The Palimpsest Self

I was becoming concerned that GofaDM was at risk of becoming insufficiently pretentious: a risk I believe that today’s title should lay firmly to rest in its grave with a mistletoe stake driven through its heart.

Where an ancient city has continued on the same site over the centuries (or millenia), each new version of the city is constructed on, or from, the bones of its ancestors.  Sometimes, a city’s ossified past intrudes into the modern world but more often the past lies concealed beneath the thin veneer of the present day.  When the modern world requires the city to be excavated for some new project, the lost past is re-discovered: transfigured by its long interment.  Pieces of the past are lost, disarticulated or found transformed beyond recognition.  Each new disturbance further alters the hidden past, while those incursions above ground, and that find themselves incorporated into the modern city, are themselves more consciously changed to serve new narratives.

As I grow older, I increasingly feel that my very self is a palimpsest of a whole sequence of past selves.  Each new self effaces its immediate predecessor but each erasure is only partial and revenants continue to live a quasi-life as part of the current self or buried just below his all-too-shallow surface.  While the older the revenant, the less of a role it has in what passes for my current personality and sense of identity, it is clear that some elements of past selves were scored very deeply into my neuronal parchment and can still be read, albeit imperfectly, through all the later over-writing.  Sometimes you have only to shine a metaphorical light with the right combination of wavelength and angle at the self to find that long buried – and assumed lost – aspects can be returned to life.  However, as with the excavations in the city, each such delve forever changes the item recovered: exposed to the daylight of conscious scrutiny it cannot help but become the subject of new links that could never have been part of its original existence.  Living is a continuous process of data corruption: a process from which only the most trivial of ‘facts’ can hope to remain unaltered in their essentials.

I feel that modern life has rather accelerated this process of corruption.  Recordings of the past, available since the arrival of the camera and gramophone and growing ever more ubiquitous, provide a recollection that is so much richer in content than anything that my brain, at least, can manage and so they tend to supplant my ‘actual’ memories.  The new memories tend to lack the affect of the original – or at least are associated with a very different context – and I do wonder if they further corrode the, already unreliable, hard drive between my ears.

In general, I find that I am very poor with the recall of visual memories and when I attempt to do so, the scene collapses even while it is being reconstructed.  This does not prevent me from recognising places, people and things with ease (mostly) – but does mean that if I wish to draw (or paint) something I do need to be looking either at it or an image of it.  It also means I am rubbish at any meditation that requires me to visualise something: however simple.  I am much better with words and numbers as they are, at some level, a much less rich data stream to both store and retrieve.  This, finally, brings me to within a gnat’s crochet of the inspiration for this post, having allowed myself to be carried in a rather unexpected direction by the gravitational force of the weight of my own pretension.

As a younger (and actually young) person, I watched a lot of television (subject to its more limited availability in those distant days), listened to a lot of radio (mostly comedy of one form or another) and read a lot.  The whole ‘going out and doing stuff’ life that I now live has accreted slowly over time and only recently has reached a level where I find myself expecting friends to stage an intervention at any moment.  What remains of this earlier, more home-bound, life and self seems to be most readily accessed (and degraded) through the words and voices that I heard back then.

On Saturday, I headed off to Chichester and its Festival Theatre to see Wireless Wise: an exercise in nostalgia for Radio 4 listeners of roughly my age and social class.  It was lovely to see Charlotte Green and the Reverend Richard Coles in the flesh for the first time and to see Alistair McGowan for the first time since the early nineties: when I saw him playing a pot plant in the Nick Revell Radio Show at the now long gone Paris Studios in Lower Regent Street.  However, the nostalgic highlight was to see Richard Stilgoe for the first time in very many years – probably since the 1980s.  He reprised a few songs and a poem from Stilgoe’s Around and his earlier Traffic Jam – dating from my time at secondary school.  I’m not aware of any of these shows being repeated since soon after first broadcast but, despite the passage of time, I could still recall an alarming quantity of the words.  In at least one case, a stock “meme” in my brain was finally pinned down to his paean to the rather ersatz schwarzwälde kirschtorte available in the UK in those dark days.  Why my brain had chosen to store, and not over-write, so many of his lyrics for so long – whilst having largely disposed of any ready route to access this knowledge – must remain a mystery for the neuroscientists among you to solve.  My brain seems to have dumped huge amounts of knowledge of my own existence while carefully preserving the lyrics to someone else’s comic songs for almost 40 years.  I’m not saying it has made the wrong choice, merely an unexpected one: evolution is certainly a rum old cove.

