I’m sixty-four-years-old. If life worked the way it does in books, I should by now have a rich stock of memories to share about the things I’ve done and the person I’ve been. But books aren’t about life as we live it but life as we’d like it to be. Books simplify. It’s one of the reasons that we like them.
My memory doesn’t work the way a book does. I can’t call up a file labelled ‘Mike Finn at Seventeen – highlights from 1974’. I can’t, even for a short time, take myself back to the mind that was mine when I was seventeen.
Once you’ve learned to read, you can’t open a book and see a page the way you did when letters were just shapes.
I can call up memories but I don’t trust them. They feel curated, assembled for a purpose, edited for effect.
Who is the Curator? Brighter minds than mine have struggled to answer that question. Whoever they are, they stand between me and my past, me and the boy I was when I was seventeen.
I have some of my writings from back then but, even though they’re contemporary, I don’t trust the source. They were written neither to document nor to explore but to rehearse an identity before an imagined but unnamed audience. Now they just embarrass me. They’re too raw, too brash and too obviously self-serving.
I have photograph albums too. so old that the colours have bled and the transparent plastic holding them to the page has turned yellow, which perhaps makes them a better metaphor for my memories than the digital versions the Snapchatting TikToking youth of today will be curating in forty year’s time.
But even if these photographs were pristine, they would still do more to distract than inform. They depict the now hard-to-imagine-I-ever-wanted-to-wear-them clothes and hairstyle and glasses more clearly than they do the boy beneath. They create distance rather than intimacy.
I wonder why his hair is cut so badly, why his glasses are so heavy and ugly and why he chose to wear a jacket with such huge lapels or such obsessively shined platform boots. Then I remember: he was poor but he hadn’t noticed it yet because he was no poorer than everyone else. Grooming was about being clean, drenching yourself in the great smell of Brut deodorant and keeping your hair in place with Cossak hairspray.
His physical shape is also a distraction. He’s so much leaner than I am now, a little over half my weight. And that face, It’s a face that has seen no use yet and is uncertain about how it will be received. His for-the-camera smiles don’t convince me of anything but his anxiety.
So the words and pictures might as well be of a stranger for all they tell me about this boy’s mind.
Which means I have only the Unknown Curator’s version of me to call upon. My Curator is not a novelist. He doesn’t present me with a narrative, reliable or otherwise. It doesn’t even offer me virtual photo albums, sorted by year and place. He lets me open a drawer crammed with snapshots that have no context, no labels, offering nothing but a must-once-have-been-interesting image from my past.
What makes this experience stranger, to the point where my own memories feel like fiction, is how much the world has changed since I was a child, so that some of the things that I, and everyone around me, took for granted seem like bizarre fiction to anyone born in this century.
Like the memory that I had to check with others before I accepted it as memory that, in the 1960s, when I was first learning to read and write, I wrote my painfully difficult to craft words on a slate with a piece of chalk.
So I’ve decided to gather some snapshot memories from my Curator while they’re still available to me and post them here from time to time. I can’t voucher for their accuracy, in fact I’m certain that they’re at best only partly true but they’re what I have. I think of them as being in the same category as a movie that opens with a line of text across the screen saying: ‘Based On True Events’
I’ll add links here to Snapshot Memories as I post them.