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Northern Hands

I have northern hands. They are my grandfather’s on my mother’s side: squared off, sturdy, safe?

I see my grandad spinning a knife on the polished dining table after tea – the bone handle spinning, silver plated SHEFFIELD slowing, slowing, ready to point out the person who would be doing the washing up.

My grandad always did the washing up. And peeled the vegetables.

I do the same, but I don’t spin a knife.

I have his hands and they are northern, Lancashire hands, worn in with the good earth and the pit dust of somewhere like Newton-in-Makerfield. I have the hands that he was yet to grow into as a boy, walking through the Queensway Tunnel under the River Mersey with an uncle the night before it opened in the summer of 1934. I have the hands that dovetailed joints and played ludo and grew vegetables and wrote a PhD about the infinity of numbers. I have those hands, and the stories that lie in them, and I’m grateful.

My daughter's hands

My daughter’s hands

My mother has them too.

Music as occasion

I was listening to Desert Island Discs this morning and the castaway Barbara Hulanicki, of Biba fame, spoke of a memory of playing a record of Chopin with her father, selecting the needle for the record, taking the record out of its cover, placing it on the turntable…

It struck me then, that with the immediacy of music now available at the push of a button, or an iPod shuffle, often experienced alone through the world of earphones, we have sacrificed something else… shared ritual and memory.

I am old enough to remember vinyl. The consensus about the record to be played. Sitting down to listen, maybe sing along. I spent hours that way. Now everyone is plugged into their own device, listening to their own thing. I never thought I would miss vinyl, not in the beginning, in the brave new world of the Walkman and then the CD. But I do. I miss the needle lowering onto the record, the shared experience, the crackle and the bump bump bump at the end when it hits the final groove.

I do miss all that.

Leveson Inquiry: memory and language – Brown & Murdoch

Murdoch tells the Leveson inquiry that in a telephone call the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, declared ‘war’ on his company. Something you’d remember, right?

Gordon Brown tells the Leveson inquiry that there was no such call.

We could toss a coin for who is telling ‘the truth’ and charge the other party with perjury, or we can, as I attempted to in yesterday’s blog post, analyse the language, the content, and the anatomy of memory to see what comes up.

The bone of contention: there was a call -v- the call never happened

Of course there was a call between Murdoch and Brown, more than one over the years, but a call in 2009, some time after the Sun had withdrawn its support for the Labour Party, is the call in question.

Brown says ‘the call did not happen’. What he means, perhaps, is that the call did not happen the way Rupert Murdoch says it did. Murdoch, and I find this surprising, given the way memory works, was able to briefly quote, apparently verbatim, not what just he said to Mr Brown, but what Mr Brown said to him.

Brown does not remember making a threat. Murdoch remembers the exact words. Telling the truth under oath is a problem, because you can tell the truth only according to what you recall of the time, or the conversation in question. I can barely remember what I said to someone last week. If you were ask me to recall a conversation in 2009, verbatim, I don’t think I could. Not even if it was really important, or emotional. Those kinds of conversations tend to be remembered like impressionist paintings, all loose brush strokes and overall tones. A telephone conversation is even harder to recall than a face-to-face one, because you have far less sensory information to lay down as a memory. It’s a voice coming out of the receiver – no particular visual impressions at all.

If either of Brown or Murdoch had a copy of the call, then, that would really be evidence. As it stands, we are left with this: two powerful men’s impressions of a conversation, amongst many, that they once had.

Brown will be personally invested in being the kind of statesman, or just man, that does not make threats. It’s hard to say what Murdoch is invested in, in terms of his own public image. When he appeared before MPs, on the custard pie occasion, he seemed, at times, for all the world like a fragile and doddering old man. Now, a few months later, this image is turned on its head as he puts in a polished performance of high detail memory recall worthy of Derren Brown.

I don’t believe Murdoch’s verbatim account but neither do I believe that Brown would remember exactly what he didn’t say to Murdoch, over the years. Murdoch’s business is headlines, on balance I can’t help but think that in putting those headline soundbites directly into Brown’s mouth, he has revealed the values and ethos that have got some sections of News International where they are today.