Richard also still performs his party piece of collecting random words – and now notes – from the audience and creating an astoundingly witty and musical song in a matter of minutes.  Not bad for a man of 75, particularly given the rather unpromising material he was provided: would that I could boast a fraction of his utility at 52!

It was a lovely afternoon, shared with friends, but I do try not to spend too much of my life wallowing in the soothing, half-remembered joys of the past.  There will be plenty of time for that when I am finally captured by the ‘men in white coats’ and incarcerated in an institution considered sufficient to the long term care of my oddly functioning brain: closeted away from sharp objects and the general public, lest I further infect them with my foolishness (the public rather than the sharp objects, though the latter could become an interesting project as the internet-of-things expands).  So, I had intended to swiftly return to my obsession with the live and the new – but the past does not release the middle-aged chap from its clutches quite so easily.

I have been ambushed, once again, by Radio 4 which this week has run a series of short essays under the title James Burke’s Web of Knowledge.  James Burke’s TV series of the late 70s and early 80s were an important part of my young life – fostering my interest in science and history – and his voice can still drill deep into the sedimentary layers of my earlier selves.  Way back in 1978, I spent a significant portion of my meagre pocket money on the book to accompany his TV series Connections.  Embarrassingly, I have yet to get round to reading it: still, it’s only been 40 years and one mustn’t rush into these things…

I can’t help but wonder much more random junk and how many more fragments of past selves, most of whom seem quite inexplicable to my current self, my brain is hoarding?  Like Ratatoskr hiding nuts ready for the Fimbulwinter, does my brain believe that these will be of some value in some future where new memories are hard to come by?  Francis Fukuyama was probably neither the first, nor will be the last, to forecast the end of history but I’m not aware of anyone predicting the memory apocalypse (amemorygeddon?).  In a world short of new memories, this blog will become a goldmine and I may finally be able to monetise it: enjoy it now, while it remains free!


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!


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…


No, I don’t want to live forever (frankly, it seems an even more ghastly prospect than the other option) and nor am I about to start dancing and singing on and around the stationary traffic of New York city (an allusion there for the older reader).  Fame, like significant wealth, has always struck me as something to avoid and, given the events of 2016, does not seem conducive to obtaining value-for-money from my pension contributions.  I fully intend to survive long enough to be a burden on whatever state remains on these isles by that point (if any): a point at which demographers promise that we (the then old) will be a far from silent majority!

Despite my attempts to eschew fame, I do seem to have acquired a degree of notoriety in a limited number of spheres.  It would seem, to my eternal surprise, that I am somewhat memorable and people who have met me tend to recall having done so.  This recall may, perhaps, have been enhanced by the extensive therapy oft occasioned by meeting the author – but even accounting for this, and despite my fairly mundane appearance and mind, I do appear to stick if not in the craw then in the memory.  One of life’s great mysteries…

I do have the gift of remembering people.  Sadly, its utility is weakened by my ability to remember complete strangers and my inability to provide a name or context for the people I actually do know.  Still, unwanted though my gift may be, it is far too late to send it back or try and exchange it.

Going, as I do, to a fair number of musical gigs in Southampton and given my legroom based preference for the front row, I have on several occasions been recognised and greeted by members of the band without having the slightest clue who they were.  On this front, I think I may be improving and my “context engine” is a becoming little faster at offering hints as to my interlocutor.

As both a regular visitor to Belfast and a creature of habit (suprisingly few of them filthy), I am now recognised by most of the staff at the Premier Inn in Alfred Street (which I heartily recommend) and several at O’Brien’s Sandwich Bar at Belfast City Airport.  This does lead to the slightly odd situation where I’m asked where I’ve been, why I wasn’t around last Thursday and the like.  I like to imagine I am an occasional guest star in the continuing drama or sitcom of other people’s lives (in my case, more likely the latter).

However, this morning I feel I reached some sort of peak.  Returning home from a session hanging upside down, I slewed my bicycle in front of a DHL van parked in front of my flat.  The van was static at the time, though about to move off – but the driver recognised me and called out that he had a package for me (rather than grinding me ‘neath his wheels).  This was very pleasing (and not just for avoiding my untimely demise) as I was half-expecting a delivery via DHL, but also somewhat of a shock as the driver has only seen me once before for barely 60 seconds about a fortnight ago.  Either the man has a prodigious facility to remember faces – in which case, I fear he is wasted driving a delivery van – or I have become far too memorable.

