I’ve been mulling over the nature of memory and truth since I started writing the schoolroom centre stories. Are they true stories? Yes. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me? Ah. Let me think?
Well, for starters, I’ve altered some identifying details, since some of the people I’m writing about are still alive. Does altering names and other non-defining attributes make the people and what happened to them any less real?
Secondly, what constitutes a ‘true’ story? One that is recounted as it would appear if recorded by a video-camera fixed to the narrator’s forehead? Nobody tells stories like that – partly because the slow pace and irrelevant detail would be crushingly boring; partly because it would leave out some important components of the story, like the narrator’s bodily feelings and inner dialogue; and mostly because that’s simply not how memory works.
Back to Radio 4 again, on Friday night, the station broadcast a programme in a series called ‘In Search of Ourselves’ and the episode looked at memory. One of the points made was that memory is context-dependent. So my remembering Marion and the vests probably had a lot to do with the fact that Grenouille currently has a ringworm infection which is proving exasperatingly hard to shift – nearly five weeks after it first appeared, we are on the fourth different cream, and still it won’t go away. That popped the dermatology lecture up in my mind, which linked, via a washing-line’s worth of undergarments, to Marion. I would have remembered the vests story anyway as soon I moved to focus on Marion, because that put-down – and the ‘you daft besom’ look she gave me as she hit me with it – made me laugh out loud at the time, and still makes me smile now. But I wouldn’t necessarily have set it in the context of my eclectic approach to university education, had I not been dealing with a drawerful of anti-fungal treatments.
Another idea in the programme was that memories are changed by our recollecting them. According to the contributors, every time we take a memory out and look at it, we subtly reshape it to fit with our current circumstances and needs. I’m not convinced about that one, although I am prepared to believe that the details we present about a memory depend on our current context. My memory seems to work as a series of vivid pictures, into which I can step to replay the memory. And yes, I may focus on different details of the memory at different times, but am I inventing those details to suit the circumstances? I don’t think so and, absent recordings from the forehead-video-camera, who will have the data to prove me wrong?
On the other hand, these stories are over twenty years old. I remember people’s manner of speech, and I remember individual phrases that were so striking – or repeated so often – that they remain stamped on my inner ear, but I can’t bring you dialogue as if transcribed from a recording. I don’t believe anybody could, and I don’t suppose anybody expects it. What I can do is make sure that the dialogue I present contains the key phrases that I recall, and that the rest of it is as true as I can make it to the overall feeling of the memory.
Here’s a third problem with ‘true’ stories. It is said that ‘pictures are better on the radio’. People can create images and sequences in their minds that the most inventive film director, with the biggest special-effects budget ever, could never hope to approach, let alone replicate. If you could get ten people to listen to the same story, and then each project the ‘film’ in their minds onto a screen, you would see ten amazing movies and each would be markedly different from the others. My Victorian schoolroom will look very different from your Victorian schoolroom; your Marion will sound and move differently from mine. However accurate I try to be in telling a story, the tale each reader receives will be different. An individual, personalised version. The stories I think I am telling, are not the ones you are reading and visualising. Does that alter their ‘truth’?
It is, however, objectively, factually true that, once upon a time, I smuggled myself into a dermatology lecture; and that I once knew a woman – maybe called Marion – who had learning disabilities, attended a day-centre where I worked, and wore a vest and a spencer. Those bald facts don’t exactly make story, though, do they? Stories need to be given a shape. I don’t think that shaping a story automatically distorts the truth of the events within, but you may disagree.
So, are my stories true? Yes, absolutely. They are as true as true stories can be.
And now, if we’re agreed on that, and you are sitting comfortably….