Two Old Codgers

How the World strikes us

Memories are strange things. Are the things we recall genuine memories of the actual event or are they memories of things you have been told in the past? Even worse, maybe you recall a memory and the thought processes fill in some of the faded colours and even bits of the picture that are missing. Next time it is brought to mind it comes complete with the additions and we may even add more bits to it, not in an attempt to deceive but just to make the picture clearer and sharper. A bit like using a computer to enhance an old family snapshot.

A study on false memory worked with a group of students. One young woman was asked if she remembered going on a hot air balloon flight as a child. She was sure she hadn't. Unknown to her they had acquired from her parents a photograph of such a family trip.

A picture of the eight year old young woman was skilfully added to the people in the balloon basket. When shown the photograph, she still had no memory of the trip. Over coming weeks the subject of the balloon trip was quietly introduced into the interviews. Soon, not only could she remember the trip but had mentally added other details, such as which family member had taken the snapshot.

Some childhood memory of mine seem to confirm his idea. Please bear with my ramblings (I suppose it goes with the age!) but this memory goes back some eighty-five years. I lived with my parents and older brother and sister in a house with a small whitewashed cellar. My brother had a small, candle powered, hand cranked movie projector which showed a tiny picture on the whitewashed wall.

I can remember vividly (Or think I can!) seeing him thread a tiny spool of ex-cinema 35mm film into the projector and watched in awe as the sepia coloured film showed a title “The Way of an Eagle by Ethel M Dell’ followed by a short clip of a smartly dressed woman walking into a room - and that was it. (Just one digression - a naked flame candle and highly flammable nitrate film. Health and safety eat your heart our!)

I can recount in great detail that tiny insignificant event. But hang on! I was about four years old and certainly couldn’t read. My brother and sister must have read the title out to me. The only conclusion I can reach is that a tiny memory has been embellished each time it is brought to mind. I have seen similar toy projectors since then; we have all seen whitewashed cellars; I have read about Ethel M Dell’s book, in fact I have actually read it. One real (If there such a thing) memory is of coming up from the cellar and saying to my Mum. “I have just seen The Way of a Needle by Ethel M Dell” She corrected me and told me it was the way of an EAGLE.

An even earlier memory from when I was about three years old. We lived in Clitheroe in what is described as a garden terraced house.

In reality the garden was pocket handkerchief sized and separates the front door from the pavement by five or six feet. It consisted of a few square feet of paving stones or a few straggly plants which struggle to survive in a handful of soil. Granny was in the living room preparing lunch (We called it dinner in those days) for Mum and Dad who both worked in the cotton mill.

I was playing in the ‘Garden’ with both the front door and iron gate leading to the front street wide open. At one end of St Mary’s Street was the Church, at the other was the local cattle market from where one of the cows wandered out to freedom and trotted sedately down our front street. Startled and frightened by the sight of a wandering cow, I ran down the lobby to the security of Granny and the living room. What happened? The cow followed me down the lobby!

I cowered behind an upholstered chair in the corner; Granny looked up from the table where she was slicing bread.

The cow by now was standing in the lobby looking into the living room. Granny with great presence of mind slammed the frosted glass door in the cows face and shouted “Go ‘ome, we ‘ave a dog!”. Just how the cow managed to back out of the lobby I will never know.

I can remember the tiny garden, the frosted glass door between lobby and living room, Granny standing with bread knife in hand in a high collared dress, the upholstered chair - in fact every detail of the incident - but can I? Over the years I have told the story many times and I just wonder how many slight embellishments have been added or details reinforced - perhaps by seeing old family photographs of Granny. Or maybe having details filled in by versions told by other family members. I find it quite impossible to separate the genuine first hand memories from the other, quite innocent, additions. I suspect all of us have literally hundreds of such memories which can for no apparent reason pop into our minds.

Here’s another of my memories for you. For many years I worked in a fourteenth century manor house which was owned by a registered charity. The main source of income was by selling antiques, The name of the house was Samlesbury Hall. One day we were visited by an American antique dealer named Bruce Southworth, He presented me with his business card which showed the name of his firm as “Samlesbury Hall Antiques - Illinois”.

He had even used our quatrefoil logo on his card. The original family who had built and owned Samlesbury Hall were the Southworths and as a youngster Bruce’s father had told him of the old mansion in England which had been owned by his ancestors. When Bruce retired early from his real estate company he followed his dream of owning a small but exclusive antique shop which he named after what he considered as his ancestral home.

He came over to England on a buying trip and decided his first call would be at Samlesbury. Firstly to see where his ancestors came from home but also to find out how to pronounce the name of his shop. Was it ‘Sams berry’; ‘Sam les berry’; ‘Sarms berry’ or one of these weird pronunciations peculiar to the English. Bruce had read that Mainwairing became Mannering, Cholmondley became Chumley, Featherstonehaugh became Fanshaw and Harewood House became Harwood. It was something of an embarrassment when he answered the telephone and stumbled over the name of his own business.

He arrived at Manchester airport one Monday morning and immediately hired a car and drove to see his birthright - Samlesbury Hall. As he entered the drive way he saw this magnificent black and white half timbered building.

He hurriedly parked the car and walked to the entrance only to discover he had arrived on the one day that the hall was closed. He wandered round but was unable to find anyone to whom he could speak.
After a while he drove back to the road and went a few hundred yards until he saw a small village store.

It was in fact a small post office. He went into the shop, Camel hair coat slung carelessly over his shoulders and said to the slightly overawed young man behind the counter “Say buddy, how do you say the name of this place”. Speaking in a clear loud voice, after all he was talking to a foreigner, the young Lancashire lad said “POST OFFICE”.

This is a memory I have recalled fifty or sixty times, usually at the end of a talk to a Women's Institute, Rotary club or other small organisation. Now, here’s the thing, I believe that each time the memory is brought out, I change it. Perhaps to enhance it; to embellish it; make it more interesting or amusing or even add something that someone else tells me about the incident. Whatever happens, ether unintentionally or on purpose, it goes back into the memory bank as something different.

When I take out the post office story I am unable to get back to the pure, original memory. If I strip it back to the clearest unadulterated recollection I could take you to the very spot in the Hall where I met him, I know he showed me his business card but beyond that the distinction between what actually happened and subsequent recalls is blurred and indistinct. I guess he must have told me about his trip to the post office, I don’t think I could have fabricated that but his camel hair coat, flying in to Manchester airport and driving directly to Samlesbury Hall - I just don’t know. It is an interesting experiment to take one of your favourite anecdotes and take a good hard look at it. Is it all original or can you see bits that have been added later?

some of the stories we read about historic sexual abuse be based on embellished memories?

We would welcome your comments or to hear what YOU think. Let us know by clicking on
CONTACT ME If we publish anything you send, just let us know if we can use your name or if you would prefer to be anonymous.