That said, I think that in the matter of Sarah Brown’s apparent ongoing friendship with Rebekah Brooks, after the Sun ran the intrusive and apparently unauthorised story about the Brown’s son, Gordon’s Brown’s claim that his wife is ‘forgiving’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Whilst in office as Prime Minister, the Browns appear to have bitten the bullet and played the media game, whether they liked it, or approved of it, or not. I suspect at an intellectual level, Gordon Brown rigorously separates his public and private roles and it is this dichotomy that allowed him to make statements to Leveson that made some reporters ‘jaws drop’.

Mr Brown may not say what others think they saw, but that doesn’t meant that he recognised it himself, at the time, or as a memory now.

And does it really matter anyway? As the real evidence stacks up, that which doesn’t rely on people’s memories (which are notoriously unreliable), a blurry picture is emerging. A post-modern portrait in which it seems to me that certain sections of the press and some politicians have far too symbiotic a relationship for a country that likes to bang on about democracy and (mark you, Michael Gove) free speech.

The Leveson Inquiry: memories and language

As this inquiry churns on and on in the background of economic gloom and matching weather I have been interested to think a little about how it all works, not on a legal or regulatory level, but in the minds of those giving evidence and those charged with making judgements about the evidence.

Memories are not showreels, fixed in our minds for evermore. Memories are made up of a cocktail of chemicals and electrical energy fired around the brain, as neurons share encoded sensory information with each other, whilst creating new synaptic connections and neural networks, or something… What I am getting at, is, that a memory is not fixed. A memory changes in the recall, so it is a dynamic process and the way you happen to remember events becomes the strongest connection in your brain over time. Which is how we arrive at an inquiry to find that people remembering the same events are describing them in contradictory terms, whilst all still telling the truth.

A neural network, not Mr Osborne’s

So how does Leveson decide what is what in this jungle of interconnected, yet sometimes opposing memories? Well, I suppose he might consider who seems more consistent, more reliable as a witness, by examining whose testimonies have some underlying cohesion to them. If I were him, and I am glad I am not, I would also think about the personal story about the event that the witness has revealed in their recalling of ‘the facts’, because within the language used I believe there are some hints to a person’s inner processes and subsequent narrative about their public self.

Take George Osborne’s testimony about the BSkyB bid by the Murdochs. His tone and bearing appear equanimous, he sounds a reliable witness. He may be so. Examine the language he uses to rebut allegations that the Tories were somehow complicit in nodding the takeover through after the election, because they had already agreed to it prior to the election in return for support from the Murdoch press. He talks about a ‘vast conspiracy’ it being ‘complete nonsense’ ‘you have to be a real fantasist to believe that…’ ‘cunning plan’. He then concludes that the ‘facts simply don’t bear it (the allegation) out’.

So despite his apparent equanimity, George Osborne, rolls out this colourful and descriptive language to merely assert that the Conservatives followed ‘proper process’ in the matter of the BSkyB bid. This big gun language seems to have been specially drafted in by the Chancellor and, to my mind, sits outside his usual lexicon. There may be two reasons for this: one, that although he believes the facts do speak for themselves, they are somewhat thin on the ground so the forceful language is an attempt to fill the gap between evidence and belief, and two, that his fundamental belief that his political opponents are ‘fantasists’ who are willing to entertain ‘complete nonsense’ has strongly influenced his recall of events. His memories then, are not an account of the facts, but an account of his beliefs about the protagonists, including himself: Tory = rational and truthful, opponents and others not totally convinced = fantasists.

It’s not like that though is it? Most of the facts and ‘the truth’ are going to lie somewhere in the grey middle. With partisan evidence like this, I fear we are never going to get there. To me, and I don’t care for the guy – so take it as you wish, the language comes across as arrogant and self-serving and does not even hint at an interest in getting to the heart of what Leveson is all about. In terms of getting to the truth he may as well have said, ‘What? Me, Guv? Not me, Guv’ and left it that. Except that he’s not that humble and if he had it wouldn’t have got me thinking. I think it is almost possible to hypothesise that the strength of the memory does not guarantee its veracity. A vivid memory may not always be down to an accurate recollection of the original event, and may be more to do with the manner and narrative within which it has been repeatedly recalled since.

