by Peter Hitchens

One day I will remember to read Proust. But I keep forgetting, and there is always something else to do. I’m also influenced by the discovery that Charles de Gaulle, who read everything, could not bear the works of France’s most admired novelist. The closest I have come to Proust so far was during the Afghan War. My daughter, then a British Army intelligence officer, was in a forward base with the First Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, and appealed to the family for books and other home comforts for her and her fellow-soldiers. My late brother, Christopher, was probably the only person who still saw any romance or high purpose in the fighting. So, while we gathered old paperbacks and fruit cakes, he took up the task with special enthusiasm. He thought that what they needed most out there near among the landmines of Lashkar Gah was a complete set of Remembrance of Things Past. We duly helped ensure its delivery to Helmand Province through the military mail, even though it seriously exceeded the Army’s normal weight and bulk limits.  I think we may have laughed a bit, but it wasn’t really much more ridiculous than the whole war. The noble gift, tragically unthumbed, was regrettably left behind when western forces evacuated that desolate fort a short while later. So was a pair of fashionable green Wellington boots, which had also somehow got into the parcel. We have had a lot of fun since imagining the works of the Divine Marcel falling into the hands of a puzzled Taliban unit, and perhaps (along with the green rubber boots) altering the life of some young fanatic in ways he had never expected. 

But I think Proust’s idea that we find memories not by looking for them but unbidden through the non-verbal senses is right. Trying to get back to the past by reading is like trying to find the soul with a dissecting knife. Music can evoke recollections, but only in a bludgeoning, sentimental sort of way. Smell and taste go straight past years of forgetting to awake unwanted, unexpected things. Lavender in a drawer, a now-unfashionable perfume my mother must once have worn, the thrilling scent of burning coal on chilly afternoons, wet raincoats and the salty, slimy odor of the seashore at low tide, can set off an explosion of memory, not always welcome. The smell of really good coffee will always evoke my first visit to Paris, by train and boat, aboard the vanished Golden Arrow Express. Just the hint of it brings back the freezing day, the bare officious customs shed at Calais, and my family picking our way worryingly across the tracks (this was never allowed in Britain in those days). Then came the most delicious meal I had ever eaten ending with actual real coffee, as we rumbled across northern France. I also especially recall one of those enormous black French steam locomotives, like prehistoric monsters, which emitted an incongruous thin “peeeep!” like a bird startled on a pond. That France, now so easily recalled, has wholly vanished since. Modern France has almost no smell, when once it had many. Until then we had not really had coffee, just the strange instant version which my brother and I used to drink during school holidays in appalling quantities, heavily sugared, in the belief that we were being sophisticated. Possibly, as an experiment, I should recreate this rather revolting beverage, so as to summon out of the ground the lost years of my boyhood.  Some time ago I found in an old trunk a collection of my schoolboy diaries from the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is true that the bare dates on which I had seen a particular film or gone on a particular bike ride helped me map out my prehistoric childhood more accurately. But it was the dying smell of the cheap plastic bindings on those diaries that recalled the way those days had felt, sometimes exultant but nearly as often downcast, lonely, or disappointed. Perhaps I shall eventually have an actual Proustian experience with taste. But it will be difficult and quite unpleasant to arrange. There were no madeleines in southern England in the 1950s, and the things we ate and drank then, not long after rationing was abolished, have more or less vanished, and a good thing too. If I could find some fatty mutton and force it down me, or if I could be re-introduced to an actual suet pudding, I suspect I would feel too revolted to awaken any recollections. One of the few things I enjoyed eating in those years, a certain brand of plain chocolate, is no longer made and could never be obtained again. 

Memory, like dreams and sleep, remains a puzzle so huge that we barely think about it. It is obvious why one of my first recollections, perhaps aged three, is of sitting in a heavy, bulbous black car as it rolled backwards and downhill out of our front garden, gathering speed until it hit a tree and stopped. Oddly, I cannot remember my mother, who was in control of the vehicle, or rather not in control of it, saying anything, though she could have a colorful turn of phrase when required. It is not obvious why I remember sitting in a high-ceilinged room aged about seven, trying to make a plastic model of a Navy destroyer, amid much glue. Or why I remember swinging on a certain gate on a summer evening, at about the same age. There is no principle or pattern in all this. A few recollections are of exciting or frightening things, but many more are quite dull and even unexceptional. This applies to my adult years as much as to my childhood. Every so often I find that I have completely forgotten something which seemed vitally important at the time or, worse, have a memory of it which seems quite convincing but is demonstrably wrong. Try as I may, I cannot square all the many houses I lived in with the calendar. Somehow, about a year has just gone missing.  It is even less obvious why I simply cannot remember huge numbers of faces and names, but retain enough memory to know that the information is lost. Why can I remember clearly and in vivid detail a violent demonstration against the Vietnam War in London in 1968, while having no idea at all how I got there or how I came home afterwards? I can guess, but I do not know. As for getting things wrong, some years ago I revisited Moscow a decade or so after I had lived there. I went to take a look at the apartment block I and my family had inhabited for our last year in the Russian capital. I made the familiar journey by Metro, which I had done at least daily. I recalled that I always rode at the front of the train, and always left the station by a certain exit, and confidently climbed the steps expecting to see my old home in front of me. But I was quite wrong. Either the road pattern had been completely altered, or the Metro station had been moved two hundred yards, or the Ho Chi Minh memorial had been shifted, or my totally confident memory was wrong. Which it was. Giant changes can indeed happen in Moscow, but this was not one of them.

And yet we live in a world in which people are quite frequently sent to prison for long periods on the basis of evidence given on oath as accurate truth by prosecution witnesses about events far in the past. I was recently involved in a campaign to clear the name of a long-dead person against whom terrible allegations had been made, many decades after the event. We were successful. The alleged crime was inconsistent with all other available evidence about the person involved, including the recollections of some powerful living witnesses.  Yet at this distance there can be no final resolution which will satisfy all sides as just.  Evelyn Waugh says in a lovely passage in Brideshead Revisited that “we possess nothing certainly except the past.” Alas, it is not true. We do not even possess that. 

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