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Memory’s weird ways

‘She goes off to the Maldives. That’s all I can remember about her,’ laughed Alan Bennett as he struggled to recall the name of the Australian physiotherapist he’d invented for his TV play about Miss Fozzard and her feet.

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

‘She goes off to the Maldives. That’s all I can remember about her,’ laughed Alan Bennett as he struggled to recall the name of the Australian physiotherapist he’d invented for his TV play about Miss Fozzard and her feet.

‘She goes off to the Maldives. That’s all I can remember about her,’ laughed Alan Bennett as he struggled to recall the name of the Australian physiotherapist he’d invented for his TV play about Miss Fozzard and her feet. Bennett had volunteered to subject himself to a Mastermind-style grilling from Mark Lawson (for Radio 4’s Front Row) after one of the contestants on the TV quiz had chosen Bennett’s plays as his specialist subject. Bennett scored more than his TV rival — just — passing on six questions (and getting a couple wrong). His lack of writerly pomposity, amused and not irritated by his own forgetfulness, was endearing. But the mock-grilling was also an intriguing insight into the workings of the creative imagination. How could Bennett have forgotten something which had once been so real in his mind? It’s a very real fear for anyone over the age of about 50 who’s becoming aware that their powers of recall are distinctly less awesome than they used to be. What happens to all those memories that were once so vivid, and which we believe are so crucial to what we’ve become?


We heard more about the weird ways in which memory works on Ramblings, which has just returned to Radio 4 on Saturday mornings (far too early) and Thursday mid-afternoons (hopeless, for anyone with work to be done). Clare Balding, who’s such a clever interviewer, never afraid to ask sharp questions but always in such a thoughtful way so as not to be offputting, was walking in Wiltshire with a group of people suffering from early-onset dementia. ‘How did the Alzheimer’s manifest itself?’ she asked Derek, who was until recently the director of a wood recycling company. It was a terrifyingly blunt question, but spot-on. ‘I was struggling to do simple calculations in my head,’ he told us frankly.

His answer has been haunting me ever since, as I struggled to recall how to switch on the sidelights of my car (which I’ve had for 20 years, but I’ve been driving three different cars in as many weeks, and the brain’s got a bit confused). There was so much laughter on this brief, half-hour account of their day-long walk that, although Balding and her group of walkers did not flinch from describing the effects of dementia, it was all a lot less grim than you might think. The group behind the walks, Forget Me Not, is NHS-funded, so let’s hope it doesn’t get the chop in the next few months.

Balding, too, and her Ramblings team (led by producer Maggie Ayre) should be a protected species in the coming era of what must surely be cuts in the broadcasting budget. We’re going to have to speak up for what we want preserved, and especially for networks like the World Service which grew out of what is now thought of as our regrettable colonial past. (Could that ‘World’ appellation be changed to ‘Global’ to avoid such a discomforting connection?) If the BBC was denied any of its World Service budget, we would lose something of the network’s transcontinental input, talking to participants from all over the globe. When, for instance, the award-winning documentary-maker Alan Dein came to make his two-part series Memory Wars for the World Service and not Radios 3 or 4, he used examples from South America and Africa, Europe and Asia to create a rich testimony of what happens when the official version of events fails to acknowledge their true impact on individuals.

Dein records people, places, atmospheres, events, ideas, thoughts and imaginings as if he had been commissioned to create a Domesday Book of 21st-century experience, giving as much importance to a single life-story as the official documents. Such a way of looking at history can change our understanding of those events. The real question for Dein is not what happened, but what does it mean, even now, many years later, when remembered by the individuals who experienced either at first- or second-hand the Argentinian disappearances, the horrors in Rwanda, or the Nazi massacres in Italy. Only now, for instance, are we beginning to acknowledge the ways in which the paralysing, silencing effect of traumatic events are passed on from generation to generation (just as the creators of the Bible and other religious texts have sought to warn us). ‘This pain is like a handkerchief,’ we were told by the widow of a partisan massacred by the Nazis in Rome in November 1943 in an unusually graphic image. ‘You wash it, and iron it, and fold it, and put it away in a drawer. You know it’s there but you can’t touch it.’


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