When I moved to Edinburgh, something happened. A memory dam burst. An icecap that had been storing my old recollections melted, providing me with a gentle waterfall of stories. Things that I didn’t know I remembered came back to me in detail; moving pictures in full colour and with sound. This cluster of memories was huddled around a particular span of years: my late teenage years and my early twenties. Why was this happening? How had these old movie reels become unearthed? I wasn’t talking to anyone about them. I wasn’t aware of casting a rod into the past. I believed I was looking to the future. Yet, as I walked (and when I arrived here I walked a lot) I would be drowning in detail: the fabric of H,’s formal dress in 1989; the man who sat beside me on a bus from Prague to Paris in 1992; what P. said to me on the steps of St. Joseph’s Hall in 1987; the smell of the Crescent Bar (not a good one) at the top of Sandy Row in 1993; the songs we danced to at a Downings disco in Donegal in 1991.
I assumed that this bubbling up of memories was the result of the physical act of moving away from my homeplace. I concluded that exposure to a new city had brought the walls, diving my present from my past, tumbling down. It seems there is another reason, though. One I have just learned about. I learned it from my bedside companion – the radio: I am experiencing a “reminiscence bump”. Heavily researched by psychologists, a reminiscence bump is the propensity for older adults (approaching your fifties) to have an enhanced recollection for events that occurred during one’s adolescence and early adulthood, in particular, memories from one’s life at around 15 – 25 years. For me, it feels like more of a jolt than a bump.
I’ve begun to write these memories into short stories and sometimes I send them to M. who was there at the time. She comes back to me, often suggesting alternative versions – was I sure it happened like that? In this instance, it doesn’t matter. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story, as long as that it all it is – a story. And is there any such thing as a reliable storyteller anyway? Any storyteller worth their salt will make little adjustments with each telling – work out the point in the story where they lose people, note where they draw the listener in. A good storyteller will snip and tuck and tighten the seams of the narrative along the way. In Brian Friel’s play, ‘Faith Healer’, three characters each give their version of the same event, and – guess what? – each is very different. One of the characters describes the Faith Healer’s (Frank) tendency “to adjust, to refashion, to recreate everything around him.” Mostly I have no problem with refashioning stories from the past, as long as the stories told are not being placed on historical record. If they are being told as a form of entertainment, then what harm in a little bit of added colour? Recollections are bumpy, and the farther in time you travel from them, the bumpier they become. When you next hear an account of a story from your past, and think: “I was there, it didn’t happen like that!”, hold your tongue, and consider that the reminiscence bump might have tossed up two valid versions of the same story. In other words, it could well be that you are both right.
‘Tomorrow’, by Hal Summers
“What do you see? A man in the half-light
And a child peering at something on a hill, and Oh
It’s a fingerpost, says the child, but the man says No,
It’s only a scarecrow; and they are both right.”