Periodically here, I muse on the nature of what we do – social, oral and collective local history – and wonder aloud about what makes it work, how to do it and whether we’re doing it right.
One of the key aspects of local history is memory, and what people recall. I’ve long realised that memory and eyewitness account, whilst taken in good spirit and documented with great respect and passion, also requires a degree of scepticism, because memory is not all that it would appear.
We all remember things differently. Ask friends to recall the same wedding, party or night out and they’ll all give differing accounts. This isn’t because anyone is untrustworthy, or deliberately embellishes, but because our minds all work slightly differently, and perspectives vary.
Today, I read this article on the BBC (click here) and it really, really made me think, as it has much to say on the reliability or otherwise of human memory. This puts me also in mind of a program I recorded from Radio 4 and posted on the blog a few years ago. You can listen to it below.
I’m interested in discussing this, as ever.
I know that I personally remember stuff that couldn’t possibly have happened, but up until I discovered those events were impossible, I believed the memories. I recall the view from a flat my family lived in, when I was a child; except I can’t possibly, because Mum and Dad moved out of there when I was a tiny baby. I remember going to a shop with my old man, the journey is held in my head in great and vivid detail; but the shop had closed before I could walk – so it’s an invention. But where did it come from? Most probably from half remembered other things, and recollections I’d heard from the family.
This is important too when we look at the effect of community on memory. If we’re influenced by family voices and recollections, how does that work on a community level? Do communities that continually assert a myth generate seemingly true recollections by gentle reinforcement?
If so, it’s clearly not a conscious thing, but it’s certainly hugely relevant to what we’re doing, and deserves exploration.
There have certainly been assertions made here over the years that have led to question. But even if a story is questionable, it still deserves recording, doesn’t it?
Talking to others, this seems almost a normal function of memory, that things meld and join as we get older. If so, I’m interested in how accurate that makes memory in reality?
There are other factors in play, too, like consistency bias (thanks to the wonderful Phil Griffin for that), and confirmation bias. All this has an effect on what we perceive to be a true and accurate retelling. I see and read lots of local history sites and groups. Most seem convinced that Walsall, for instance, was much better x years ago, x being dependent on the age of the speaker. One of the things continually asserted is that the town was much cleaner.
Which is odd, because if one looks at images of the time, it isn’t usually that clean.
I’m not saying memory and recollection isn’t to be taken as fact, but I think that regardless of the integrity of the person in question, we can place nothing above question.
Go on, tell me I’m wrong, and you can never remember me being right… comment here, or BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.