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Perception and memories can play tricks

As I set off upon today’s post I’m conscious that I don’t know quite where I’m going or indeed where I’m going to end up.

However – in the spirit of the famous catchphrase of Alfred E. Newman, the hero of America’s Mad magazine of which I was an avid reader about fifty-five years ago – “What, Me Worry?” – perhaps it doesn’t even matter.

In the modern world of suspected interventions by dodgy foreign governments in Western democratic elections, the advent of President Trump, digital voter analysis, manipulation of public opinion via fake social media accounts – and yes, even ‘Fake News’ – one could be forgiven for being cynical and sceptical about anything one sees or hears about.

There’s little doubt that this is a significant factor in what is commonly regarded as the average punter or electorate’s increasing distrust not only of politicians but of practically anything they’re ever told by anyone. Was it not Winston Churchill himself who said or wrote “History is written by the victors”?

Only yesterday there was a reference in the British press, in response to Brexit Remainers’ endless bleating about the supposed ‘lies’ told to the nation by Leavers during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, to the fact that – if politicians were actually ever to be held to account for the lies and misrepresentations made in their manifestos and/or speeches on the stump and/or their failure to deliver what they promised during election campaigns when and if they ever subsequently got into power – there would scarcely be a democratic (or any other) election in history anywhere in the world that would be untainted.

Bringing my theme today down to the more mundane, there are manifold complexities involved in any review of retained memories and recollections.

Even the Rust’s famous Great Debate on whether attending a sporting event, game or tournament in the flesh is a greater (more rewarding) experience than the alternative of watching it via the superb production, replays, surrounding previews, interviews and live analysis brought to one’s living room via the magic of modern television coverage.

And overriding the above, of course, there is the issue of which of those experiences provides a more accurate impression of what actually happened.

[I am beginning to flit about like a gadfly now, but I urge Rusters to stay with me a little longer].

Perception and reality can be, or are, strange bedfellows. There’s a line of thought that our dreams are reality … and that reality is just a dream, not the other way around.

Sometimes when a law suit goes to court, both sides fervently and honestly believe that their cause is the ‘correct’ and honest one and that the opposition’s is misguided, fabricated or plain false.

Pity the poor lawyers – or the judge or judges hearing the case or indeed, after that, the appeal – who have to argue and decide which of them is telling the truth … or at least something closer to the truth than the other side’s version … in accordance with the prevailing law.

I’ve always been happy to admit that my memory is fallible and/or can be patchy. Even so, I’m stunned not to say amazed how often people who know me recount incidents that I was allegedly involved in which I either don’t remember being as they describe it – or occasionally don’t remember at all.

For a period in my life I wrote a daily diary. I can’t remember now why I began it – it could have been just for the hell of it – but at its height I came to the view that one of its benefits was the fact that, looking back if I wanted to, I could remind myself of what I was actually doing or thinking on a particular day in the past.

Another plus of the above, of course, was that I could happily ‘let my memories go’ (wipe my brain’s fast-filling-to-capacity hard drive memory clean) every evening when going to bed, hopefully so that it would be better able to deal with the coming 24 hours. To summarise, I could ‘live in the present’ (and/or future), as it were, with a clear conscience.

Ironically, nearly two decades later when I finally reached the decision to discontinue keeping said diary – not without a struggle, I should add, based around the thought that it would be a terrible pity to do so after all this time – within a week I had concluded that it was one of the best things I ever did.

What I’m coming round to ask rhetorically is whether any memory any of us hold of anything – fondly or the opposite – is actually worth anything.

Is it – was it – the absolute truth of that which occurred … or is it merely a subjective waft of wind retained by our brain that contains within it a fleeting reality that in fact fails to reflect the actualité.

And anyway, whose reality would that be?

Take, for example, the legendary Gareth Edwards try during the famously epic Barbarians versus the All Blacks rugby match (won 23-11 by the former) that took place on 27th January 1973 at Cardiff.

I watched that match as a 21 year old ‘live’ on BBC television in and recall it even now as one of the most thrilling rugby matches I have ever witnessed.

I have since seen “that try” innumerable times since on television and video. But I have also watched an extended highlights version of the match – presumably all that survives in archive now … how great would it be if someone had preserved the match in its entirety? – and frankly, been deeply disappointed.

The standards of fitness, dynamism, defence and tackling, the set-piece scrums – just everything – on display back then were woefully inferior compared to the playing standards of today, even though the modern game rarely generates the excitement, flair and joy (even the impression I gained in 1973 that I was watching history being made in the flesh) of those affectionately-recalled “olden days”.

Below I refer to an item I spotted overnight on a UK newspaper website that prompted similar thoughts:

We’re currently marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original hippy festival Woodstock.

I wasn’t there but saw the film version of it when (I think) it came out the following year, which I felt (like the curate’s egg) was only “good in parts” – some of it was quite boring – but I embraced it as a whole for what I thought then was its cultural importance.

Delving back into what remain of my memory cells, I can think of maybe 50 music concerts featuring leading rock performers of the past that I have attended in my life and (looking back now) still recall as some of the greatest experiences of my life.

But – if I was to be presented today with and watched a recording of any or all of those concerts – would I still hold the same view afterwards? Come to that, would I even be bothered to go back and watch them at all? Perhaps I am better just clinging on to my memories … and keeping quiet about it.

I would not recommend that any Ruster actually reads this piece unless they really wish to, but here’s a link to a review by Bob Stanley of a set of 38 discs giving a minute by minute replay of every musical act that appeared on stage across the entire three-day Woodstock Festival – not something that I would particularly wish to listen to myself(!)  – as appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN


About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts