written had appeared the previous Spring. I was in and out inside about ten minutes, and I never darkened its late-sixties concrete fašade again. I am mercifully relieved of any further possibility of going back there by the fact that the college changed its status and moved elsewhere.

Such experiences have led me not - at least, not so far - to go back to my alma mater, although given that the famous/notorious hall of residence I lived in for two years will be closing next year may force me into reconsidering this. I just know that there would be too many ghosts haunting those corridors, and that - worse still - one of those ghosts would be me in my younger form. I'm not sure I could handle the introspective gloom which would settle upon me for days if not months thereafter.

At one point in his multi-volume war memoirs, Spike Milligan gives out an anguished cry of "Oh, yesterday, leave me alone!" It won't. Amnesia or senility apart - and not even the latter necessarily either - we're stuck with all our yesterdays, the more so the more of them we accrue. I just wish that it wasn't the case that we can't actively select what we recall.