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Winter 2005

On Memory

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Michael Holroyd

I don't know who said, "I've a grand memory for forgetting," but I know quite well what was meant. The thread of our memories is hung out with clues to our identities, and the manner in which they deceive us shows why a good memory may become essential for a successful career built on telling lies.

But there are also many advantages, I believe, to be had from possessing a poor memory. I can't of course come up, here and now, with all of them, but as a writer of so-called nonfiction, I have been obliged to struggle through virtually the same research again and again, and this has apparently been of considerable benefit to me. I eventually gain, it seems, such an inescapable and unblinking intimacy with the material that I take on the air of a genuine scholar. So you see it's been really quite useful in my career. Or so I've been told.

Reference books, when I can lay my hands on them, are the external tools of my memory. All you need is some working knowledge of the alphabet to unlock, like a code, all kinds of recondite information—most of it quite useless. The closing of a reference book, I find, is a very liberating act. Besides, I can always rely on other people—readers, friends, and other writers (especially other writers) to help out. They finish my sentences for me and issue corrections freely. On the whole, people like to know better and know more than their friends, I have discovered, so my poor memory has made me unexpectedly popular—at any rate more popular than I would have been had I retained more information myself and heaped it onto them. As it is, I am continually impressed by other people's feats of retrieval, sometimes going back hours, and I never fail to congratulate them.

I am told that I must have forgotten so much of my childhood because I lived when young in a state of great anxiety. It has been good to forget all this, quite good and rather sensible too, I think. Now that I am rapidly heading towards my second childhood, I am preparing for a similar exercise of forgetfulness. Moments of pain, humiliation, and embarrassment will fall easily away and disappear over the horizon. It's really quite a satisfactory prospect, in fact very satisfactory, and I recommend it to you all.

But it is when I am watching old films on television that my lack of memory is most dramatically brought home to me. I sit on the very edge of my chair, eyes wide, missing nothing, I like to think, and so absorbed in the story that I forget myself—which is a great boon. I like violent films best—I find they calm me, calm my suppressed anxieties, I daresay.

"What are you doing?" my wife suddenly asks me.

Is it a trick question, I wonder? Maggie is afflicted with a tremendously good memory. She knows many poems by Wordsworth, Yeats, and others by heart, as well as long speeches from Shakespeare and entire plots of many novels. It's really quite impressive—on second thought, very impressive. But I am not burdened in this way.

So what am I doing? It seems quite clear to me, but I am rather ashamed of my taste in television films, so I answer quite vaguely, almost diffidently, even defensively. "It's rather unusual, this thriller," I say. "Come and watch it. I'm curious to see how it turns out. You might like it. I think it's a classic, at any rate quite original..."

"But you've already seen it."

"I have?"

"Yes. You've seen it a couple of times. The last time was only a month ago."

"You're joking!" I look back at the screen, anxious not to miss anything.

"I wish I were joking. You said you didn't much like it last time."

This, I have to confess, surprises me. But perhaps it's someone else she's thinking of—someone who really didn't like it. Or perhaps I liked it the first time I saw it. Who can tell? I try out a variation of my defensive play.

"I don't think it's quite like the one that we saw. Maybe it's the same director. In any case this is the director's cut, so it isn't exactly the same. I'd just like to see what happens."

"What happens is that..."

"Don't tell me! I don't want to spoil it."

But it's too late. I've already lost the plot—which means, of course, that sometime or other I can see it again.

I switch off the television and open a book instead. It reads very freshly and there's a lot of it: twelve translated volumes in a rather battered light-blue binding. Maggie says it's one of my favorites. So I should enjoy it.


Michael Holroyd has written two volumes of autobiography, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, as well as biographies of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, and others.
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