For some reason I have not yet worked out, my Page entitled ‘Does No-one Now Remember Comex II?’, a piece I wrote over three years ago about a disastrous end to an optimistic adventure, has attracted 21 Views since yesterday.
Add to that, the three Views its follow-up piece ‘Comex Two: Of Time and Memory’ has also garnered, and two more for ‘Comex Two; Stately Home; Sigh’, a somewhat despairing companion piece commenting on the strange attraction of the two eponymous Pages when compared with the rest of my incredible output, and you have a total of 26 Views of Pages with the word Comex in the title, in a single day.
If I tell you that is more Views than all of my many entertaining and informative, contemporary Posts get in an average month, put together, you may understand my bewilderment.
I suppose it is about the time of year when the events referred to took place, 48 years ago. It’s not an especially propitious anniversary, 48, compared to, say, 50. Fifty years is indeed a long time in anyone’s memory, and the point of the three pieces I wrote is very much about how time blurs memory; and about how imperfect my knowledge was even at the time, and how the story flickers only dimly now at the edges of my imagination.
Traumatic events become distorted in the mind: as any lawyer will tell you, witnesses disagree violently over details. My whole life is like some weird movie whose entrails have got caught up in the projector mechanism and are spewing all over the floor. Most of my memories, I realise, are only memories of having remembered memories over a very long time, and have become divorced from the actual experience, as though I never really experienced them, or as though they never actually happened; more appositely, I suppose, as though they happened to someone else.
For we change. It’s one of those disprovable, ’97 per cent’ factoids, like ‘Humans are 97 per cent water’, or that ‘Humans and chimpanzees have 97 per cent DNA in common’, or that ’97 per cent of the Universe is missing’, that ‘Humans replace 97 per cent of their body cells every seven years’.
But we change.
I am undoubtedly not the same person, turning – as I hope to – 66 in two weeks’ time, that I was when I was 17. My 17-year-old self exists only in one photograph, of a moody-looking youth in a striped shirt, sitting outside a cafe in Venice, strumming a guitar. I have no other clues as to the continuing presence in my life of that beautiful-looking, yet curiously unattractive young man. Only the finest of silk threads connects us.
Yet later that year, he took part in and was a peripheral witness to the events I have described – as if I had only recently read his book about them, and have been trying to convey the fragmentary details as a cohesive narrative to some disinterested interlocutor who is busy texting his mates.
It is partly why there is, or ought to be, such disquiet over the prosecution of ancient crimes: the 94-year-old ex-Nazi death-camp employee gaoled last summer for four years for war crimes committed seven decades ago is only a representative symbol of something evil that was done then. He is not the same willing conspirator who collated the tragic remnants of the prematurely truncated lives of his barbaric masters’ multitudinous victims. His is a case of mistaken identity. That man has only a tenuous link with the past: yet the living simulacrum must face retribution. Closure is everything.
As old men, should we be forced to be responsible for the past crimes of those easily deluded youths who merely bore our names; and then we die, and who is to blame now?
We imagine that perturbations frozen in the flow of time can be replayed endlessly with the diamond stylus of memory through the loudspeaker of moral outrage. But styluses gather fluff, grooves wear out.
History holds individuals responsible, both for human triumphs and tragedies. Often, those are the opposite sides of a coin. Our admiration or disapprobation poses a profound moral question. The victims of history tend to be kings and queens, politicians and generals, scientists, inventors, religious and convicts; because we know most about them: written records serving as public memory.
Ordinary folk, such as you and I, live for a while in the generational memories of our children and grandchildren, our mementos and photographs, the sticks of furniture we sat and slept on and the items of the past we treasured disappearing shard by shard into the spoilheaps and dusty junkshops and non-recoverable media of an unanticipable future, unwinding our coiled fingerprints until the fog of time closes around us and we are gone.
Memory serves us only poorly. It merely perpetuates injustice and the folly of youth and then it becomes malleable history; plasticene mixed and muddily coloured by the expediencies of the present. It is best ignored, abandoned.
Knowing the frailty of memory, why do we insist on endlessly remembering? What good purpose is served by continually chewing over ancient battles, the perpetual reiteration of self-regarding sagas of tragedy and loss, of minor social coups and what we said to whom, or might have said if we’d had the presence of mind; the endless fascination with past misdeeds and the continuing shifting around of unreliable facts, rearranging the disordered living-rooms of the past?
Those who argue we learn from history are either history professors or absurd optimists. Nothing is ever learned, that cannot with the passing of time be unlearned, or changed to suit the present.
But I thank those of you who have troubled to add your Comments on my article, clarifying the story a little, penetrating the fog. To the one actual survivor of the crash I have now heard from, David, I apologise for everything I have certainly got wrong! A good journalist never lets facts get in the way.
After all, ‘I’ wasn’t there. It was someone else altogether.