Honouring Mnemosyne

This post and its author are somewhat obsessed by memory and its tricksy nature.  If we don’t recall a memory for long enough we tend to either lose it or the ability to access it.  Every time we do recall a memory it is changed by the very process of recall and gains additional links based on what is happening to us at the time of its return.  Even without these issues, our memories are modified to better fit with the fictional narrative we maintain of our lives and to support the somewhat confabulated basis of our identity.  Once you reach my great antiquity, whole chunks of existence don’t seem to get stored at all – or perhaps just become hopelessly muddled with all the junk that was already being remembered as new experiences continue to occur (and I am, perhaps, overdoing the novel new experience side of life at the moment).

Whilst this was never its intended purpose, this blog does serve the author as a useful external archive for at least some of the things that have happened to him over the last seven-and-a-bit years – along with a bunch of other slightly random junk and attempted witticisms.  More recently, and in response to my lifestyle causing ever more new experiences to need storage, my presence on Facebook has also started to act as an external memory to augment the role of the factory-fitted, neuron-based standard equipment.  If I’m honest, I think my internal hard-drive requires a de-frag as an absolute minimum and someone needs to delete a huge number of temporary files.

The broader issue of how we remember things were brought into sharper relief by some of my cultural activities over the past week.  For a start, I have just finished watching David Olusoga’s stunning TV series A House through Time.  This explored the lives of all (or at least many) of the people to have passed through a single house in Liverpool over the past 170 years.  This was a fascinating picture of the lives of relatively ordinary people – some richer, some poorer – against the backdrop of changes in society and the world.  It made me appreciate how recent are so many of the societal protections we enjoy (at least should for the next 12 months or so) and how truly fortunate my life has been.  It also made me wonder how many houses they had to research to come across such a gold mine of history: maybe fewer than you’d think.  My own flat is in a building of a similar age in a port city, so could perhaps tell a similar set of stories: perhaps I will do some research…

Last Monday, I attended a pair of musical events which acted as a memorial to a member of Southampton University’s music faculty who died suddenly and far too young at the end of last year.  I knew the chap himself only peripherally, but he had a hand in the development of virtually all of my favourite bands to emerge from the university in recent years.  At the first event he was remembered by colleagues who played a number of his own compositions and in the evening it was the turn of the young bands he had worked with to share their memories and music.  I found these events incredibly moving and they gave me a feel for the man and what the world had lost – and what it retained – following his untimely departure from it.

I recognise that these feelings could apply to anyone who dies young or does so before time robs them of their relevance, but as a human the specific is always going to have a more powerful impact than the general.  I have broadly managed to avoid ever acquiring relevance and have also jealously guarded my genetic inheritance rather than passing it, willy-nilly, on to the next generation.  Living in the affluent west, while I try to avoid being overly terrible as a human being in many small ways, I suspect these are completely swamped by the much greater evil done via my consumption of stuff.  On the plus side, I do suspect that my mouldering corpse is less likely lie undisturbed in my flat for several months after my demise than at any previous point in my adult life, as at least some of the gig-going public of Southampton will notice that I’m missing quite quickly.  Also, if I do go in a killing spree it will be hard for acquaintances to say “he kept himself to himself”.

Perhaps it is because I have a birthday in the rather near future, that I have found myself wondering what strange partial picture of me would remain in the minds of others should I be taken off to my eternal reward (or at least offered a very long lie down) in the near future.  If nothing else, my ‘thoughts’ would survive for a while in GofaDM and through my slightly erratic social media and cloud presence – which is an odd feeling.  On the whole, I think I am more comfortable with being forgotten after I have left this veil of tears: the prospect of being remembered seems to place far too much pressure on my actions during my time drawing breath.  I intend to return to the theme of what is remembered in my next major attempt at the fixed verse form: the sestina.  This is proving to need a lot more work than the villanelle, but I think I have chosen the key six words – I just need to compose the rest of the necessary 39 lines!

The number 39 leads quite neatly, via some steps, to the final theme that I am going to try and pack into this post.  Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the silent film The Guns of Loos, about the First World War battle, with live musical accompaniment.  My primary driver for going was that I knew a little about Loos from It is Easy to be Dead, the stunning play about the young poet Charles Hamilton Sorley and his death at the battle, which I saw back in 2016.  The film was released in 1928 and the university’s film department provided a very useful introduction setting the context for the film and some of the lenses through which a contemporary audience would have viewed it.  The film was fascinating and the action scenes were incredibly well done and involving (even without the Magnascope which would have augmented their original release) – and probably couldn’t be done in quite the same way today.  The miniature work was less successful, but still at least the match of that which I saw in the 1970s television of my youth.  The plot and its romantic elements were probably less successful and there was a very limited place for women, but I think this was recognised back in 1928: it was all about the spectacle!  There was also a lot of emphasis placed on authenticity in the film’s production with actual servicemen and guns from the war and battle taking part in the West Thurrock re-creation of the battle.  As so often, things (both good and bad) are much less modern that we like to imagine.

The film was also a fascinating social document with rather contrasting treatment of the ‘toffs’ (the aristocracy and captains of industry) and the rest of us (the working classes).  Whilst this was virtually caricatured to my modern eyes (and the working class clearly had a lot more fun), I was struck that it was not a particularly inaccurate portrayal of how the governing classes continue to treat and view the working classes.  All very handy for the modern version of manning your factories and providing fleshy fodder for the enemy’s cannons, but you wouldn’t want to spend time with them and they can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves.  I suppose today there is a greater tension between this distrust and not wanting them getting above themselves with the need for their consumption to keep funding the profit-expectations of major corporations, but in some ways the last century has seen less social progress than one might have hoped and may indeed be backsliding.

One of the most striking elements of the performance was the live musical accompaniment from a score written by Stephen Horne.  He played the piano – and the piano accordion and flute (and a laptop to provide a recording of the actual piper who appears in the film – and, indeed, played the pipes at the battle) – and Martin Pyne played a variety of percussion.  This score was perfectly integrated with the action – in a way which probably would not have occurred when the film was released and I very much doubt even the most upmarket cinema would have boasted a Steinway D.  Mr Horne managed to transition between piano and accordion seamlessly (and indeed to and from the flute) and even managed to play both at the same time. After my own accordion lesson, I would have required all my limbs, most of my body and 100% of the processing capacity of my brain just to get the accordion mounted on my torso.  I certainly could not play the piano with one hand and the accordion with the other (and he did this both ways round), while keeping the bellows going.  Another chap capable of apparently superhuman physical feats!

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The musicians’ corner!  With the ‘artillery’ hiding behind a black cloth.

There are a couple more silent films about the the First World War with live musical accompaniment coming at Turner Sims over the next week and I would recommend any readers who can to try and go to at least one.  These films are not shown very often and almost never with live musicians and they are a fascinating document of an era.  I feel it is also healthy to view the past as its denizens would have viewed it: it can help us to avoid foolish beliefs that the people of the past were either much better or worse than we are today, or that their needs, desires and concerns were so very different.  There has certainly been some progress in gender and racial politics and in the understanding of mental health since 1928, but there still seems to depressingly far to go in all of these areas.  It is interesting to imagine how the films of today will be viewed in 90 years…

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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