As a result, I have a resolution to work on for the forthcoming New Year (other countries and religions may have their own programme): I must cultivate anonymity.  By 2018, if things go according to plan, I should be instantly forgettable…


In the dark days of my relative youth, a viewer might see a vaguely familiar face (usually attached to an associated body) acting in some screen-based entertainment and wonder where it had been seen before.  Was it ‘im off (or ‘er off) Bergerac (or some other treat from the idiot box of yesteryear)?  Sometimes reference to the cast list in the Radio Times or the end credits might bring enlightenment, but often you would be left unfulfilled with a continuing age sense of familiarity.  If the viewing had taken place in company, fruitful scope for discussion or argument might ensue – but, once again, with no guarantee of a satisfactory conclusion being reached.

Today, the power of the internet – and in particular, IMDB and Wikipedia – can usually resolve any such question as to where a face had been seen before.  Well, it can as long as the current and previous viewings both took place on either the big screen or the haunted goldfish bowl (and engrammatic storage has not degraded beyond a certain, critical point).  They are of much less help if either viewing occurred live with the actor in question strutting their stuff atop a stage.  For those in the business (of show, in this case) there is source of answers, Spotlight, but this does not give up its secrets to the mere punter (not unless he – or she – also happens to be a skilled hacker).

Given my recent habits, I find it increasingly common that I will know an actor largely (or wholly) from their work on the stage.  This has been a primary driver behind my tendency to purchase a programme when visiting the theatre: to check whether I should recognise anyone on the stage and, if so, from where.  This is far from foolproof, but does beat hanging around the stage door and asking some poor unfortunate, as they emerge, where I might know them from?  Where the programme approach either fails is or unavailable, I am forced to rely on my internet search skills, fading memory and luck to find a rationale behind any nagging sense of familiarity.  This process is complicated by my rather good memory for faces, but rather poorer ability to retain the link between the visage and its associated context (including a name).  Still further issues ensue given my tendency not to store the various elements of a face together and then lose the important linking information them – so I may easily “recognise” a face based on the nose of face A, the mouth from B and the eyes belonging to C (for A≠B≠C): very much a false positive).

Still, despite these obstacles I am sometimes fortunate and do manage to achieve a positive ID – and this happened last Friday: though this same process of successful identification also (probably) illustrated complete loss of other facial memories.  Let me explain…

On the evening in question, I braved the torrential rain and made my way to Clapham Junction.  By some miracle, Southwest Trains did manage to deliver me to my destination (which Southern Railways could not, having cancelled all services between Southampton and “the Junction” – though this may not have been rain related as these services seem to be cancelled very frequently, so often that I think they have stopped even waiting for someone to drop an item of millinery).  There was a nervous moment about 200 yards from our destination when the entire train had to be re-booted, but after a relatively modest delay, we were able to make it to Clapham.  CLJ (as we regular users of the National Rail website know it), is not really in Clapham at all, but in Battersea – which suited me as I was off to visit what remained of the Battersea Arts Centre.  This, as some may recall, was spectacularly ablaze not so long ago – though, during my visit the risk of unwanted combustion was pretty low (and evidence for the previous inferno was far from apparent to this viewer).   Indeed, after its previous assault by the forces of fire, on Friday evening it was suffering from a degree of flood: I assume earth and air are queueing impatiently to do their worst against the fabric of the building in the not too distant future.  Someone at the BAC must really have offered the Classical Gods.

My visit was for a pair of Edinburgh Previews by The Pin and Liam Williams – two apparently unrelated acts.  I have seen Mr Williams (NRTK) several times before, but this was my first experience of The Pin – who are a sketch double act – though they had been on my “to see” list for a while.  I can thoroughly recommend The Pin – they were quite brilliant (and alarmingly clever) performing what might best be described (by me at least) as meta-sketch.  I think they may have supplanted Sheeps (of which Liam W is one-third) as my favourite current sketch act.  Mr W was also good, though I suspect has a little more work to do over the next couple of weeks.  Given his stage persona is somewhat dour, it was also rather enjoyable seeing him laughing in a unrestrained manner at the antics of The Pin.

So far so good, but how do they two strands in this post come together?  Well, half of The Pin – one Ben Ashenden – seemed terribly familiar, but my unaided brain came back with no hint as to why.  He has not spent a lot of time on screen, so that also proved a dead end.  However, he does have a relatively uncommon name and the profile on his agent’s website provided the key to unlock his familiarity.  He was, fairly recently, in the Cambridge Footlights – and I had seen him perform in the ADC theatre when I was resident in South Cambs.  Whilst I clearly do remember him, his past writing left few clues on the fleshy tables of my memory as to his current genius.

