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James Clarke Masthead
August 1 2012 at 10:09

I learnt long ago that one’s memory is a good liar. It was in 1994 when I was walking with Julie, my younger daughter, from Calais southwards towards Boulogne. We were nearing Cap Gris Nez which is where channel swimmers land or from where they depart.

I remember clearly as a 16-year-old arriving on foot at Cap Gris Nez and meeting a young American channel swimmer named Shirley-May who was my age. I shared chips with her in the cobbled market square which was glistening from a recent shower.

When, 40 years later, I arrived with Julie we found a solitary cafe a kilometre or two from the Cape. I asked the proprietor how far it was to the village. He said there was no village. There was just the windswept Cape.

And Shirley-May? Who knows?

Julie and I were trying to retrace a lone journey I had made walking and hitching down the length of France to the Mediterranean. I realised I had forgotten a great deal but that which I thought I could remember I now began to doubt.

The late American author, Jessamyn West (she would have been 100 years old this year), said, “The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future”.

I found her quote on a website ( which contains “Dr Mardy’s quote of the week”. The site recently listed some quotes regarding memory. Dr Mardy Grothe, an author and motivational speaker, himself observed: “Descriptions of the past can contain as much fiction as fact”.

This is the bane of historians.

My wife and I frequently find we have totally different perspectives of quite vivid events which we have shared. I have lately given up “correcting” her because I am constantly remembering Maurice Chevalier’s song:

We met at nine
We met at eight
I was on time
No, you were late
Ah yes! I remember it well

We dined with friends
We dined alone
A tenor sang
A baritone
Ah yes! I remember it well

As Grothe says, “Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of sobering experiences where I’ve described some past experience to a friend or family member who was present at the same event. To my surprise – and occasionally even to my shock – the memories of the people who witnessed the same event were strikingly different from my own.”

I am convinced most people (all people?) will agree with Truman Capote who said he remembers “things the way they should have been”.

I have been toying with writing an autobiography but realise I cannot possibly write a serious one. As Franklyn P Jones wrote – he was a journalist who died just after I was born – “An autobiography usually reveals nothing bad about its writer except his memory.”

As one grows older – which is something I am quite good at – one often cannot recall what happened yesterday but you begin to recall more and more of the deep past: the name of one’s English teacher perhaps or an incident that had been buried in your cranium for 40 years.

If I ever summon up the temerity, not to say the required level of conceit, to write my story it can only be tongue in cheek. This is not only because I cannot trust the veracity of my memory but because if I start reminiscing about my travels and travails I’d have to make up almost everything from about the time I mastered how to tie my own shoelaces.

But then I find I am quite good at that too.

* This is the last time Stoep Talk will appear on Wednesdays. From next week it will appear on Mondays and Fridays.

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