I finally got round last night to reading Saturday’s Guardian magazine. One of my favourite columns is Oliver Burkeman’s ‘This column will change your life’, as it invariable gets me thinking about the way I live and work.
This week he was talking about memories, and the tendency to remember only certain aspects of events, namely how they felt at their emotional peak, and how they felt at the end. So, if you’re remembering a week-long holiday, your memory of it will very likely be a product of one single very happy/stressful moment, and how you felt as you were leaving. The implication of this is that it is better to focus on short moments of intense fun than to holiday for as long as possible, and that half an hour of quality time with the kids counts much more than being around them all day, every day. Phew.
It got me thinking about the memories we create for our children, and the highs and lows I remember from my own childhood. I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a fairly poor long-term memory, but one exercise we did on my recent Arvon course made me realise that there are actually a lot of interesting sounds, sights and smells buried in the murky depths of my brain, if only I can dig around enough and find them under the layers of daily life.
The exercise was based on an extract of a book called I Remember by Joe Brainard. We were asked to close our eyes and imagine being ten. We then wrote down everything we could remember about how being ten tasted, how it smelt, how it sounded and how it felt. It was amazing how easily one memory triggered another, and before long we were all reciting the most amazingly evocative childhood memories. You should give it a go, see what you come up with.
Following on from the exercise, I spent some time on my own version of Brainard’s I Remember, and I’ve included an extract below. It’s funny the things you remember isn’t it? We spend so much money taking our families on holidays, going on outings, buying gifts, and when you look back it is the simplest things that stick in your mind. What are the most powerful memories from your childhood? I bet they are the things no one was really paying much attention to at the time.
I remember Mr Middleton, with his giant black beard, the most popular teacher in school. He was my Dad.
I remember the soft, spiky feel of Scott Wilson’s hair after he’d had it shaved so short and we all wanted to touch it.
I remember kissing Richard, the son of a local shopkeeper, in the hollow hedge at the edge of the field.
I remember another Richard proposing to me on the back of a white, plastic ruler. I asked him which secondary school he was going to. He told me Stanchester. I turned down his proposal – I was going to Huish Episcopi and it would never have worked.
I remember a family holiday to Cornwall, with my Gran in the café at Goon Hilly, drinking milkshakes with real ice cream in.
I remember scratching on the back of posh Catherine’s wax Barbour jacket with a stick.
I remember arriving in Bridgwater for the first time, the smell of rotten eggs from the Cellophane factory, its tall chimneys visible over the roofs of the houses in Windsor Road.
I remember the lumpy earth of our unfinished garden – a small, irregular patch of churned up building site, peppered with broken bricks and twigs, hastily enclosed with tall wooden fence panels.
I remember becoming the unpopular child at a new school, never chosen to collect the exercise books.
I remember my sister and I betting Rachel Kelly that she couldn’t fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times, and Rachel and her mum sticking 24 pieces of A4 together on the kitchen floor, trying to prove us wrong.
I remember stealing the keys from the door of an empty, almost finished house across the road.
I remember arguing with my teacher, Mrs Bryant, when she tried to make us believe that ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ was a question about location.
I remember the double layered hem of Mrs Bryant’s ankle length skirt and the way her hair fell so smugly just above her shoulders.
I remember the inter-school book quiz, getting every question wrong about ‘Woof!’, because Mrs Bryant mistakenly made us read ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’. I have hated Mrs Bryant for 22 years.
I remember the waft of Chanel No5 that would escape from my Gran’s black leather handbag as she reached inside for her Anadin.
I remember the noise of the metal cap twisting on the gin bottle, and the fizz of the tonic, as she made herself a drink.
I remember getting a new cabin bed, with a desk and drawers underneath. The spaces behind it, either side of the ladder, were big enough for my sister and me to squeeze into. We could see each other from opposite sides across the gap, but no one could see us.
I remember the excitement of my dad bringing the video player home from school in the holidays and my sister and I crying all the way through a pirate copy of ET, lent to us by Kylie’s dad across the road, who always wore jeans and a white vest.
I remember noticing that all the roads around my school were named after trees; Birch Close, Elm Avenue, Chestnut Drive.
I remember feeling like everything interesting happened after I’d gone to bed.