Next up, Gordon Brown, and what he said about his wife, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.

The power of a horse race

What follows is an attempt to explain to those of you who couldn’t give a seasonal fig for horse racing one of the reasons that those of us that do love it, do.

It’s because of the story: the true story. In fact, a horse race is so true I want to attempt to separate it almost entirely from the world of story. It’s not easy and here is why. They say there are only seven types of story out there, literature being based on one, or another of them. And what we are inclined to do is (sometimes interchangeably) impose one of these seven narratives onto our own muddled existences. We do this backwards, to understand the past, and we do it forwards, to better enjoy, or ‘plan’ the future. However, the fact of the matter is that we only know the now, this present moment, and in this moment there is no particular story to be grabbed on to, unless we want to take down a reel from the shelf of life and roll it both backwards and forwards to make the present, the now, cohese with the past and the future that exists only in our minds.

And as complicated as that sounds, that is pretty much what we do. For example, many of us will have played the showreel labelled ‘Christmas’ on a loop for the last few days. We tend to think in narratives and we have accompanying reels for just about every mundane, and otherwise, scenario. And we do it so very well that the storytelling about ourselves, our lives and others becomes an automatic way of being and before we know it those stories are not just super-imposed onto the current context of our lives, they become our lives. Our minds become a dark space waiting for a reel to flicker into life. The flickering stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and others, start to run our thinking. Our thoughts fit the narrative from the shelf…

I am not against stories, but I am cautious of the way we let might let sloppy ones run riot in our own heads, unexamined and rarely called to account. The power of a narrative tool, used judiciously is a beautiful thing, but the reality is that we are awash with cheap, emotive and polemic narratives that do us all a disservice. Our unquestioning acceptance of our own and consequently other people’s stories about our lives, their lives: Life… leads us into an unthinking loop and when we tire of those narratives, we reach for the alternative but equally manufactured ones via tv remote, or a book, or the computer.

It is in this state of narrative-induced inertia that we en masse sponge up the stories of advertisers who infer to us that we’ll be more cool if we buy an iWhatever, or we’ll capture love if we buy and wear a certain perfume. We take those stories, and we say, ‘Aha! That’s a rubbish story that is. Of course I am not going to meet a film star if I buy a coffee machine. What do they think I am, stupid?’ And we forget about it… But do we? Actually we don’t. Of course we forget much of the detail, perhaps even the actual name of the perfume or coffee machine. But our memory has a remarkable tenacity and clings onto the basic narrative like a piece of driftwood. Our brains remember the gist of it, minus some detail and part of the reason we do this is because it makes the complication of life more simple. It makes the downright dog’s dinner of human existence cohese into a more palatable selection of amuse-bouches. It also makes us buy products whose advertising narratives best fit our own…

It’s not at all our fault and it partially explains why memory is so unreliable. See that showreel labelled Christmas? Well it’s not a re-run every time you play it on the Dave channel of your mind. It’s more a story board for the future made up of the basic gist of the past, missing quite a lot of forensic detail. We tend to retrieve only an abstract impression of the past, especially the commonplace, and even that shifts with every separate retrieval.

So why hang onto the horse race, which could itself be described in narrative form? Because amongst the smoke and mirrors of so many individually nuanced stories about life, crossing the line in front is a one true fact. A fact of the matter. It stands outside my context, and yours. It is what it is. And in the seconds of victory, that can be replayed at will in detail, unlike our own plentiful faulty memories, it ties us to a present moment like the very few other facts of existence that are uniquely glorious in their own immediate context: like the birth of a baby, or a gin and tonic.

Horse racing is a factual account that sits in its own context and demonstrates the power of now. Of course when Kauto Star won his fifth King George, in his sixth run in the same race, we ran the story backwards in our minds to enjoy the possible forwards of it all that much more if he won. But nothing was certain; he might have lost. For me, the power of a great horse race like yesterday’s story…

Kauto Star’s Fifth King George the Sixth

…lies in this one thing, the thing you can be fairly sure of amongst all the hyperbole, in all our story-ridden intepretations of life – the horse wasn’t counting. We can choose to overlay the day with a fantastic and triumphant narrative, if we like, but the main protaganist, the horse, will not.

We can learn a lot from that.

