If you were to ask me by the end of the week what I had written about in this column at the beginning I would probably look blank, fumble desperately through a foggy recollection of plays, news items, snatches of interviews and then reply, ‘I’ve no idea.’ This business of forgetting so soon what was once so clear in the mind is, says Francis O’Gorman in this week’s The Essay on Radio 3 (produced by Lisa Needham), very much part of our modern world. Too much information to take in, too little time to process it. The result, too much forgetting.
It’s virtually impossible to remember what you once put down as ‘your favourite meal’ on an online shopping site. Almost guaranteed that you will forget to take the only thing you really need for a train journey, your ticket, when you’ve also got to gather up a bag, key, wallet, laptop, phone, umbrella and noise-cancelling headphones for use in the ‘quiet’ carriage. So much stuff. Not only that. We’re encouraged all the time to think ahead, make a plan, update and innovate. Are we, asks O’Gorman, privileging the future over the past and thereby devaluing and demoting our memories?
Dostoevsky, he revealed, once wrote in a letter to a friend that he had recently read through his own novel Crime and Punishment. Two thirds of it was completely unfamiliar to him. He had written an unforgettable story about remembering (Raskolnikov working through his guilt) but forgotten most of it himself.
One of those snatches of conversation that I won’t forget in a while (I hope) is Christina Lamb, the foreign correspondent, talking to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs (produced by Cathy Drysdale). It was extraordinary to realise that Lamb was just 21 and fresh out of Oxford when she was taken on by the Financial Times to report back from the Afghan border. This was in the 1980s when the mujahedin were fighting the Russians in what was once the Hindu Kush. In between snatches of Elvis Costello, the Corrs and Der Rosenkavalier, Lamb described how she had sat next to the secretary-general of Benazir Bhutto’s political party at a dinner which she went to ‘by accident’ when she was a junior reporter at the FT and ended up being invited to Bhutto’s lavish wedding in Karachi, which lasted for the best part of ten days. ‘It was a pivotal moment,’ said Lamb. She never went back to London and instead rented a word processor from the paper and began sending back reports.
You could tell how she had always worked in a world dominated by men because when Young asked her whether she had ever had a female editor Lamb didn’t blink an eyelid (you could hear it in her voice). She simply replied, matter-of-factly, that in 30 years she had never had a female foreign or news editor. Whether or not this was strictly true (there’s an ongoing debate about this on social media) is rather beside the point. Her motivation in doing what she does, venturing into war zones, talking to the mujahedin, risking her life to be alongside those under fire, is precisely because ‘it’s men deciding what goes into the paper’, who are more interested, she says, in tales of derring-do. What she wants to know is what’s going on behind the firing, how are people surviving, like the women in Aleppo under siege who were growing herbs in every nook and cranny and making fires out of window frames to keep their children warm.
But it was what she saw in Afghanistan in 1989 that was most shocking, and memorable. Ten thousand people were killed in a week in the battle for Jalalabad as the Soviet army withdrew. Lamb, still a fledgling reporter, found herself surrounded by the dead and dying. She was mistaken for a medic and asked to take care of the wounded. ‘I didn’t know any first aid… I didn’t have any equipment with me. I didn’t even have a plaster.’ But, undaunted, she set to and stitched a wound, ‘in spite of not having a clue how to do it’.
Mary Peters, winner of the gold medal in the pentathlon at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, would probably have done the same. She could be heard on Radio 4 Extra hosting a 1988 edition of Down Your Way, that Home Service stalwart, presented in its heyday by Richard Dimbleby, Franklin Engelmann and Brian Johnston. When Johnston retired (after 733 editions), there was a different host each week, celebrating their hometown. Peters took us back to a much gentler style of programme as she talked about Belfast (in the midst of the Troubles) as a friendly, generous, kind city in a beautiful setting. Words like renewal and renovation came up often as she visited a leisure centre not far from the Shankill Road and talked to children making use of the revamped Mary Peters Track. No mention was made of the death threats made against her by the IRA. We were taken back to the past, but perhaps not quite the past we expected.