Memory Effect

Check out my fancy new Photoshopped banner. Took me about two minutes. I know it looks like at least three minutes went into it. The image behind the charmingly italicised  font is detail from Georges Seurat’s famous fridge magnet and coffee mug design that was later appropriated by Stephen Sondheim for his musical Sunday in the Park with George. And I am now ripping off Sondheim and Seurat for my blog. Seems fair.

So where’s the park? It’s the Platonic ideal of a park. When I say that, I think of Menzies Park on Egina Street Mount Hawthorn where I used to get smashed into the ground as an eleven year old who knew nothing about Australian Rules football. Which was actually very bloody far from ideal, but that’s how memory works. It bends, stretches, twists and fails.


I was hopeless at sport. Could anyone who knows so much about the television of the 1970s and 80s be anything but non-sportif? And yet, like many a schoolboy of the time, I idolised Australian Speed bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee. Being a Western Australian I was incensed at those who suggested that Thommo was quicker. I considered the “scientific tests” that “proved” this theory to be nothing more than lies that Thommo and some crooked lab-coated Queenslanders had cooked up.

Many feared the Aussie quicks, but I feared the swift-ish delivery of Liam “Rice-Cream” Maudesly, almost fast bowler from Green Faction.  I think he chucked that compound ball down that bitumen pitch. There was definitely some bent arm action. Sure it doesn’t sound glamorous, but that was cricket on a Friday afternoon in my state school in the late 1970s.

Which is a neat encapsulated way for me to describe my memories of sport. But the truth is, I really hated playing sport, because like so many schoolkids of any era, I was terrible at it and this caused no end of embarrassment and humiliation in the playground.

If you weren’t good at sport you could be described as any number of insulting Un-PC things. It also meant the horror of being picked last for teams; and the fear of being in the middle of a play or an innings or a round on a field or a pitch or a Thunderdome and suddenly, the ball, puck or Golden Snitch would come your way and in just the blink of an eye you were being smashed by a tsunami of enraged juvenile males a.k.a your team-mates who were all screaming ‘What the fuck are you doing – why didn’t you kick it to me, dickhead?!”

But one’s memory plays tricks or perhaps one plays tricks with one’s memory because the tiny, intimate details of the past are often painful and don’t fit into our current projection of the confident adult we pretend we are in the world.

Last week, I bumped into someone whom I hadn’t seen for several years. For the purposes of this post I will dub him Derek. He was an acquaintance I knew through a mutual friend whom I will call Nigel. At one time, about fifteen years ago, Nigel and I were studying to be English teachers and although I saw Derek often, we never became friends. Nigel died some years later from cancer. I think of him every few weeks. But when I saw Derek, it was difficult for me to remember who he was. He could see me struggling with it and he had to identify himself. He didn’t look all that different.. I think part of my difficulty was simply not having his appearance imprinted in my mind for a number of years. I think when the mind doesn’t need a piece of information it just archives it somewhere on a dusty shelf at the back.

In Januaary, I met someone I hadn’t seen for many more years. We also had a mutual friend and thanks to the sneaky way Facebook works, I had already seen a photo of “Rory.” We had been volunteers on community radio. For some reason I didn’t feel like a trip down memory lane, so I didn’t remind Rory of our intersecting history. After about 10 minutes, he had unconsciously shifted his mental archive boxes and located the correct suspension folder with my dossier in it. Rory hadn’t seen me in twenty years and we had only met a handful of times.

I hadn’t seen Derek in approximately seven years and I had met him dozens of times. I’m not certain that I would have identified him even if I had a couple of hours to do it.

Clearly I’m no brain surgeon. Not with all my filing cabinet metaphors. Rory may simply have a better memory than I do. Or perhaps, my fuzziness about Derek is connected in some way to the painful death of our friend and my preferring to shove anything that emotional in a metaphorical floor safe. (Yes, I’ve switched metaphors mid-stream.)

I used to think I had a good memory. Now I’m beginning to suspect that this opinion is like the one we all hold about being a good driver. How do we really know how good our memory is until it’s tested? The more mine is tested by circumstances like the above, the more I feel that memory is a fallible and unreliable thing.

I used to rely on my memory of the past. Whenever I think of being seven, I remember being in a split Year 2/3 class and watching Roderick Laird showing us all how it was possible to skin a banana without using one’s hands. I remember my grey uniform. I remember the zipped change-pocket where I kept my lunch money. I remember seeing Rob Biagoni flip open his desk lid, prop up a mirror on the incline and comb his hair while admiring his own reflection. I remember having to listen to Troy Warfield being praised to the skies for his tennis prowess at a school assembly and having to reconcile this with the picture of the vicious thug who punched you in the stomach if you went near “his” drinking fountain.

All of that seems solid. It belongs to me. But have I forgotten some of it? How would I know? A lot of writing—outside of (for example) the technical writing necessary to operate a Sunbeam Sandwich Press—is about capturing memory. I’m starting to sympathise with Guy Pearce’s character in the film MEMENTO. I feel as though I’m scribbling down notes to capture shifting thoughts that I won’t necessarily recognise when I next read them.

Perhaps the best way to go is to relax and rebrand myself an existentialist. Yeah, that’s the go. I’m a shifty existentialist rebuilding the Lego blocks of self with each new midnight.

A moment ago I was vague and middle-aged. Now I have a life philosophy and a spring in my step.

Note: The names of all schoolmates and friends have been changed


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