Yeats & Murtagh: one of them has a story, one of them does not

Turner: A Painter of Light

Rain, Steam, Speed - oil on canvas 1844

A Turner painting is like a vague childhood memory, a romantic pre-cursor to the impressionist period of youth which is, in its turn, seen off by the hard edges of distracted abstraction in middle age.

The original work hangs in the National Gallery, London.

I just remembered: I forgot to do a post today

One of my strengths is being able to forget; one of my innumerable areas for development is remembering stuff.

I can remember all manner of facts and information that has no especial application, if it fits with one of my obsessions of interest. Anything that might be of immediate and concrete use, often goes unremembered. The cat could vouch for me on this shortcoming as she clutches her ample gut and curses me for running out of cat food and not feeding her all afternoon…

I have been through three or four memory sticks for the computer since Christmas: a couple broken through ill-treatment (accidental), others lost.
One turned up today in the washing machine. I dont know how long it had been there. Safe to say, it too will have forgotten all the important things I asked it to remember…

But I have been thrown a lifeline. A laptop from work that connects to the work network. Now I can save things to a power higher than my own, a memory more reliable, a collective of information – one that will never, ever, not even in my most absent-minded of moments, end up in the wash.


The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

Nostalgia meets Amnesia

Yesterday I felt all 1990s and posted a link to The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which was on constantly in late ’97 and ’98 – a period in my life I feel a bit wistful over (for no particular reason other than it being the fun you have in your twenties).

Then I went off to work which required me to go to a consultation thing for MIND (our local branch). They kicked off with speeches from the chair, Sir Teddy Taylor (resplendent in House of Commons braces – he was the baby there a long time ago you know) and an address from the MIND Director of Network Services, Lee Smith.

The whole time Mr Smith was talking, I was wondering where I knew him from. Not many clues in the name. He talked for about 10 minutes and by the end I had narrowed it down to London, more than ten years ago, probably working in a mental health setting in the voluntary sector. But I was still a bit baffled. Knowing it would probably drive me nuts I decided to nobble him as he left the stage and ask the random and potentially humiliating question – do I know you?

I have form for this kind of thing and it is embarrassing. So this time I ran through a checklist first based on the following experiences. Once I asked a man at the OXO Tower (who was evidently out with a beautiful girl he wanted to impress) if I had done a course with him at the City Lit. He had not. In fact he was an actor. From the television. So I did a check – did I see Lee Smith on the television ever and had never actually met him in real life? Maybe talking about the Mental Health Act or something. On balance I thought not.

Then I did the – have I confused him with someone else entirely check. I did this recently. I had a conversation with a woman in the supermarket called Vicky who was with her daughter Isabel. When she mentioned her young baby I declared shock and surprise as I hadn’t known she was pregnant when I thought I had last seen her. Eventually, my clanger became clear. She wasn’t the Vicky I thought she was, she was another one, with a daughter called Isabel. And then in my complete confusion I had to ask if I even knew her at all. Thankfully I did, we had been on the same course (for 6 months!) a couple of years ago. So she knew me. She must now know I am very absent-minded too.

Lee Smith seemed to pass that check, so I just asked if I knew him (which is a stupid question as it should be – do you know me? – but that is a tad egocentric) and mooted working in Brent as an opening gambit. Thankfully, he was not an actor or a doppelganger and he did recognise me and filled in my missing gaps. Working for MIND is obviously good for you. We were colleagues at St Mungo’s (in London but nowhere near Brent) in the mid to late 90s, working at different projects but with our paths crossing from time to time. I still can’t exactly remember the paths or the crossing details but you can’t indefinitely quiz a director of a national charity, at a formal do, for the missing bits of your memory jigsaw. Actually, I seem to have lost the lid too, so if anyone has that it would be helpful to have it back…

We had a nice chat. It was nice to see him. But it was disconcerting to have a malfunctioning memory. It felt like being in a car when the battery is turning over, just. I think I am going to stop harking back for a while and live in the moment as the short term memory seems ok for now.

Now, my mother doesn’t like this sort of talk so don’t read it mum / don’t tell her if you read it yourself: I txted the other half and asked him to smother me with a pillow if I ever really lose my mind.