pieces of light

Meades on memory and place

I had the pleasure yesterday of doing my first reading from Pieces of Light at the Hay Festival. The event, chaired by John Mitchinson and Unbound, put me together with the legendary Jonathan Meades, whose new book Museum Without Walls is a funny and incisive collection of writings on architecture, places and the people who inhabit them. Looking dapper and ever so slightly decadent in his overcoat and silk scarf (Hay was rather chilly this year), Jonathan read out a hilarious demolition of the aesthetics of the Olympic site, which included one of the longest and funniest lists you will ever read in the pages of a book.

I read an extract from the ‘Walking at Goldhanger’ chapter of Pieces of Light, which describes a walk I took along the Essex coastline in search of memories of my Dad. One of my interests in this book is in how we negotiate memories of people who are no longer here—with ‘negotiate’ being the operative word. I talked about how memory functions as a kind of bricolage, a putting-together from ‘scrounged materials intended for other purposes’, to use Meades’ words. We reconstruct the past by putting together different kinds of information—sensory, perceptual, factual, semantic—and creating the collage in different ways each time we are called upon to remember.
There were some great comments from the floor, including one accusation that I was being ‘intellectually arrogant’ by claiming authoritative knowledge about how the questioner’s own memory worked. I responded by saying that I wasn’t just reporting the findings of a couple of psychological surveys, but rather summing up decades of careful research by outstanding scientists who have used a range of different methods. If it is intellectually arrogant to aim for a robust, phenomenologically sensitive science of human experience (which challenges the myths of memory’s function and rejects a simplistic reliance on introspection and ‘just-knowing’), then I will happily accept the charge.

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