I was clearing out the recipe cupboard. A recess barely visited this century. I tossed hundreds of torn pages of Sunday Times magazines, pouting Nigellas, gurning Jamies, furtive-looking Lucas Hollwegs, smug Mary Berrys and the rest. Sixteen contradictory recipes for fish pie: out. Too many dramatically different ways to cook a Christmas turkey: dumped. A collect-by-the-week series produced by YOU magazine, of laminated cookery cards slotted into a garish wipe-clean green binder: be gone. What struck me was how much of that food has become unfashionable. I might hurl together a 'desconstructed' (loathe that expression) prawn cocktail now and then, but I wouldn't be seen dead serving a fondue, asparagus quiche or Black Forest gateau.
Among the faded bits of newspaper and crumpled magazine clippings, I found a letter from a boy I can't remember, about a Wham! party I fail to recall, at which something must have occurred to prompt him to write about it (though the actual cutting is long-lost). I have no idea what it might have been. But the fact that he feared legal action (‘Don’t threaten to sue me or anything’) suggests that I ought not to have forgotten it. Which got me thinking about memories.
The letterhead - of a Nottingham newspaper publishing company - made me think that I must have met this chap at a Wham! gig at the Nottingham Royal Centre in November 1984. But the Club Fantastic tour, promoted by Harvey Goldsmith Ents and warmed up by Gary Crowley on the decks, did the rounds the year before. There appears not to have been a Notts gig during the 1984 Big Tour. So the performance and the party we attended must have been somewhere else. Where?
It's so long ago, it probably counts as a childhood memory. But what good is a memory if we can't remember it? We shouldn't always trust the accuracy of long-ago memories, because they will so often have been influenced by others talking about them. Not to mention remembering things inaccurately. Science says that our brains discard half of all new knowledge within the first hour. A month later, we will have retained only two per cent. There are a few who can recount experiences and occurrences from toddlerhood, but most of us tend to have recall only from the age of about seven or eight. Even then, the recollections are patchy. There is rarely continuous narrative. Only the highs and lows hang nebulously in the mind.
I have studied five languages, including English. French and Spanish I took tertiary exams in. There were evening classes in Danish because one of our Paris gang was from Copenhagen. I was once engaged to a Sicilian, and had always loved the lilt of the lingo. So I took up Italian, during my second pregnancy. I can still read a newspaper in those languages. At a push, a book. And I can order an edible dinner in any of those countries, as well as converse to a degree. It's rusty, but it comes back when you're there, as they say. All that grammar and vocabulary, all those clauses and conjugations, are stored in there somewhere. But where? We know that childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after they've been forgotten. Everything lingers. But when memories surface, we should be wary of them. Our yesterdays can brim with false memories, of events both great and small that never occurred. It is common to have no recollection of events until we are asked about them. Therein lies danger. As Paul Gambaccini and others know to their cost.
Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the subject he called 'Infant Amnesia', childhood memories that we cannot recall. Did such early-days things really happen, or did somebody make them up? Taking it right back, is it possible to remember anything that occurred before we acquired the ability to communicate in language? Will we ever be able to rewind to the moments of our mothers' labour, and re-experience the trauma of birth? I can't see it. Because our baby brains were not yet up to the task of storing complete memories.
There is a time and a place for imaginary memories. Without proof, such as the letter I found, which says both much and nothing,I find myself wondering whether we can believe our memories at all. I have always been an obsessive diary-keeper. Not even diaries tell the whole truth.