“‘Tis the Time’s Plague”


I have recently read two contemporary novels that deal with the fallibility of memory. The more I thought about it the more often this theme occurred in various things I have seen or read. One of which was the incredibly dull novella ‘The Sense of an Ending’ which dealt with how a man remembered a previous relationship and friendship ending and how it actually ended, the disparity between the two being rather jarring in that case. It won the Booker, as most over written guff does, but to me it was not a revelatory notion (nor did I think it that well written) but I also read ‘Ocean at the End of the Lane’ recently which also deals with memory. Specifically it is told in flashback as a man remembers his childhood and a formative yet forgotten experience. Both are somewhat elegiac about youth but it does seem to be a growing trend.

Sigmund Freud once wrote (my friend tells me) the purpose of human memory is “To Forget”. We cannot possibly retain every ounce of detail about our lives or it would be crippling. We see this in action with the mentally handicapped, certain autistic people have near perfect recall of scenes or events. We see this as a clever ‘trick’ yet it is clearly part of the nature of the condition. The memory can only function in small doses. Yet when we see people with Amnesia this can be equally as damaging. As opposed to the more Hollywoodised model, simply look to patients with Alzheimer’s to see the destructive effect memory’s absence can have. My own great Aunt suffered and it was a crushing sight to see her ask where Uncle Dick was only for us to either have to remind her he was dead or lie and tell her he will be there soon until she forgot again. Similarly stroke victims are laid low sometimes not by the physical ravages but by the brain’s sudden inability to remember words, faces or how to sit down.

Motivational speakers, tumblr and the most hateful advert I have ever seen will tell you to “live in the now”. i.e. The moment in which we live is the only thing that matters. Technically this is true and yet we have evolved memory and recall so we might better understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. If we had no memory we could not read or write, nor build relationships or our civilisation. Neuro-Science has boiled down the ‘Moment’ to between 3 and 7 seconds. The things we remember fit in this small window. Naturally what you consider ‘now’ will not be now for much longer which presents the whole argument of how ‘Now’ is NOW. Naturally that notion is hard to grasp so the very purpose of memory is to be a coping mechanism for dealing with every moment we are alive.

I saw King Lear at the Globe for my Birthday last Thursday. It was a great production and I confess to not being that familiar with the play so it was good to get better acquainted. I noticed a few things. First off it is not as often quoted as many of Shakey’s other plays, “Blow wind and crack your cheeks” is about it. Second it is fundamentally about insanity, or as we would now have it ‘mental health’. The word ‘Nothing’ appears many times throughout the play. The absences of things are often linked to mental issues, someone ‘lacking their senses’, but more specifically an absence of a memory or recall. Lear puts himself into exile and wanders the country as nothing more than a beggar. Homelessness and mental health was a hot topic of the time, Bedlam was more of tourist attraction than safe house for the destitute and mentally ill. They were flogged, beaten, crammed together, starved and then – ironically – forgotten. Lear meets Poor Tom (the name itself shorthand at the time for someone deemed insane) who is in fact Edmund’s brother Edgar disguising himself to avoid detection. He is forgotten by himself forgetting. They are both easily distracted in speech and forget where they are or at least Edgar pretends to. Today we might diagnose Lear with late onset Alzheimer’s.

I read a tweet recently that was a quote from Nathan Filer who won the Costa Book award, he was a Mental Health nurse and it was the topic of his winning book, he said: “Mental health work is just firefighting now”. A cursory glance at the numbers provided by the NHS will show you how the numbers of patients admitted with mental health problems is climbing. The trend and public acceptance of having a “shrink” now is indicative of the nature of mankind’s sense of self and our appraisal of it. It would seem the mental health is getting worse or at least has become less stable.

I imagine you are wondering where these disparate threads are leading?

Did you ever see Black Mirror? If not FOR SHAME go and watch it now. The Episode entitled ‘The Entire History of You’ is a satire of modern social media’s process and its inability to let you forget. This ultimately results in a very destructive end, if you are unable to forget the past will not merely haunt you, it will remain present. There is a theory about time that everything is already happening at once and we merely perceive time this way, the fact we have developed memory and the abstract notion of linear time indicates this is not to our benefit to know.

Facebook has a timeline, it shows you a video of your year in review, photos are tagged with you, you have reminders on your phone for any event coming up, we photograph what we eat, we store our conversations via text, we hang pictures on the wall, watch home videos of old holidays, listen to songs to remind us of an old house, watch concerts through our phones so we can experience them later. We surround ourselves with aids, memorials, mausoleums to the past that may or may not have happened. Continually forgetting more and leaving it to our technology and ephemera to fill any gaps, deferring to Google to jog our atrophied memory. We could not live any less in the now than we are yet are so assaulted by it. The need for instant consumption and then its digital retention is the norm now. And yet this digital archiving of one’s self is just as fallible. Just as our real memory forgets and misplaces objects and people, files become corrupt, data damaged, images deleted, documents lost. Our desire for our digital and online selves to operate as a proxy for our memory and identity is just as flawed a model as our organic version. Yet never a conversation goes by without someone checking their portable device for the information someone is grasping at…

Philip Larkin wrote a poem called ‘Absences’ in the 50s. It is a seascape but its final line is a startling juxtaposition: “Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!” We clear our ‘attics’ of ourselves daily, there are such great absences in our minds. Just as ‘Nothing’ surrounds Lear. Just as fires are starting all over the world.

I remember lying in bed with the girl I loved. Clasped together like a padlock for hours. We were watching a film. She hit me in the eye and giggled and apologised and kissed me. Then I got mad because she said I hadn’t complimented her right. She trod on the carpet spikes and swore and I laughed so hard. Or was that when I got out of bed to find her watching television so fell asleep on her lap? And she asked to watch Star Wars and I told her no one will ever make me happier than she did that moment. And we were naked. And it was all lit by my bedside lamp. We were in my brothers spare room watching a laptop, it was our first weekend together and we were walking along the beach in the sunshine when she stopped me to kiss me when we were on the way to the video shop shuffling through the piled autumn leaves as I hugged her so tight in the freezing cold after I’d spent the day moving while we had sex on the floor under our sleeping bags. Then I turned around to look at her lying on her back reading and took a photo…


Yes that was it! A photo, now I remember.

What was the purpose of memory again…?


(Credit to Dr. James Smith, as ever, for being sounding board and memorial aid)