I have always been proud of my present-receiving face. A few years ago three different people bought me Adrian Chiles’ book about West Brom fans (a book I had myself purchased on the day it was published). I was confident they all thought me delighted as I tore off the wrapping paper and exclaimed ‘ooh, I was just thinking of buying this’.
Often at Christmas a particular present becomes ubiquitous. This year I gave three copies of Rebecca Ferguson’s lovely CD and received two in return. I also gave and received Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel ‘The sense of an ending’ .
It is a wonderful book. The story follows the narrator’s school and student years and then switches as in retirement he gradually and disturbingly comes to see actions of his earlier life in a very different light. It is one of those books that works both as an engrossing piece of fiction but also a treasure trove of ideas, in this case about the perversity of memory.
Indeed the book led to an insight that, although now I repeat it may seem obvious, felt profound when it came to me.
My intuitive idea of memories is of each time I remember an event revisiting the original moment stored somewhere in my brain. It is as if the recollection is a locked room I can choose to visit from time to time. It may get a bit dusty and various features decay, but each memory takes me back to that original scene.
The unfolding narrative of ‘The sense of an ending’ tears apart this illusion. The truth, of course, is that the place we visit each time we look back does not contain the event but actually the last recollection of that event. Each memory is a memory of the last memory. Thus – unless we check our recollections against those of other people - remembering is our own private game of Chinese whispers. Emotional associations may seem to strengthen the memory but they also create more background noise, increasing the chances of distortion.
As with other cognitive biases, recollection also tends to be self-serving. So for example our tendency to view our own mistakes as trivial or unfortunate and the mistakes of others as the consequences of their failings helps rearrange our memories into a more comforting form. The pivot of Barnes’ novel is when the narrator is shocked to realise how unpleasantly he had behaved much earlier in his life.
I was trying to explain this to some friends at Christmas when one of them impatiently burst out:
‘Well, at least this novel seems to have been a successful present. Much better than when we gave you that Adrian Chiles book a few years ago‘.
‘Oh yes’, the other friend chipped in, ‘your face when you opened it; like we’d given you a dead rat’.