Ray Bradbury told a story about a time-tourist on a dinosaur-spotting safari who unknowingly stepped on a Jurassic butterfly. A tiny crunch started a time-avalanche whose cumulated effects hideously transformed the world to which he returned.
In old age time travel is dangerous for exactly the same reason. Revisiting the past was once awkward. School and university re-unions were hard to organise, difficult to attend and it was laborious to weave collaborative records of the past from scraps of information got from Xmas cards, changes of addresses, chance encounters and gossip. Usually no good came of such attempts. Now E-Mail, Twitter, Face-book and Linked-In dump far too much information on us at the speed of light, greatly increasing the risk of our pasts challenging our presents. Peak Electronic Round Robin is New Year.
E-mail delivered my fattest Round Robin ever: a 500,000 word draft of an autobiography from a very old friend whose extended family’s arachnoid search-engines had sensed my feeble twitches in the Web. He had been a most valued companion from 1952 to 1958 then disappeared to be a political historian working in Africa, Jamaica, Cambodia and, finally, Holland. His very long second-to-last chapter, which he calls “Dutch Treats”, describes exhilarating (so he says) patronage of more than 800 prostitutes (so he says), and some enduring and affectionate relationships that resulted. I was more delighted by other great stuff about a far more vivid, eventful and grown-up life than my own: Cambodia under Pol-Pot, learning to read Vietnamese, the weird charm of Mangrove swamps and a student-rebellion in Jamaica, but I gradually became alarmed that his versions of some early experiences that we shared challenged a model of myself that I have fabricated from my own story of the past. I am certain that we deserted a desolate archaeology dig in Canterbury together, after a single miserable morning. He says that he shared this embarrassment with someone else. He claims that as a schoolboy he never visited my house. I believe that he did, many times. Our memories of futile attempts to re-map a stone circle that had tumbled down a chalk scarp a hundred years ago are wildly discrepant. Though our cv’s exactly tally we seem to have been at different schools and universities. Each difference is trivial but, taken together, they challenge my sense of myself as a continuing consciousness , in firm possession of an unalterable past and so a predictable future. I am forced to question the information from which, over the years, I have built this model of myself to explain what I do, why I do it, what other people mean to me and what I may have meant and so, perhaps, may still mean to them.
As Alan Lerner wrote, and Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier sang 1 it is banal for two old people to discover conflicting memories of a shared past:
H: We met at nine
M: We met at eight
H: I was on time
M: No, you were late
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well
Even Psychologists have grasped this. The key to Freud’s exegesis of the human condition 2 is that we never forget fecklessly. We can only deliberately and provisionally suppress anything that an inscrutable part of our mind, a “sub-conscious”, deems too uncomfortable to think about. If we can find no other way to avoid troublesome memories we hide them behind “screen memories” of things that never happened (strangely it is key to Freud’s ideas that though we may become unaware of some memories we can never, actually, entirely obliterate any). “False memories” are something else again. It is notorious that during supposedly therapeutic conversations psychiatrists and their patients have sometimes unknowingly collaborated to construct “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. Elizabeth Loftus convincingly shows that some harrowing legal confrontations between distressed adults and their appalled families were due to such inventions 3. Even dull experimental psychologists, like me, realise that all we know about how our memories work comes from studies of what we mistake and forget. These losses becomes an increasing problem in old age 4.
So why was I disturbed that my friend and I own irreconcilable bits of a shared past? Partly because his massive book, updating my knowledge of his entire long life, arrived as part of the annual, inter-continental Round Robin migration. Every year people whom I wish that I still knew as well as I once did send me updates and annotations of their life-stories to establish new contexts for lapsed relationships. Most of this year’s out-reaches are one-liners on Christmas Cards (“Unemployed at last!” “Byzantine History at the Open University”;” Just given up Whisky and Snuff, Sex went long ago, not a lot left”). Others are multi-page essays, all structured in exactly the same way, never beginning with news about the writer. There must first be cameo appearances by children, grandchildren and domestic animals, resolutely upbeat even when cryptic (“Daphne’s new ointment has made all the difference!”). Then the pace quickens and coyness is allowed to infiltrate (“We had a great day out with Joan to collect her DBE from the Palace! There’s nothing like a Dame !” ) Finally boastful self-deprecation (“My Department will be delighted to be rid of me when I become pro-Vice Chancellor for Research next year!”).
Why do we do this? Every Year?
Maybe these life-inventories are pious gestures like the exaggerated Irish-Catholic Sign of the Cross (“Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch”) that also check that useful things are still there . I think there is more to it than that: A compulsion to share. Each dwindling year reminds us that some webs of association have frayed so we try to knit in fresh gossamer (“Little Tabitha grew a chilli-bush in the conservatory this summer! Well done Tabs!”) Perhaps this is also our species-legacy of primate grunting, as among chimps, mutually invisible in dense forest canopy, reassuring each other that all the troop are present and functioning and that the leopard seems to have buggered off at last. At least for now.
No single explanation is good enough, so many are necessary. Perhaps Round-Robins are letters to ourselves to reveal patterns in our lives and find evidence of dependable continuity and causality in a world in which some things alter (“Desmond has put on rather a lot of weight”) others disappear (“Sadly dachshund Herman died in September”) and still others replace them (“Amanda, our new goat, is thriving”). Also that the cycle is reassuringly endless ( “At this time of year it is great to see the days lengthen, if just by a bit, and to know that Spring really will come round again” ). Do we exchange these signals because we only feel that our lives are real if we can persuade others that they are? How can we recognise ourselves without mirrors?
It is not accidental that the Round Robin migrations happen at this particular time of year. The huge earth starts to tilt, new stars appear and, for a short while, change and new amusements seem possible. Briefly, the blood stirs. Then Issa Kobayashi’s haiku reminds us “Second day of New Year. Apathy begins again”.
- In “Gigi” (1958) Directed by Vincente Minelli.
- Freud, S. (1966).The psychopathology of everyday life (No. 611). WW Norton & Company.
- Loftus, E. F., & Davis, D. (2006). Recovered memories. Rev. Clin. Psychol.,469-498.
- Rabbitt, Patrick (2015). The Aging Mind: An owner’s manual. London and UK. Routledge,