Memories and stories

In recent months, I’ve become a big fan of Mixcloud. A recent mix of ambient music, included a piece of music from the soundtrack (including dialogue) of Blade Runner, the moment where the replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) knows he is about to die and in a monologue he recounts the things he has seen. Famously, he describes the events/memories as “lost to me now, like tears in rain“. The mix caught me unawares and it prompted me to think about my dad, who died a few years ago…

My dad died shortly before his 90th birthday and, in one of my last visits to him, I managed to prompt him into reminiscing about his life. In the post-WW2 period and up to the 1960s, my dad was an electrician (technically, an electrical fitter) in the RAF and, when I was young, he was wont to tell me stories of his time serving at the RAF base in Hong Kong, so those were the ones I winkled out of him. All his memories are lost to me now, apart from the few I gleaned out of him…

My colleague, Rhiannon Mason, is interested in the cultural aspects of memory. One aspect of this is the way that me memories have an extended life in a family. My dad tells me his memories and, in turn, I might recount them to my children. Thus a memory might have a lifetime of 80 years or more. Or, I can write them here, where they have an uncertain future. So here are two…

My dad worked in Hong Kong at the time the squadrons were in transition from Spitfires to the jet-powered, de Havilland Vampires. When they’re on the runway, Spitfires sit pointing slightly upward because of arrangement of their landing gear. One day, when no-one was anywhere near them, one of the Spitfires fired off the rocket-packs slung under its wings. The rockets slammed into the hillside above the officers’ mess. Thankfully, the heads of the rockets were solid and not explosive so the incident just scared the officers rather than killing them. As an electrician, it was my dad’s job to find the problem and fix it. It turned out that the hot, humid climate was playing havoc with the wiring and the rocket firing switch had shorted. Having claimed to have fix it, dad had to prove it. So the Spitfire was rolled out to the end of the runway where the Spitfire could fire out into sea. [From what my dad said, it seems that there was some concern that the trial might go catastrophically wrong, so his colleagues stood at some distance and my dad rigged a trigger that he could use from outside of the plane. With no little trepidation, Dad set up the trial and fired the rockets… All was well.

Later, the first Vampire arrived. It was the first jet fighter in a squadron in East Asia and it arrived in a series of crates. (Think of a flat-packed aeroplane.) Dad was one of a group of technicians who were told, by a Warrant Officer, to gather in a hangar. There they were told, “Here are the crates with all the parts, there are the instructions, go and build the plane.” Dad and his work-mates had different areas of expertise which complemented each other (though apparently one of them was an alcoholic, so they tucked him away in a corner and got on without him). After some time, they assembled the plane. The Warrant Office congratulated them and then escorted them away; at the same time the officers gathered in front of the plane for the formal photograph commemorating the arrival of the first Meteor. Thus my dad and his colleagues were obliterated from the official memory.

Now… there were other stories too and I have no way of ascertaining the veracity of them, at least not without a lot of time and effort. And even, if I did that, what would I gain? The stories were part of his account of his life and part of my idea of my dad. Perhaps it is better to accept them as such and take them at face value.

Also… memories are pliable, both in their external form and their neural encoding. When we reconstruct a memory and recount it for others, we shape the memory to make it more tell-able, more story-like. We fit it into socially acceptable forms that work in the moment. In re-telling the memory, we also change the way that it is encoded in the neural structures of our brains. So the events, even if they actually happened, probably didn’t happen quite the way I have recounted them – they were probably more haphazard and less story-like.

But, apart from the structure, what is the difference between a memory and a story? The recounts above were memories for my dad and they are part of my memory of my dad but for anyone who reads them they are just stories. When trying to decide between possible accounts of psychological phenomena, one question that is often asked is – is this account parsimonious? A parsimonious account of memories and stories might well be that, neurologically, they are dealt with in the same way. A memory might well just be a story that sits in a particular network of associated ideas. So we share our stories/memories so that they won’t be lost in the rain just yet.

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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