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That memory thing.


THE FADING OF one’s memory with age is usually not a blessing and more of a curse. You don’t forget the dreadful or embarrassing things you did or that happened to you but you do forget where you’ve put your insurance documents (“for safe keeping” somewhere obvious yet sublimely obscure), for instance.

I have books I read with great pleasure, not to say smugness, decades ago, whose contents remain as much a mystery to me now as if I’d never even opened them.

The names of people you worked with just a few years ago pop into airy nothingness like little bubbles, as do films, television programmes, actors, politicians, etc. I have books I read with great pleasure, not to say smugness, decades ago, whose contents remain as much a mystery to me now as if I’d never even opened them. The only things I can recall from reading Mann’s The Magic Mountain (twice, I’ll have you know – there’s the smugness) is Settembrini shooting himself in a duel and the last page in which the author predicts the demise of Hans Castorp in the First World War. So, damnit, I’m going to have to read it again.

The embarrassment of bursting into tears on a riverside bench when my first true girlfriend finished with me when I was a teenager, on the other hand, has never vanished. Interesting to note that it’s the embarrassment that remains, even though only she and I knew about it, and now you, Dear Reader, and not the actual pain of rejection. There’s something Proustian in that. In the closing sections of his great book he talks about how even grief itself can vanish with time.

In dealing with the mundane conversational lapses concerning names I employ a simple technique of working my way swiftly through the alphabet until everything is revealed. It works about 90% of the time.

On a larger scale, the idea of shared social memory seemed to receive a boost in the arrival of the internet and associated technology. Nothing would be lost now if committed to disk, web or cloud, according to the pundits. The internet would become the library of the world, a modern day Library of Alexandria, in which human knowledge would be available to everyone. And it may well have become that if countries such as China had not started censoring it for their citizens, and before the big tech companies in the west also began to filter and censor material that they deemed politically incorrect. The European Union got in on the act by passing a directive that allowed individuals to have unwanted information about themselves removed from search engines operating within Europe. Information, in contradiction to some cyber prophets, was not going to be free.

The development of offline digital technology has not proved to be a great boon for individual or collective memory either. Even at the beginning of the popular use of computers, when the large floppy disks gave way to smaller, hard-cased ones, the problem of incompatibility arose. Librarians were some of the first to raise the issue of data lost because the technology on which it was stored had been rendered obsolete.

By now we are all personally familiar with the problem of material that is no longer to hand or easily recovered, whether it’s emails that have vanished because the provider has simply deleted old stuff from its servers or photographs that have been consigned to digital oblivion on mislaid, lost or broken drives. If you want to keep anything for your own later years or your children then the advice to follow is that of experimental poet, Kenneth Goldsmith: “print it out.”

Now I know that most of the materials we accumulate disappear into skips and charity shops when we depart the earth, including those old family albums full of photos turning a funny colour, but it is always possible somebody will still want a memento of us. And maybe some tiny fraction of this great mass will prove useful to future historians. It may be that they will end up with the equivalent of a handful of papyrus at this rate.

Living in this digitised world can also make us lazy and inattentive. Teachers and educationalists seize on it as a means to discourage old-fashioned practices such as memorisation. “You can get the facts on the internet,” is what you will hear them say, as if memory weren’t an essential part of learning. Grammar and spelling are reduced to petty nuisances that can be corrected by software. Or worse — I recall a presenter on the regular BBC morning television programme (yes, it would be the BBC, that bastion of culture) in a discussion about education saying, “We don’t need to know how to spell any more.”

I doubt whether the young female presenter who dropped this nugget of wisdom knew of Socrates and his admonishment two and a half thousand years ago that the written word would seduce people into abandoning memory. Given the low intellectual calibre of our broadcasters I doubt whether it would have made any difference if she did. Perhaps we are indeed moving into a post-literate world and back into some McLuhanish verbalising village where the precision of the written word takes second place to the sloppiness of the spoken.

It is ironic that the internet encourages the production of the written word and images of all kinds on a ferocious twenty-four hour basis while at the same time destroying so much of it. People say that nothing is forgotten on the web but it’s not true. Companies providing upload services go bust and vanish into the cyber ether. Others wipe data when it is no longer useful or economical to keep it. Servers evaporate. The internet has become a black hole into which information is sucked and obliterated. It has become the destroyer of memory.

The good news about this is that you can look forward to the trace of many unwanted memories disappearing forever if all there is of them is bits and bytes of data scattered on websites and in emails. On the other hand if you wish to preserve something digital your best bet is to make it physical. If you can remember to.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), 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 book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.


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