The same internet search revealed that his partner – Alex Owen – was also in the Footlights at the same time.  The poor lad had clearly left no trace in my grey (or white) matter.  Worse, Liam Williams was also one of the same happy band (as were some of the rest of Sheeps) – and despite repeated exposure has sparked not even a hint of recall.  Mr A is not especially unique looking – there is no second nose or third eye (visible) – or sounding, so I have no idea why he alone should have been committed to my memory.  Perhaps just random chance?  Maybe the others have just aged more in the last four or five years? He does wear glasses – whereas none of the others do – so as a fellow wearer he may have been granted preferential access to long-term storage. This could be a top-tip for others seeking stardom – though, as I have absolutely no power to affect the career of the aspiring actor or comic, is probably a red herring.  Well, unless there is a much stronger link between glasses and prosopagnosia than the current scientific literature suggests – could this be the basis of my long-awaited PhD?

Overall, a very enjoyable – if extremely damp – evening, but one that left me with the nagging suspicion that my mental decay is progressing even faster than I’d realised.

The warder of the brain

As we start this textual journey together, I have no idea whether there will be any jokes (even those of the barely detectable variety which tend to adorn GofaDM) or whether it will stand only as a failed attempt to exorcise some of my existential angst.  Perhaps if we held hands, it would make the journey through the trauma to come a little easier.  I’m afraid this hand-holding will have to be metaphorical as I have neither the time, budget nor inclination to visit each of my readers individually (few of them though there be).  I suppose that if there is sufficient demand, I could arrange to have my hand cast and realistic-feeling copies made available for a suitable fee.

The title returns to a style which was once common on GofaDM, sourced as it was from my copy of the OUP’s Dictionary of Quotations (2nd Ed.).  It is doubly appropriate to today’s content: firstly it is a description of memory – which will form the meat of the post once we finish wading through this first slice of bread.  Secondly, it is a quotation from Macbeth (spoken by his “good” lady wife), which I studied for O level English Literature, but not one that I remembered (though other parts of the same speech I can recall).  So, let us all screw our courage to the sticking place and meet the meat.

I believe it is uncontroversial to say that our memories are vital to our sense of self.  It is only by his memories that the man who woke in my bed this morning feels himself to be the same chap who was banished to the Land of Nod last night (for the avoidance of doubt, yes I am referring to myself in the third person again).  Using inductive reasoning to trace this process back through time, the author writing this post is joined in an unbroken chain to all of his younger selves (well, not quite all – a certain fog always obscures the very early years of life).

It is also known that our memories are plastic things – unlike the fixed, unchanging elements of a modern computer (or so the manufacturers would like us to believe, but I’m sure I’m not alone in harbouring some doubts about this).  Each time we recall a memory, the very act of recall changes it by creating new associations based on our “state” at the time of recall.  I’m not even sure that unrecalled memories are safe: surely our brains, in an act of housekeeping vandalism, might chose to repurpose the apparently unused neurones to serve some more current need?

As a result, over time our memories might less resemble some mighty tapestry of our lives and more a collection of disordered tatters held together by some spurious feeling of unity and a self-penned personal mythology.  The historical narrative which joins the current author to his younger selves starts to look more like a game of Chinese whispers than the unbroken chain of links described above: at every stage a little is lost, a little confused and a little added.

This temporal dissociation has been brought into particularly sharp focus by recent events.  As part of the construction of The Library, I have been trying to recall some of my childhood reading.  I could remember reading about the adventures of Mary Plain and Olga de Polga but not the names of the specific books I may have read.  Today’s internet search engines (and the curious, archival nature of the human species) mean that images of the covers of many books through the ages can be viewed, and I assumed these would initiate an avalanche of memories.  More a very small slump as it transpired: I have very strong memories of the cover of Just Mary – but nothing else meant anything to me at all.  Trying to be positive, it may be that very few covers of exactly the right part of the 1970s have yet been uploaded – but I suspect the relevant data in my brain has just been dispersed beyond recall.

Still, I comforted myself, my childhood was a very long time ago (40+ years) and my brain was still forming.  So some loss of detail should not come as an enormous surprise and I should resist the urge to descend into a blue funk.  This approach worked until yesterday evening when a more serious absence in the fleshy tablets of my memory became apparent.  On Sunday, I shall be heading to the capital and one (of the many) delights that will fill my time in the city will be a Graham Park Walk.  Graham Park is the primary character in the more realist elements of Iain Banks’ novel Walking on Glass (1985) and walks through London from Theobalds Road.  I read the book (more than once) in the early nineties and I remember (or think I remember) being somewhat obsessed by it.  I think (or I think that I think) that I could even quote chunks of it (and knowing me – if I do – probably did).  In order to revise before the walk, I started re-reading the book yesterday evening and found I remember none of it: nothing at all.  It is almost as though I’ve never read it – all I could recall is that the castle is very old and that the action occurs in two places (the real world and the castle).  It is as though a huge chunk of “me” has been excised and I didn’t even notice its loss.  A little over a decade ago, I used to work very near the places covered by the walk and often passed its landmarks – but even then, there was not so much as a flicker of recognition.  So the data theft must have happened at least fifteen years ago, and thus it is far too late to report it to the authorities.

I found this deeply shocking, that something which I remember as being very important to me is now only a memory of a memory: a faint shadow cast by a distant, and invisible, light source.  The 1991-me would be horrified, though might grudgingly respect the fact that 2015-me can recognise Iain Banks’ style in the writing, even if he has forgotten the content.  I fear the two of us, were we to meet via some time travel accident, would be strangers to each other.  His head is full of memories that I have lost, and mine full of memories he has yet to form.  How much more have I lost, and lost so effectively that even the fact of its loss has been lost?  Perhaps this affects me particularly strongly as part of my personal myth is that I have a good memory.

Whenever I think about memory, my mind turns to Odin and his two raven companions.  If Muninn is in such a parlous state, is Huginn similar afflicted (and I just haven’t noticed)?   In the years directly after leaving university, I used to re-prove the Monotone Convergence Theorem (of Lebesgue Integration) in my head to go to sleep.  Now, I couldn’t even prove the Dominated Convergence Theorem assuming MCT (I do realise this might be quite a niche reference).  I find myself pondering how much of my personal resources I should use to reclaim or buttress old memories rather than laying down new ones.

This post is growing way too long, already the start of it will be a fading memory for most of us, and so I should attempt to draw it to a close before universal Darkness covers all.  In time, the stress of my not-so-recent loss will fade and itself be lost – which I suppose might be reassuring?  I have come to think that the self which I like to imagine exists as a continuous thread through my life is more of an ad-hoc fiction maintained by my brain in a desperate attempt to hold things together.  Like a recently formed scab on the knee, it is probably best if I don’t pick at it for fear of making a mess.  So I shall make a conscious choice (if that is even a thing) to try and believe in the fiction of my self (or at least act as though I do).

Hey, we made it: you can let go now!

Nasal gazing

I feel I can write this post from a position of some authority as when it comes to centrally-located, cartilaginous facial excrescences (as it eventually must) I am unusually gifted.  This nose forms the major part of my inheritance – this nose and an oil-painting of a sea captain.  This captain, apocryphally named Uncle Tom, is alledgedly an ancestor of mine – but I do wonder if he is actually a practical joke and is just a painting picked up in a junk shop sometime in the nineteenth century and which my antecedents then chosen to invest with genealogical meaning.  For one thing, he entirely lacks the family nose!

The sense of smell, as noted (at length) by Marcel Proust, provides a backdoor into the memory.  Somehow, our olfactory sense is able to bypass the gatekeepers which usually keep ancient memories buried and tickle long neglected neurones back into life. The fragrances of nature help us to measure out the seasons: as but a single example, the heady scent of massed wisteria is a sure sign that winter is well and truly over.

My sense of smell is important to me, if only because my treatment of “best before” dates as an irrelevance means that it is a key player in my attempts to avoid food-poisoning.  However, there are still times when anosmia has a certain appeal.  I have observed that a certain class of both young men and elderly women are reluctant to go out in public without first drenching themselves in an eye-watering quantity of scent.  Is the sense of smell somehow diminished following male puberty and by advanced, female age?  Whilst the specific “notes” comprising their respective perfumes are somewhat different (or certainly the perfumiers – a word not commonly applied to the devisers of Lynx Africa – would like us to believe this is the case), the impact on those in enforced physical proximity is very similar.  This usually occurs on busy public transport or in a packed concert hall.  As I write this, I do wonder if anosmia would help – or whether I would need to pack a lightweight gas mask for any significant alleviation in my symptoms?  A week or so back, the changing room at the gym was rich with the strident notes of a young man’s perfume.  This clung to me and my clothing through the windswept cycle ride home and I was eventually forced to resort to the shower and laundry basket to eliminate it from my life.  I suppose I may be overly sensitive – perhaps as a result of the exquisite sensitivity of my own nose (well, all that volume must be good for something), I almost never wear perfume of any sort.

A little while back, my neighbour across the hall installed a robot air freshener.  This regularly squirts the hallway with some industrial scent – and also does this if it detects a human (or possibly other large animal) presence.  At this latter it seems infallible, I am unable to sneak past it undetected despite my years of ninja training.  It was installed to spare my neighbour the late evening aroma of curry which rises up the stairwell from the flat below.  I have no objection at all to the scent of curry, though it does tend to make me a little peckish in the run-up to bedtime – and may be responsible for my increased consumption of dhal.  I do also worry (or like to imagine as a better option than my advanced age) that it is increasing my tendency to drool into my pillow during the night.

I think on balance I shall seek to retain my sense of smell. I believe it is a huge component of the taste and enjoyment of food and losing this seems a heavy price to pay for being spared the wearing of superfluous scent by others on relatively rare occasions.

Unexpected descriptions of the author

The title might equally have said “inaccurate” as you will see.  I try to live by the Delphic maxim to “Know Thyself” and as this blog has oft noted, I live both alone and with an idiot.  Like everyone else (I assume), I am occasionally dazzled by my own genius – but this feeling is quickly replaced as my default stupidity re-asserts control.

I have as recently as the last month been referred to as “young man” by someone who was not obvious mentally or optically deficient nor in imminent hopes of an express communication from Her Majesty.  I like to imagine this is down to my boyish good looks (well, I like to imagine that I could imagine that), but fear it may have more to do with my childish demeanour.

A while back, a friend – who knows me reasonably well – asked me the following question: “When did you realise you had an extraordinary mind?”.  I admit I struggled to furnish them with any sort of answer, though like to imagine that I blushed modestly (maybe even coquettishly).  If there is one thing a maths degree, the 27 years thereafter and writing this blog has taught me then it is that I have a very pedestrian mind.  At best, I have a half decent memory and have managed to maintain a curiosity about the world around me – which helps to keep the contents of my memory topped up with new pieces of useless information.

A few months ago, a chap approached me in the gym and asked me how I managed to be so “super-fit”.  I will admit that he was somewhat more stricken in both years and girth than I am (and seemed to have put his whites and reds into the same wash), however, I am a country mile from super-fit.  Trying to be a gymnast in my late 40s, I do sometimes watch real gymnasts who would merit this label – and my level of fitness is a very very long way away.  I suppose I am probably fitter than your average bear (of 48), and would certainly by willing to pilfer some dainties from an unguarded picker-nick basket (if the opportunity arose) – but that is as close as I get.

This very morn, when the mercury was still cowering under the duvet with its electric blanket on, I cycled across town to the gym.  I did this, as is my wont (unless it is very wet), in shorts – as this means one less item of clothing to put on and remove and means that I can forego the cycle clip (which can bite into my calves).  Whilst waiting at one of the many traffic lights that Southampton affords the traveller, a youth scampered across the road by me.  His gaze seemed drawn to my lallies – catching as they were the gloom of the morning sun obscured by cloud – and he called out “You are a lad” [his emphasis], grinning broadly before he continued to scamper across the road (in a manner which would have horrified Tufty) before entering the nearby Police Station.  He didn’t strike me as a PC or brief, so may perhaps have been a local scally – though one, I like to imagine, with a heart of gold.  I’ve never really thought of myself as a lad – even when I was age-appropriate to the epithet (and would a true lad use the word “epithet”?) – but this compliment (however misplaced), from one who should probably know, buoyed me up on a chilly morn.

So, if I were to believe others, I could start to see myself as a hyper-intelligent, lad-hunk.   They do say “See yourself as others see you” – but in this case I should probably pass.  Luckily, all the while that reflective surfaces and even a modicum of self-awareness remain available to me I shall continue to recognise myself as a middle-aged, clumsy idiot – which is a lot closer to the Delphic truth (and not a tripod seat in sight).

Inheriting the family business

Something which I might be considered to have done, insofar as I have spent much of my soi disant career working in the industry that brought my parents together.  Consider it some sort of pay back, if you will.

However, rather than myself, it was the forthcoming Jubilee weekend which caused me to think about inherited position.  Despite being 60 years in the making, it does seem to have come as rather a surprise – neither I, nor most of those I have spoken to this week, seemed aware that next Tuesday was a “bonus” bank holiday.  As a result, my planned trip to the National Theatre on Tuesday evening may involve proximity to both rather more people and a higher risk of encountering Railtrack at their worst than anticipated.

The Queen has now been on the throne for 60 years – you’d think someone would have introduced her to the prune or senna pod by now – and is surely due for parole or time off for good behaviour.  I suppose the promotion in the field of monarchy is still very much a matter of dead men’s shoes.  Why anyone puts up with being royal has always baffled me: I’m sure the role breaches the European Convention on Human Rights and heaps of money (or the Civil List as I believe it’s more officially known) only compensates for so much.  A gilded cage is still a cage.  However, people do still seem willing to sign themselves and their gluteally-favoured siblings up for the whole shebang.

I feel I should be doing more to infuse my life with the spirit of the occasion: either covering everything in bunting and flags or becoming consumed by republican ire – however, I am merely covered in, or consumed by, apathy.  I would appear to be far from alone in my languor in this corner of East Anglia: there is a serious lack of bunting to be seen (with one honourable exception, a house which has more bunting et al than every other I’ve seen put together).

The problem with handing control of the family business down to the eldest son (or daughter) is that one is  at the mercy of a random blending of inherited genes coupled with a sprinkling of mutations.  This fact must have been brought home quite forcibly to Rupert Murdoch of late, with his male heir proving to have a far from fully functional hypocampus and/or amygdala.  Actually, given the amnesia that has also afflicted Murdoch père the trait seems positive Lamarckian; thinking more broadly, the very widespread of symptoms consistent with exposure to the water of the river Lethe afflicting those who came into contact with New International suggests some sort of airborne pathogen might be to blame.  If you value your marbles, I suggest steering clear of Wapping…

I was also reminded of the dangers of primogeniture when viewing last week’s offering from Lovefilm: Thor.  This provided a certain degree of entertainment, but Odin was left with two rather unsuitable children to carry on the Asgard corporation.  Luckily, barely twenty-four hours as a mortal and some associated affection from Natalie Portman was enough to set one son back on the straight and narrow (obviously, her earlier failure with the young Darth Vader has led Ms Portman to up her game significantly).  Sadly, she was quite unable (in the time available) to do anything about his atrocious accent – I’m not quite sure what Chris Hemsworth was aiming for, but it did not sit well in the context of Northern European mythology or with the accents of his parents and brother.

For the mythology connoisseur, there were some indications that the writers had carried out a little basic research, however, there were a number of disappointments.  For a start, the horses of Asgard were very deficient in the leg department: Odin’s steed, Sleipnir, is famed for his eight-legs but only 50% of these were provided to the cinema-goer (presumably the feat of co-ordination of so many limbs at a gallop was beyond the skill of the CGI artists).  In a piece of admirably colour-blind casting, Idris Elba (perhaps best known from The Wire) played Heimdallr: who has many talents (apparently he had nine mothers – which must make for a tense and expensive Mothering Sunday in Himinbjörg) but is described as the whitest of the gods.  It was also disappointing to see the rather limited use made of Yggdrasil, the world tree: it’s all very well equating it to a collection of wormholes but this misses out on Ratatoskr, the squirrel that carries insults from the dragon that lives at the base of the tree to the eagle that lives at its top (and vice versa).  Who cannot help but love a mythology which includes an insult carrying squirrel!  The monotheistic religions may all be well and good, but where are the bad-mouthing rodents?  I am seriously tempted to become Viking by religion: the stories you are expected to believe in are so much more fun and I reckon it would be able to see off even the most determined atheist (Dawkins doesn’t know he easy he has it, plying his “trade” in the 21st century).

But, my biggest gripe, and the one which made me wince whenever it occurred, was the word chosen to describe the inhabitants of Asgard, viz Asgardians: a truly horrible word.  As Snorri Sturluson could have told them way back in the 13th century, the inhabitants of Asgard are the Æsir.  I expected better of Kenny Branagh but perhaps he was over-ruled by his North American paymasters, fearing audience incomprehension in their home market.

Barren superfluity of (pass)words

As you may have guessed, I own a Dictionary of Quotations and I’m not afraid to use it.  Today’s title (mostly) comes to us from Sir Samuel Garth, one time physician to George I, from his mock-heroic poem The Dispensary.  I, like a clueless Mastermind contestant, provided the “pass”.

