Lightly Done – September 2019 – The Importance of Recollection by Tom Hayhoe

BBC Radio 4 marked the August bank holiday by filling its schedule with 11 episodes of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu / In search of Lost Time.  The idea of “lost” or “forgotten” time is sad and should be unnecessary. There is value in capture and recording the essence of what becomes memory before it becomes remote and can no longer be recalled.  It is of value for those who have lived through those times, and it also of value for those with whom it can be shared.  We are the sum of our memories, whatever of our memories that we can share with others lives on beyond us.  What we know of the past, particularly captured in what those who have gone before us have set down, helps make sense of the present.

That’s enough of these weighty thoughts!  I relish having heard my father’s accounts of naval service in the Mediterranean as a midshipman just after the end of the Second World War, including a visit in the training cruiser into the Black Sea and his accompanying a young Russian officer on what was probably a completely illicit trip in a launch around the Soviet fleet moored in Sebastapol.  I recall his accounts of a contrasting time in the depths of the Cold War, commanding a submarine spying on Soviet fleet movements, anxious that at any moment that they might have to come the surface in a hurry if they sailed into one of the pockets of nearly fresh water in the Baltic that couldn’t support a submerged submarine.   And then there are my own direct memories of my father’s submarine service: the distinctive smell of diesel and sweat in his kit bag on returning from sea; visits as a small boy to the wardroom of his submarine and those of other submarines visiting Portland while I was growing up; and finally, almost certainly as illicitly as his trip round Sebastopol harbour, being taken on an exercise on the submarine he commanded, including looking out through the periscope while the submarine was under water, and a torpedo being fired.

I regret having never sustained keeping a diary, although I did try a couple of times.  I also regret not having been more consistent about capturing experiences on camera.  However, I doubt whether the current appetite for the selfie really addresses the purpose of recollection either, since it feels narcissistic and I fear that so much is about pretending to be happy, impressing a network of friends and acquaintances on social media and seeing “fifteen minutes of fame” in an age that values faux celebrity.  I sometimes tell myself, and have on occasioned counselled my daughter, to “bottle” the experience (in the sense of preserving in a bottle).  But this on its own is not enough.  You may need something to prompt the recall of what you have “bottled”, and this is where the diary entry or the photograph may come in. My memories of a magical trip, three days hiking unsupported through the backcountry of Yosemite National Park in California, with my daughter when she was sixteen, are supported by a handful of photographs that bring back the atmosphere, the incidents along the way, and her excitement at what felt like, literally, being on the top of the world as we looked out across the Sierra Nevada, and her apprehension beforehand at the prospect of camping in an environment we shared with black bears that might steal our food.

Sometimes other triggers are sufficient to help us recall the past.  I experienced something akin to Proust’s smell of the madeleines almost twenty years ago, albeit in reverse.  I was planning a tour of New Zealand, where my family lived briefly in the early 1960s.  As I started to plot our route, memories started flooding back of places that I had visited as a six year old.  Most spookily, as the geysers of Rotorua found their way into the itinerary, I was spontaneously overwhelmed by the distinctive sulphurous odour that hangs over the town, with the memory triggering a sensory response that felt completely real.  Buildings and places can do it for me too.  Hearing music can also transport me back to moments in the past, and how I felt at the time.  Late summer, and the annual broadcast of the last test match of the summer from Oval (incidentally, I am shocked that next summer’s test matches will open rather than conclude with the Oval test) transport me back to the last days of the school holidays in the summer of 1968, an eventful August during which the radio waves were also full of news of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

Anyway, it all adds up to the importance of not losing our own past, and also the pasts of others. There is purpose in recording material to trigger memory, and it is fundamentally enriching and essential to fulfilling the human condition.  As TS Eliot wrote in East Coker, itself a wonderful evocation of atmosphere that can still be recognised almost eighty years on from when it was written (go to the poem to see how talks about country lane in the evening, or what happens in an Underground train if it stops between stations):

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment 

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).