I remember it well… I was there. Or was I?

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George Street, Walsall in 1982. When, apparently, Walsall was spotless and valued it’s architecture. A remarkable image from Mervyn_w and posted on Flickr.

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.

I covered this kind of thing before in previous posts, but just today I read an article that really made me think.

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.

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13 Responses to I remember it well… I was there. Or was I?

  1. Pedro says:

    Concerning local history.

    It appears to me that some commentators, who may have had long family associations with mining in the locality, fall into the same trap.

    Today I was reading about the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company (1864-1973)…

    “This progressive company was strongly managed and their mining operations were very well planned. The collieries were run in the “family’ tradition which gave the workforce a sense of belonging and engendered excellent working relations.”

  2. Andy Dennis says:

    You only have to look at reports of (say) football matches to see that opinions vary on very recent events. We all have perceptions that colour our judgement. Say the result is a 2-2 draw, but the last, equalising goal was from a disputed penalty kick. The team conceding will consider themselves unfortunate, but the other side will see it as a well-earned point. For most games this will be quickly forgotten, but if this was an important match, perhaps a cup final or relegation decider it will be remembered, but always in more than one way. I’ve read such reports of matches I have witnessed personally many times and wondered if the reporter was actually at the same match. West Germany were hard done by in the 1966 World Cup final, weren’t they? Don’t be silly!

    There is also a desire for people to be involved in memorable events, for example, Bobby Charlton reckoned that if everyone was to be believed something like half a million must have been at Wembley that day.

  3. This strand of thought has great relevance when considering eye witness accounts of crimes when the trial is many years later. Just how reliable are the witness statements?

  4. kevinjones21 says:

    Hi Bob, I believe you are entirely correct in your opinion. We all remember the long hot summers and deep snow in the winters but often the records do not support these memories. Romantically we remember using the outside toilet but forget that often it could be very cold and unpleasant out there. We speak of full employment but forget that wages were often so low that people struggled to get by from day to day. We speak of how the local doctor was always on hand (which is true as the local doctor was generally more accessible) but our life expectancy is longer because we have more knowledge and better medicines / surgical techniques. What do we want some sympathy of a positive outcome? Memories are wonderful things and if they focus on the positives, embellish the truth and introduce events that didn’t happen at the expense of the negative then I am all for it. A couple of years ago when I had some surgery my memory is not of the pain it was in at time but the characters on the ward. My mind is blocking out the “bad bits”
    A great article Bob – well done!

  5. Andy Dennis says:

    There is a line in Oklahoma!: “[Curly] Makin’ up a few purties ain’t agin’ no law I know of”.
    Romanticising the past may imperil us in the future – the idea that ignoring or forgetting the mistakes of the past runs the risk of repeating them, but it seems to me there is less danger of that now than at any other time.
    Imagine if the equivalent of Robin Hood and co. had stormed Nottingham Castle yesterday afternoon. CCTV, news teams from across the globe, Orla Guerin perhaps, or John Simpson, eye witness accounts recorded in sound, hospital records, a selfie with Friar Tuck inadvertently in the background, forensic examination of the scene.
    If Sir Francis Drake had really been playing bowls one summer’s afternoon in 1588 there would have been a media scrummage and in-depth analysis of the skill and tactical nous of the players. The battles, weather conditions and sea state in the Channel would have been reported in the minutest detail. So, had someone boasted that they were playing bowls against the great man, perhaps intoxicated by the scent of victory or contraband rum, or seeking his own fifteen minutes of fame, we would be able to check.
    And if England does win the World Cup again and you tell your grandchildren that you were there we will be able to check that, too. Well, perhaps that would be academic!

  6. When I remember Walsall of the late 60s and early 70s when I was growing up, most memories are in black and white but with the vivid colours of sari’s thrown in. It’s just the way I remember Walsall from then, the only colour coming from the Asian ladies. Same with Birmingham, grey, black and white but with colourful hippies.

    • Pedro says:

      Hi Linda, I have been looking for the thread that concerned POWs and Sutton Park, without success.

      Any road up, talking of memory I spoke to my aunt who is 86 and she was adamant that there was a POW camp for Italians in Sutton Park!

  7. aerreg says:

    a memory is a treasure which only belongs to you you cannot buy it or give it away it can be youfull it can be sad but it can be shared with others it is a very precious gift there is a sad time in life however when it is lost so my friends enjoy every second dont dwell on its acrusivity we all no anynuck did not put the pig on the wall to see the band go by but its a lovely memory god bless

  8. Pedro says:

    On the other hand there are some remarkable memories out there such as Dominic O’Brian, and does anyone remember the Memory Man, Leslie Welch…

    “It’s my belief that everyone was born with a perfect memory, but by the time they are 21, thanks to the invention of pen and paper, they are only using a fifth of it. The other four-fifths has gone dormant like a muscle not being used.”

    • Andy Dennis says:

      As I understand it we are born with no memory and have to learn to use it. That is why you can’t remember anything from when you were very young.

  9. mervyn_w says:

    Great article and debate. Memories are also shaped by others. How many times do we hear when saying something we ‘know’ to be true, that we are wrong because so many other people are of a different opinion? Truth is not democratic unfortunately. However many people say something does not make it true. But in order to comply with these other opinions we may then begin to reshape our ‘correct’ memories and get ideas and memories which are not true. Even photographs may not be ‘truth’ if they are incorrectly referenced, but this incorrect reference can be repeated further along the line. ‘Memories are what you see and truth is what you feel’, a quote from an obscure song in my more youthful years ….

    • Hi Mervyn, great to hear from you!

      Your comment prompted me to check the attribution of your image (a fine photo it is, too) – spelling mistake now corrected!

      My apologies
      Bob

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