The modern, computer era requires a chap to keep track of a plethora of passwords – and, not just words but numbers and more complex ciphers as well.  Different organisations have different requirements – some insist on characters that are neither numbers nor letters whereas others won’t permit these at all (though don’t usually reveal this fact until after you have entered your choice: twice!).

Work is even worse, as I am forced to change my passwords on a regular basis.  As an ex-system manager, I recognise this as good practice – but as a user it is nothing but a pain.  The vacancy which overtakes my mind when required to come up with some new, secure password is matched only by that when presented with a leaving card in which to write something suitably pithy.   (And yes, I have thought of “orange” – but fear its use could lead to my early Sectioning.)

Often passwords are supposed to be linked to a particular concept: a memorable name or date, first or last school or that class of thing.  Given the relative ease of discovering information about a chap from the web, and the amount of data available to any cyber-criminal with sufficient time on their hands and a high enough boredom threshold to work their way through this blog, I feel that using birthdays, my mother’s maiden name or real educational history would be a less than secure choice.  As a result, I tend to use bare-faced lies when required to provide this data for security purposes (I do worry that this revelation may reduce this blog’s readership at a stroke, but I am willing to forego my massive cyber-criminal following).

Using fictitious data for passwords does provide significantly stronger security for my various on-line transactions.  However, for sites I use infrequently the security provided is so high that even I cannot gain access as I tend to forget which particular “lie” I found amusing at the time I established the relevant password.  I have never written down the necessary information as (a) this would weaken security and (b) because I think I have such a good memory that I will never forget the witty reasoning behind my choice.  Ah, hubris, my Nemesis!

Yesterday, in common with many across the land, I needed to send some money to the Inland Revenue (sadly, they do not yet accept buttons).  I do this only once every six months and so had (obviously) forgotten all the relevant passwords: either to make payment using my debit card or to set up a transfer from my bank account.  So, I was forced to fall back on human contact and ring my bank to try and reset my passwords and then make the payment.  As you might imagine, the prospect filled me with dread – but how wrong I was!

There was no tedious menu of options to work through, or the normal long wait in a queue whilst being told that my call is important (as I fume that it clearly isn’t or they’d have hired more people to answer the phone).  The phone was answered almost instantly by a very cheery and helpful chap who, I’d guess from his accent, hails from somewhere in northwest England.  The lad even laughed at my jokes – surely well beyond the call of duty on a Friday evening.  We swiftly managed to reset all my passwords and money was soon winging its way (on electronic wings) to HMRC.

So, I have decided to briefly cast aside the mantle of Victor Meldrew and embrace that of Pollyanna: though as the service was so good, I have no need of her ‘Glad Game’ philosophy.  So, GofaDM raises a salute (and a glass) to the fine folk of the Co-operative Bank, it seems their slogan of ‘good with money’ even extends to customer service!

Get lost

It was in the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee (and so, horrifically, 35 years ago) that I started to learn the French language.  I think this may have been the first time that I became aware that my memory was better than that of the average bear (I am also unable to resist a pic-er-nic basket).  Each week the splendid Mr Harlow would set a test, either on current new vocabulary or a verb conjugation we had just learned.  Each week I would do no preparation and each week I would score top marks in the test (I was a terrible swat).  In those days, once seen, never forgotten.   Now, I’m lucky if I can hold a thought in my head for more than a few seconds – though, I do still try to live without any preparation.

Another important part of learning French was translating la plus belle langue du monde (see, I haven’t lost it) into my mother tongue (or failing that, English).  I seem to recall much of this translation involved the rather limited (not to say, dull) adventures of Marie-France, Jean-Paul et Claudette.  I was taught never to use the verb “to get” in these translations, though I no longer remember why: perhaps it was because there is no equivalent verb in French since “get” is used to cover a multitude of sins (Mr Collins has 35 separate meanings, and I’m sure the OED could muster significantly more).

Mr Harlow would probably be pleased to know that this piece of his teaching has stuck fast in at least one pupil.  To this day, 50% of three score and ten years later, I find that I am still almost unable to use the verb “to get” in a blog post, email or other writing.  I can do it, but I it’s always a struggle and when I succumb I feel that I have somehow let myself down.  I find myself wondering whether any readers of GofaDM have a similar aversion to this mainly transitive verb?  Or is it only me?