The Duplicity of Memory
Written September 1995, © Howard Roberts.
"Erm...Kermit the Frog?". This was my unforgivably flippant remark in
reply to a serious question posed in a pub quiz I attended recently. My
unfortunate answer was in response to the question: "Who was the author
of the novel 'Westward Ho!' ?" While it got me cheap laughs it did no
favours to the memory of Charles Kingsley and lowered my self esteem
somewhat. Whilst, no doubt, there are many of my acquaintances who
believe that my self esteem is desperately in need of lowering, the
fact I could not give the correct answer came as something of a blow.
You see, I used to know the answer to this question, but it has become
increasingly common for me to notice gaps appearing in my memory. I'm
not even into my thirties yet, but I have already begun to forget
The unfortunate memory lapses I have begun to suffer seem to follow no
discernible pattern. Why is it that I can remember the three types of
blade used in fencing with no effort whatsoever, yet when I come to
list the members of the band Muddy Waters used on one of my favourite
albums of all time, my mind is as blank as...you know, a wotsit.
Why I should have such a blank spot for the finest album from the
universally acknowledged master of Chicago blues, yet be able to recall
the array of weaponry used in fencing without the slightest effort is a
complete mystery. I must have listened to that album hundreds of times
yet as far as I am aware I have watched approximately zero fencing
matches. I once read "The Three Musketeers" but it was a very long time
My only theory about why I can remember such an astonishingly useless
collection of facts is overexposure to them in my younger years.
Someone once said (I can't remember who it was, I'm sure I used to
know) that a child's mind is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. In
my childhood (my first) I was a voracious reader of a magazine called
"Look and Learn". Every fortnight, the sluice gates were opened and a
little more trivia was delivered into my sponge-like brain; when I say
sponge-like, I don't meant I'm suffering from the human equivalent of
bovine spongiform encephalopathy, I mean I soaked it up. Basically this
reservoir from which my mind was filled was homework disguised as fun.
If I'd realised that at the time I read it I would have returned to
"The Beano" or "Warlord" posthaste, but I didn't and I read it from
cover to cover every second Friday.
The fact that I can remember the names of the fifteen republics in the
former Soviet Union and that Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel invented the
first navigable submarine as well as a thermostat for a self-regulating
oven, I owe to this magazine. However, if you asked me to remind you
about differential calculus or the periodic table then you'd get a look
of utter incomprehension. For two years during my 'O' levels I was
intimate with both these subjects. I am sure that within two weeks of
taking the exam I could not have told you the formula for determination
of projectile paths or the number of valence electrons in the noble
Just what is it that enables me to remember the most unlikely facts and
yet forget information that might have aided me to become ICI's Chief
Chemist or McAlpine's Head of Engineering?
I have a theory which runs as follows. Mnemosyne, the personification
of memory and mother of the muses (thanks again, "Look and Learn") does
not want us to take formal exams. She has a phobia of dingy school
gymnasia filled with row upon row of scratched wooden desks, of small
dank classrooms full of poor souls slaving over incomprehensible exam
papers, of bored teachers and lecturers wandering the aisles
desperately wishing they could head back to the staff room for a
cigarette and a cup of Nescafe. What Mnemosyne wants is for us to be
able to demonstrate our abilities in a comfortable atmosphere that is
competitive yet congenial. Somewhere where teachers and lecturers would
feel at home, where those taking part in the test would feel at ease
and yet be hungry to demonstrate their knowledge. The prizes would not
just be a pieces of paper with lists of exam results but something
material that would proclaim your success to all those you encountered.
What Dame Memory wants is for us to take part in pub quizzes. Where
else can you encounter such a wide variety of questions, in a
competitive setting and in such comfortable surroundings? I believe the
pub quiz is the natural setting for demonstrating our learning.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to change into my "Carling Black
Label" T-shirt and head off to my local to try and win another "Bass"
baseball cap and a free round of drinks. If I could just remember the