‘Time moves in one direction, memory in another’ – William Gibson

I heard the quote above this week and it got me thinking about its meaning and about the fickle almost ephemeral nature of memory. I have set myself to create memories with my children and friends and we have already had many memorable events. Interestingly an annual surprise birthday trip to a holiday destination of their youth has created new memories built into and presumably altering our perceptions of the original event. So when we went to Weymouth many years of childhood pleasure intermingled with this adult perspective, transforming and maybe distorting the original but leaving a renewed and heightened sense of this place and time, a place of calm, easy pleasure. 

Memory I think is by definition provisional and partial. Provisional as it depends on a conjunction of factors to occur – (accurate?) recall, maintaining perspective (remember I caught that fish must have been 3 foot/four foot/ long), and shared understandings and partial as we actually recall only a small amount of our amazing lives and partial because, by definition, it is often a particular interpretation. I believe I have good recall and when discussing events with friends and families my memories often provide details others have forgotten. Having said this I have still had many conversations where a difference of view emerged which either transforms my own recall or produces a resistance where I am convinced my own recall is more accurate. Does this matter? Is it about accuracy or about a feeling, an image or a sentiment rather than the detail?

Maintaining perspective is a difficult discipline because if the memory was good in the first place – ‘over 100 came to my 50th birthday party’; ‘it was a great innings I scored 82’; or ‘I did the Three Peaks walk in 14 hours’, we want the memory to operate a grand place in our lexicon of recall. I think such distortion is an all too common feature of recall particularly for events and achievements though much less of an issue for a feeling or mood memory and even if an element of nostalgia enters our consciousness and reifies our recall again does that really matter. I can recall the birth of both my children and it just brings a wave of good feeling and happiness and is sustainable just with that. 

Often memory is a solo pastime as we sit and recall for ourselves our memory of events and happenings. In writing my novel I have used lots of memories and make no pretence that they are accurate in terms of the detail, indeed the process of making them scenes in a novel transforms their basic structure anyway. But shared understandings are precious, they create a language, a personal connection to which only you and your fellow ‘recallers’ can share. I love meeting up with friends from both my recent and more distant past. There is for me something more than nostalgia in enjoying that shared reflection. It is in a small way an affirmation of your time together, this did actually happen, and whether the memory is happy and bright or dark and bad that shared space is the very essence of our life stories. Sometimes words are not needed, it is simply being in a space where recall comes and is shared with a hug, a brief word or a knowing look. 

I am not sure we should suppress memories either if they are itching to be acknowledged. More likely to occur with bad, uncomfortable memories and whilst we are anxious to move on if we are not to be saddled with unresolved feelings we need to find ways of addressing them. This cathartic process is never easy and for really difficult memories we may need professional guidance to get through, but getting through is key to moving on. 

Selection of memories can be a purposeful activity where we sit down and remember a past occurrence but often it is stimulated by a range of potential stimuli – music, paintings, photos, a book, a place, smell – all these can set off a train of thought whether we wish to go there or not. Also the same stimuli can produce a range of different memories and is never timeline dependent, so memories from different eras can compete for space. For me coconut does that for me in a largely negative way but also certain music transports me immediately to a particular time and place, even if I have never been there before. In reading about the death this week of the reluctant painter, Turner prize winner, Sir Howard Hodgkin, I noted this: ‘Painting was his way of remembering’. To have that capacity to recreate on canvas how you see the world must be such a great way of preserving memory. I think photos have begun to do that for me, though obviously not in the same grand fashion. But my daily blip gives me a diary of the past three years plus and when I see a photo and the brief diary entry it helps recall. Do people who keep daily diaries have better memories of their past? How do you recall your past?

I found this comment on the opening quote:

‘”Dead Man Sings” opens with a similarly melancholic sentiment. “Time moves in one direction, memory another,” Gibson writes, “We are that strange species that constructs artefacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.” And because time and forgetting are natural forces, those artefacts always have the hint of the uncanny about them. Gibson notes the relative novelty of recorded music: it’s only recently that Elvis could keep crooning from beyond the grave. Yet rarely do we stop to consider this change, another aspect of what Gibson calls the “communal, prosthetic memory that we have been building since before we learned to build.” The memory lets the dead man sing.’

Our relationship between time and memory is changing. There are so many ways to record our past that we can now counter our forgetful brain with such recall aids. Does this increase the store of memories or just change our recall to those things we can record and reproduce. I have no video of my children’s birth, is my memory less valid as a result? I have a vivid recall but it is without doubt a memory of how I felt not everything I actually saw. Would I like to see a video now to check my recall. I don’t think so as for me memory serves more subtle desires for connection with the past. I can read about my cricket performances but that will not capture the many hours of pleasure I got from cricket and that is what I want to preserve, the essences of my life not a diary.

Memory can, and sadly does at times, cause us anxiety and upset. But it also gives us many happy recalls which for me get close to the essence of life. I am in my last stage of life and have plenty to look back upon and have no unresolved issues so without ever needing to force it I can lose myself in feelings drawn from a past event/feeling that just makes me smile and that cannot be bad surely. 
My week’s memories in photos below.

‘Blackbirds singing in the dead of night’ (Beatles)
Spring – the eternal sign
Early morning pheasant invading front garden from my bedroom
A brief space for finches and tits when the starlings relent
An invasion of starlings in the garden
The sun resting on tangled branches

4 thoughts on “‘Time moves in one direction, memory in another’ – William Gibson

  1. I love the difference between the memory of fact and the memory of feeling. Much has been made of false memory recently but that is irrelevant in terms of memory of feeling. Our experiences that realm are entirely subjective and therefore the experiences are susceptible to a variety of understandings and “interpretations”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed and this can change over time. I occasionally have negative reactions to a memory which I’ve then over time found I appreciate differently. Usually memories of high emotion but they do change, we change I guess.


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