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 thingamabobs.

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 ago.

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 gases.

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 way...

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