Why do we remember what we remember?

Snow in SherburnSometimes I feel as if every point in my life is all happening right now, all at once and it’s just the bit I chose to focus on that defines the present.

Why do I remember such detail of one ordinary day 30 years ago but can’t recall cleaning my teeth last night? Why do the years pass by, blur and overlap? For some seemingly important events, we struggle to pin them down within a three year margin.

Yet other memories, when we step back into them, we find ourselves right back there, fitting snugly back into our younger skin, our smaller, more agile bones, with perhaps a more inquisitive or sharper mind, living that so-called past it as if it was the here and now, living a life with more time yet to come than time that has passed by.

As I write this it is not January 2012 but January 1982. I’ve woken up to the glaring bright light of the sunshine at the front of the house, through my window, where it is reflected off the blinding snow. There is darkness at the back of the house where the drifts have blown up to cover the downstairs widows. We can’t open the patio doors.

Round at Sean’s house, the drifts are so deep that he wants to jump out of his bedroom window into the snow, just a few feet below. His dad shouts for him not to, “the car’s under there!” he yells. It was true, although there was no sign of their burgundy Vauxhall Cavalier mk1 now. Just the white. For the rest of the day, and the next few weeks, Sean and I explore a new arctic wilderness. Everything has changed. There is no boundary between path and road, field and street. Just pure, untouched white. We build caves and igloos and navigate new uncharted territory until new snowfall and blizzards drive us back.

Sherburn Village, three miles out from Durham in the North East of England, resides on a hill, making it prone to being cut off in the winter by deep snow drifts that blow off the fields around, covering the sleepy village in a snug blanket of pure white. It is a great winter this year. One to remember.

The snow stays until March. Even now there are giant mounds or balls of dirty ice, taller than us, at the end of every road and in the playground for us to climb on.

Winter turns to spring and it’s not until after Easter before my class go on our long anticipated nature trip to look for tadpoles. Although I know it’s far to late to hope to find any. The walk has been delayed for various reasons, the latest being that have to see the school dentist. She’s given us small red sweets that when you chew them your mouth goes all red but it shows up the plaque on your teeth. I don’t see any plaque but we all look like vampires for the day. Then, after this annoying postponement the day has finally come when we can all march off down the country lane to look for our pond life.

The country lane is a black tarmaced road running through open fields and hills. The road is very long and strangely, you always feel warm riding or walking down it.

It starts at the top of our estate and runs a long way leaving our village behind and eventually leads onto the next. The road is lined with bushes. At certain periods there are gaps where you can get into the fields. About a third of the way down, a big steep hill drops down and after another hundred metres past that a smaller hill drops down. It had been impassible with the snow earlier in the year. Then, on a corner to the right is a grass verge, a metre wide by a fence. If you climb over this fence you can get down into a tunnel which goes under the road like a subway. Through the tunnel runs the red stream, the beck after which the village was named. Sherburn means ‘clear stream’. But the water is orange because of some kind of clay so not clear at all. The village should really be called Dirtybrownburn. On the left of the tunnel and steam and a little way above is a path leading to a farm. Another farm is on the right. Beyond is the enormous slag heap from the disused pits which looks like a terrifying mountain in the shape of a giant slug. It has many names like ‘Death Hill’ and ‘Danger Mount’. The hill has very steep sides and no grass grows on its grey shingly sides except at the very top. On the top it’s always very windy and thousands of grasshoppers live there, all different colours. You can try, but you can never catch them. Also on the top is an iron air-raid shelter from the Second World War, full of rubbish, rags and a broken vacuum cleaner. We had had a plan once, to clear it out and turn it into some sort of den, a secret base or an attraction like a cinema or ghost tour. We’re warned not to go there by my next door neighbour who tells us about a similar old air-raid shelter. It also had the same sort of roof made of corrugated iron which had collapsed, cutting in half the bodies of all the children playing in it. We don’t go there again after hearing that.

I love waking down the country lane and now we were off at last on what will be our last nature trip with the school. It isn’t long before we march single file off the road and over a field to where the beck splits and has created loads of tributaries and marsh areas. This is where we will find our exotic animals. We have little jars to catch stuff in. Our teacher, Mrs Begato, has larger containers to carry back the best of what we could find. As expected there are no tadpoles. They’d all have grown legs and leaped off to safety by now. Someone shouts and we rush over to look at the sodden marshy grass at our feet where there is a small but perfectly formed great crested newt. The first and last I’d ever see. I try to catch it but it knows this mud better than us and quickly disappears. We soon return back to school with our prized jars of dirty water, some with a few pondskaters, waterboatmen, mud and algae in them, and keep it all in an aquarium at the back of the classroom.

Then it’s the next day. We’re making plaster casts of Paddington Bear from rubber moulds. When the plaster is dry we pull the moulds off revealing our white bears. Mine looks pretty good, not too many bubbles. As soon as it’s dry I paint his coat blue and his hat black. The paint dries instantly so then I varnish it. Our bears are left to dry over dinner.

