Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Shifting memories

It's curious how nostalgia often makes us glamorise experiences that at the time were actually pretty awful. I look back fondly at my childhood summer holidays, conveniently forgetting the pouring rain, the ghastly B&B meals and the lumpy, uncomfortable beds.

I look back equally fondly at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival in 1969, quietly overlooking the collapsing tents, the overwhelming crowds, the endless queues and being so far from the stage that Bob Dylan was barely visible.

But I guess that only works if the positives are as numerous as the negatives. Then it's quite easy to screen out the nasty bits. Once the negatives start to dominate, that's what sticks in my memory. Like the truly dreadful public school I attended.

Even some events that I know were a total shambles still seem glamorous later on, because after all isn't it a part of being young to stumble through everything, leaving one mess after another but having great fun in the process? Like my first sexual relationship, full of misunderstandings and disappointments but hey, it was another exciting initiation into the adult world.

Even encounters that seemed unpleasant at the time can be re-interpreted in a more favourable light. That obnoxious train passenger who insisted on telling me her life story while I was engrossed in a novel, in retrospect becomes an amusing eccentric who livened up a rather dreary journey.

In fact I have a natural urge to rewrite history in a more dramatic vein. My over-active imagination tires of the same old prosaic memories and stealthily turns them into something a bit more thrilling and surprising. Like the dull landlady who in my mind gradually becomes a neat-freak, constantly polishing the cutlery and disinfecting the worktops. It's only a matter of time before she was never dull at all, she was always the clean-freak of my fantasies.

How many of my memories are now glorious inventions?

"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were" - Marcel Proust


  1. What we don't remember we can make up. And exaggerate. And select the best/funniest/worst moments to make a memory of. Most life is fairly boring so we have to be selective.

  2. Even in childhood, I never learned. I looked forward wildly to Christmas Day and it was actually rather dull. I think my memory of that now is more accurate than that of a child. In pretty well every other respect, I think you're quite right. Although, on the other hand, awful memories are dulled by time too. I can remember, but I can't re-feel.

  3. Years ago I read an article by a woman who said she noticed she was always nostalgic about the past, and that was dumb. She decided to be nostalgic for the present and spend a lot more attention to the things she liked than the ones she didn't. It sounded like good advice to me so I took it.

  4. Liz: Yes, I guess that's what we do. We remember and embellish the highlights and the rest just fades away.

    Z: I can't really remember my childhood Christmases. I'm not even sure what presents I got. Clearly all the elaborate preparations were wasted!

  5. Jean: Nostalgia for the present - I like it. And yes, if more people focused on what they liked rather than what they disliked, the world would be a much better place.

  6. With the onset of dementia and the willpower to forget all the nasty episodes in my past, I find now that I remember all the good times and I can think back and enjoy the memories. I don't dwell on the past, that is self defeating, but it's good to sit quietly and indulge those treasured memories every now and then.

    I am a robot!

  7. My childhood was fairly grim...no abuse of course but not much love either..I became an observer.

  8. oh i do like that too. nostalgia for the present.
    i like dialogue. whether in a movie... a book... or real life.
    i find i remember what people say in situations much more than the extenuating circumstances. i'm forever quoting movie lines.
    i can still hear bob's voice in my head. and things he said to me.
    maybe just because i want to. but sometimes it's as vivid as yesterday.
    and yet... at the same time. i sometimes try to remember what i had for lunch yesterday and if i were stood before a wall to be SHOT...
    i couldn't tell you what i ate! weird. what's up with THAT?

  9. Optimism of the past! All of us simply love to do that don't we?

  10. Keith: I'm impressed that you only remember the good times. In general I do the same, but some memories are so grim it's impossible to erase them.

    Helen: "Not much love" more or less sums up my own childhood. My parents looked after me physically but they were largely oblivious to my psychological and emotional needs.

  11. Tammy: I don't remember much in the way of dialogue. I tend to have a visual memory so I remember places and surroundings more than what people said.

    Ramana: Optimism of the past? What's that? Do you mean that when we were younger we were more optimistic about life than when we're older?

  12. Rose tinted specs are wonderful things.
    I get nostalgic for my old Alfa Romeo Alfasud, remembering the fun of tearing around the country roads with it sticking to the road like s**t to a blanket, cocking the inside rear wheel up in the air, and the gorgeous induction noise from the huge twin-barrel carburettors.
    So easy to forget the hours spent under the bonnet trying desperately to keep the damn thing going, the saggy seat, and the gear stick that felt like it was connected to the gearbox by a worn-out rubber band...

  13. Such a temptation to turn life into a story, isn't it. I think that is why some of us love to watch plays and read novels, because they offer the possibility that prosaic reality could really be part of something bigger and more interesting. I remember quite a lot of the discomfort of things when I was a kid but I don't really think I minded. I suspect that being a kid and so being really young has an insulating effect, just like when you get older all the little niggles that arise strip away that insulation from discomfort!

  14. Dave: Conflicting memories indeed! I remember my first car very well, but not for the good points. I recall having to start it with a cranking handle, using the choke (remember that?) to keep the engine going, and constantly having to replace the battery. The only positive memory is the fact that it got me from A to B.

    Jenny: The arts generally are a much-needed escape into something more interesting and imaginative than the constant blandness of everyday life. I think you're right, kids are less likely to have negative memories - partly because everything's new and fascinating, even the crappy bits.

  15. Some of the best bloggers do just that...spin a yarn about an otherwise boring, everyday event. I'm married to quite a storyteller, and my oldest is the same way. I think their minds look for the absurdity in situations and then expand upon it. Never a dull moment when they are around!

  16. Bijoux: I really admire those bloggers who can do just that - spin a humdrum event into something amusing and intriguing. I don't have that skill at all. Though I have been known to embellish the odd story somewhat for dramatic effect!

  17. Who said
    " the past is a different country"

  18. I don't remember happy Christmases in the house I was brought up in. I'd like to and it is tempting to soften up the reality. I think I do that by remembering the spotty happy times, particularly when I was an only child for a while. I'm sure I embellish at times to make a story more interesting or savour the mundane. Or find fun in a friend's recounting of her colostomy (she is hilarious). Sometimes we need to search for the jewels underneath.


  19. John: It was the opening sentence in L P Hartley's The Go-Between. And how true that is. If we were suddenly transported back to the 1950s, I think we'd be totally bemused by the differences in behaviour and social norms generally.

    www: I don't remember any marital arguments during my childhood Christmases, so maybe my parents were on their best behaviour for the festivities, so we kids would have a good time.

    Anyone who can find a humorous side to colostomy is talented indeed!

  20. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268902.php

  21. Ramana: I don't quite understand. The study says nostalgic yearnings were associated with optimistic phrases, but what were the optimistic phrases? Surely optimism refers to the future, so how could nostalgia involve optimism?