Memory I

I’ve been thinking about memory quite a bit lately. At least I think I have. I have some memories of thinking about it, and memories of a couple of conversations along those lines. If I asked Fiona she might vaguely remember me mentioning my thoughts about memory as part of a conversation we had the other week. Or maybe she’s forgotten it.

I’ve also been thinking about fact and fiction and how they might relate to memory, so perhaps I should start with something about that. I was watching the new series of The Hour this weekend and generally enjoying it for what it is – an intriguing detective story set in a television news office. Skimming through the internets after I note the usual flurries of criticism that it’s not an accurate portrayal of the 1950s, that anachronisms abound and it’s just not right. This happens to every 20th century period drama, from Mad Men to Downton Abbey, along with anything set in a specific milieu. Homeland isn’t an accurate depiction of the CIA, Holby City isn’t an accurate depiction of a hospital, Buffy isn’t an accurate depiction of High School. The criticism is often loudest, or sighs heaviest, from those who work in those dramatised places. I remember when the nascent UK blogosphere got it’s cables in a twist about Attachments, a stupid “adult” TV show set in a office, because it was nothing like working in a office and no doubt there are archeologists who feel aggrieved whenever Indiana Jones goes on a field trip.

What these people forget, or chose to ignore, is that these programmes are not supposed to be documentaries. The setting is simply that – a setting in which the characters can play out their roles. The things these characters say and do does not necessarily serve to tell us about that setting, although they may well do. They serve to communicate whatever the creators want to communicate. And frequently that is something about us, now, today.

The best fiction, I find, is that which tells a truth, which says something about the human condition as it is lived. Science Fiction does this quite transparently, using speculations about the future to craft parables about the present, but I’d contend that all fiction does it too. All crime novels are essentially the same story. What sets them apart from each other are the characters and how they move through that plot. Colin Dexter’s stories don’t tell us anything useful about crime in Oxford, but how Inspector Morse deals with them tells us something about ourselves.

And yet we’re hooked on this idea that these stories reflect the truth. When filmmakers use the prefix “based on a true story” everyone assumes they’re referring to the plot, the “this happened, then this happened” and so on. But it can’t have anything more than a passing resemblance to the facts. I often wonder what it must be like for someone like Mark Zuckerberg to watch something like The Social Network and see events that they intimately lived through rendered in the service of a story completely alien to their experience. I cite The Social Network because it panders to my prejudices about Facebook and I’ve considered it a documentary. But it’s not, of course. Writer Aaron Sorkin used the history of Facebook to say something beyond Facebook, to say something about the way we live, and possibly some stuff about power. Whatever it is it doesn’t matter. Zuckerberg and co were the raw material, collateral damage if you like, from which Sorkin crafted his point. That is was based on a true story or plucked from cards tossed in the air is irrelevant.

Whether a story is true or false, or an accurate depiction, doesn’t matter. What matters is the truths it tells us. And knowing the difference is the key thing. (Sidebar – maybe this is a useful working definition of Art. A lump of clay can be a bowl or it can be a bowl which tells us something about the human condition. But that’s for later.)

Obviously there’s much more to this and I can feel the literary and cultural theorists bursting to correct my blanket assumptions about the uses and abuses of fiction, but I need to move on. Because what I’m really interested in is stories, specifically the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences. I’m interested in memories.

My first experience of the weirdness of memory came in 1989 when I was 16, although the seeds were planted a decade earlier. Like many before and after them, my parents got divorced and had a fairly messy custody battle which, without going into details because they’re not really mine to share, resulted in my not seeing my dad for most of the 1980s. Towards the end of the decade contact was re-established and I went to stay with him for the summer after my GCSEs. At some point I asked him what happened back in the late 70s. I knew my mothers side of the story and wanted to get his. Unfortunately it didn’t tally with the story my mum had told.

As an emotional teenager the idea that one of the two people I loved and trusted the most was lying to me about the most important event in my life was a little hard to deal with. If they were both telling the truth, which they had to be if I was going to maintain any kind of trusting relationship with them, then the problem must be with truth itself. There is no such thing as absolute truth, I melodramatically announced. Truth is relative.

Being 16 I didn’t really know what that meant but it sounded right and vague postmodern ideas were leaking into the mainstream. Absolutism was as dead as the Cold War and, most importantly, it allowed me to love both my parents. But I was wrong. I was confusing truth with memory. My parents weren’t telling me “the truth”. They were relating their memories of what happened, memories clouded by emotions and the machinations of evil divorce lawyers. If I tried hard I could probably uncover some degree of objective truth about what happened to them circa 1978-1982 but it wouldn’t make them liars. It would just make them human.