I was clearing out the recipe cupboard. A recess barely visited this century. I tossed hundreds of torn pages of Sunday Times magazines, pouting Nigellas, gurning Jamies, furtive-looking Lucas Hollwegs, smug Mary Berrys and the eggy rest. Sixteen contradictory recipes for fish pie: out. Too many dramatically different ways to cook a Christmas turkey: out, out. A collect-by-the-week series produced by YOU magazine, of laminated cookery cards slotted into a garish wipe-clean green binder: out, out out. What struck me was how much of that food has since become unfashionable. I might hurl together a 'desconstructed' (loathe that expression) prawn cocktail on the odd occasion; but I wouldn't be seen dead presenting the throng with a fondue, an asparagus quiche or a Black Forest gateau.
Among the faded bits of newspaper and crumpled magazine clippings, I found a letter from a boy I cannot remember, about a Wham! party I cannot recall attending, at which something thrilling or outrageous must have occurred to have prompted him to write about it (though the actual news cutting is long-lost). I have no idea what that occurrence might have been. But the fact that he went so far as to fear legal action (‘Don’t threaten to sue me or anything’) suggests that I ought not to have forgotten it. Which got me thinking about memories.
The letterhead - that of a Nottingham newspaper publishing company - made me think that I must have met this lad at a Wham! gig at the Nottingham Royal Centre in November 1984. But the Club Fantastic tour, promoted by Harvey Goldsmith Ents and warmed up by Gary Crowley on the decks, did the rounds the year before. I checked. There appears not to have been a Notts gig during the 1984 Big Tour. So the performance, and the party which the author of the letter and I attended must have been somewhere else ... but where?
It's so long ago, it probably counts as a childhood memory. But what good is a memory if we cannot remember it? We must not always trust the accuracy of long-ago memories, because they will so often have been influenced by other people talking about them. Not to mention remembering things inaccurately. Science informs us that our brains discard half of all new knowledge within the first hour. A month later, we will have retained only a couple of per cent of it. There are certainly a few people who can recall experiences and occurrences from toddlerhood, but we ordinary mortals tend to have recall only from the age of about seven or eight. Even then, the recollections are patchy. There is rarely continuous narrative. Only the highs and lows hang nebulously in the mind.
I have learned five languages during my lifetime. French and Spanish I studied for years, and took exams in them. I endured evening classes in Danish because one of our gang was from Denmark, during our sojourn as language students in Paris. I was once engaged to a Sicilian, and had always loved the lilt of the lingo. So I took up Italian for a laugh, during my second pregnancy. I can still read a newspaper in these languages. At a push, a book. And I can order an edible dinner in any of those countries, as well as converse to a limited degree. As they say, it's rusty, but it comes back when you're there. All that grammar and vocabulary, all those clauses and conjugations, are still stored away in there somewhere. But where? We know that childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after they've been forgotten. Everything must linger. But when memories surface, we should be wary of them. Our distant yesterdays sometimes brim with false memories, of events both wondrous and hideous that never occurred. It is common to have no recollection of events until we are asked about them. Therein lies danger, as Paul Gambaccini and similar victims know to their cost.
Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the subject he called 'Infant Amnesia': childhood memories that we cannot recall. Did such early-days things really happen, or did somebody make them up? Taking it right back, is it possible to remember anything that occurred before we acquired the ability to communicate in language? Will it ever be possible to rewind to the moments of our mothers' very labour, and experience again even the moment of birth? I doubt that science will ever achieve this. Because, as babies, our brains had not yet developed sufficiently to store complete memories. No-brainer.
There is a time and a place, I imagine, for imaginary memories. Without tangible proof, such as the letter I found - which says so much and yet so little - I find myself wondering whether we can believe our memories at all. I have always been an assiduous diary-keeper. Not even the diaries tell the whole truth. I should be thankful for that.