At dinner times people were not allowed in doors except to go to the toilet. I come out of the toilet. Sean’s here too. There’s no-one else about. Fueled by the energy of naughtiness, knowing we shouldn’t linger, we dare each other to see how far we can slink down the corridor, perhaps have a look at our Paddingtons. We head off down the narrow dark wooden corridor, towards our class. Then, a door opens and a teacher appears. We dive into our classroom, unseen. There’s our aquarium. The pond skaters happily skating and the water boatmen rowing around the algae. We hear footsteps in the corridor, the click-clack of teacher shoes. We crawl underneath the tables to hide. Under the table was a magazine. We have a flick through this, proud of our victory and then, when the coast is clear, we slink out again.

After dinner, Mrs Begato has some shocking news. During the dinner time somebody had come into the classroom and poured the oil used to lubricate the paster cast moulds into the aquarium and stirred it around. All our animals are dead. I can’t understand how it could have happened. Who would want to kill our pond life?

“I don’t understand how anyone got in, or even dared to” says Mrs Begato. I try not to look at Sean. I wanted to say that we knew the crime must have been committed just before the class had started as we had been here. But of course I couldn’t say that without becoming a prime suspect. It was an odd feeling, knowing that one of our compatriots had done it. One of us. And the perpetrator, the killer, is here, in this room. Mrs Begato knows that too. But since there is no evidence, no witnesses, and no confession, the crime remains unsolved.

MemoryI think about these things now, 30 years later. These events appear to have no consequence, no relevance or reference to today. Since it was the last term of junior school, we were all aged 11, I haven’t seen any of the players since back then. If I did track any of them down, few would remember such details of those particular days. Perhaps if we collected everyone together, they would remember the day before or the day after in incredible detail but they may have no memory of the country lane marsh trip or the Paddington plaster casts just as I have no memory of the following Friday or the proceeding Tuesday. I have, possibly like you, only scant scraps of other stories from 1982 as I have from 1992 and 2002 and all the other years in between and the ones before and since.

This story is important because we are the sum of our memories. We ARE the stories and the experiences. If we remember nothing, we are nothing.

I don’t know why I remember some things but not others. Perhaps I remember the snow because it was unusual and so exciting. We remember things that are outside the routine. Perhaps the puzzle of who killed the pond life is the key to why I remember those other events, the unresolved nature of it all. Does it matter who actually did it? Perhaps there was a conspiracy of silence and everyone but me knew who did the deed so for them the day falls into the deep well of forgetfulness.

Fo me I do keep on pondering. And I wonder: how accurate is my own memory of what really went on? Who WAS in the classroom that dinnertime other than Sean and me?

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


7 comments on “Why do we remember what we remember?

  1. Interesting question, as I sit here I remember little from my past but I do know I can remember with clarity some really random things. As I sit here what I think I am missing is the trigger, that one sound, smell, image etc that brings things vividly into my mind. I enjoyed the story – thank you


  2. It’s a really interesting subject, I find anything to do with memory really interesting. I’ve started using the mind palace technique that Sherlock used on BBC1 this week! Helps you to store memories and then locate them more easily because apparently we remember places over anything else – ties in with your recollections.


  3. Interesting, dear. I, too, have been experiencing the spotty memories. I’ve found, as I’m writing, that the singular memory seems to be in such detail that I can remember the sounds of traffic, timbre of voices and smells like cut grass and auto exhaust yet I can’t remember what or even IF I ate breakfast this morning. Weird, huh. I guess it’s all about impressions. The more profound, the easier the recall.


  4. Pingback: I own the only surviving copy of time | Ding!

  5. An intriquing post, Ayd. Today is the day the world ends – at least as far as the Mayan calendar was concerned. It is a date noted, remembered, and anticipated with awe, by generations, for hundreds of years. Tomorrow – if we are still here – it will be shredded into our subconscious or left to gather dust in the halls of academia. It will be a resolved issue.

    From birth, our brains embark on a journey of growth and ongoing discovery. We search for patterns, solve problems and look for ways to fulfill ideas by achieving desired ends. If these ends are not met, they are left open and unresolved. As there is no closure, they are remembered as ‘To Be Continued’. The neural pathways are still ‘Under Construction.’ We will very likely return to these pathways of unfinished business again and again. Such is the case of ‘Who killed the Pond Life?’ We probably all have long memories of an unfinished book or an interrupted film. They seem to live on longer by virtue of their incompleteness.

    The wonder of creative thinking is how the human condition is able to manifest itself. We play. We explore. And we often purposefully delay resolution. Even if we were to square the circle, we may not have decided on a specific end point. The writers of Whodunnits know all about this.

    At this point, I should write a short skit to illustrate the phenomenon but that has been done very well in your post. Also, I would have to leave you hanging – and it really would not merit a timeless life in your memory.


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