By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
I WAS GOING to entitle this “Losing One’s Context” but “Nobody Forgets Hitler” popped into my mind and I decided to keep it because it’s true and it encapsulates exactly what I want to talk about. It’s about losing your memory as you get older, so I hope I get to the point without forgetting what I’m doing.
“I saw a good film last night about the Second World War.”
“Yes, who was in it?”
“Oh, that actor who’s in lots of things these days. Damn, I can’t remember his name. He was in that TV series about murders on canal boats. You know, whatsit. Thingy.”
“The one that’s married to the actress from Eastenders?”
“No. The other one. Her sister’s an actress, too. Or is it her mother?”
“You mean the actor’s got a sister who’s an actress?”
“No, no. Forget about her.”
“One of the Fox clan? There’s a lot of them about.”
“No, I’d remember if it was one of them. Irish. Can’t remember her name, either. Big family of actors. Old man was a famous actor.”
“That’s it! But no, not them. The actor I’m thinking about was in a film with one of them but she wasn’t in the film I saw last night.”
“What film was that?”
“Can’t remember the title. Set in the Second World War. Hitler was in it. Very exciting.”
AND SO IT goes on until eventually the name arrives. Just to put your mind at rest if you are of a certain age: there is no series about murders on canal boats. The film doesn’t exist and neither the Cusacks nor the Foxes nor anyone from Eastenders appears in it.
Such conversations become even more comical when you’re talking with someone suffering the same problem. You end up taking the most elaborate routes to what should be a simple destination. On the other hand, of course, it’s disturbing. You can put up with the odd twinges and pains that suddenly appear in various parts of your body only to vanish as quickly, but when your brain refuses to cooperate you realise the process of deterioration is now ineluctable.
What adds to this problem is when people of your own generation and those slightly older start to disappear in the same way. One moment it’s David Bowie, then it’s Terry Wogan and Ronnie Corbett, and the next, well, let’s not think about it.
They may be celebrities, singers, musicians, actors, politicians, writers, you’ve never met or perhaps never even cared for, but if they formed part of the times in which you grew up they’re part of the fabric of your life. They were there in your consciousness and that of the people you met and grew up with. They were part of the landscape. And now they’re gone. It’s like someone razing a whole street of familiar houses and replacing it with a car park or shopping mall, or building a motorway through a wood you once roamed in as a child. The past has been eradicated and if you go back to it no one you talk to has any memory of it.
THE SAME APPLIES to the events that happened in your own life and the world in general. My generation was the last one to have grown up in the shadow of the Second World War. Our parents had lived through it, our grandparents had lived through it and the Great War. The Second World War was omnipresent, in films, jokes, books, comics, conversations, comedy, our views of foreigners. Most of the people in politics, the media and education had been through it. Five of the masters at my grammar school had all seen active service from Burma to the Mediterranean and the Arctic. That’s all gone now. Our own past has become History, some of which is taught in schools.
That’s what I mean by losing your context: your terms of reference are no longer those of society at large. There’s a song by Steely Dan that looks at the age gap from an older philanderer’s point of view. The singer bemoans the fact that the nineteen-year old he is hitting upon doesn’t know anything, including who Aretha Franklin is. What she interprets as craziness is just him growing old and assuming she knows as much as him.
Thus you end up mouthing quotations from books no youngster has read and lines from films they’ve never seen or heard of. You know when you talk about Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, for instance, nobody under the age of fifty has any real understanding of what you’re talking about. If it’s anything to do with politics in general, forget it. The same with history unless it involves Hitler. He’s the one permanent fixture in history teaching these days, it seems. Not Stalin, not Lenin, not Mao. If it’s British history perhaps Churchill. But Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli, Nelson, Wellington — blank. Hitler trumps all. He sticks as permanently as the words of that awful pop song from thirty years ago that you find yourself singing along to when it’s played on the radio.
Even the nurse who wheels you to the bathroom in your nursing home will have heard of him. Nobody forgets Hitler.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.