You must remember this

Grandpa’s hand feels like soft, rumpled leather. His nails are thick, curved and brown. His black Harrington jacket smells of tobacco and sweat. When he smiles, only one side of his mouth turns up. He’s been dead since 1990 but I can remember him in 3D, HD, stereo surround.

I remember more things, in finer detail, than many other people, or so I gather. As a writer, that’s handy. I can summon places, people and textures from storage and describe them.

It helps me write pieces like this, about the pub I lived in between the ages of three and five, and this about my family’s smoking habits throughout my childhood.

As a human being, it’s sometimes a problem. Once or twice a day I’ll wince with embarrassment or sigh with sadness at something that happened more than thirty-five years ago.

“It’s weird that you remember literally every moment of your childhood,” someone said recently, which prompted a conversation with members of my family about how their memories work.

My Mum swears that her earliest memory is of Grandpa, her dad, leaning over a balcony in a checked dressing gown. When she asked her late mum about this she all but spat out her tea: this moment, she thought, could only have occurred when Mum was a nine-month-old baby in her pram, looking up at the house from the garden.

My brother, on the other hand, got quite emotional admitting to us that he didn’t really remember Grandpa at all. He died when my brother was nine, not even that young, but my brother doesn’t have deep memory banks. He lives in the present and doesn’t do nostalgia. It’s interesting, too, that he’s the mathematician-scientist in the family and proclaims himself totally uninterested in the visual arts.

Outside the family, there’s my friend Jack and his photographic memory. We only discovered this when, years ago, he recalled some minor historical detail.

“How do you remember stuff like that?” someone asked.

“Same as anyone else,” he said, shrugging. “I just picture the front page of the newspaper for that day and then, you know, read the headlines and then zoom in on the story for the details.”

My partner’s sister is similarly gifted and seems able to remember useful things like what everyone in the family ate at her twelfth birthday meal and who got what for Christmas in 1987. She’s also got a knack for recalling sporting statistics and who won what at which Olympics back to 1984.

I sometimes doubt my own memory, though. Am I a good writer because I have a good memory, or does my memory seem good because I’m imaginative?

In the last few years I’ve been working on novels set in the 1950s and seem to be able to draw on memory to fill in their details, too. Not my memories but secondhand memories from my parents, grandparents and other relatives, filled in with details I’ve plucked from family photos, film, television, novels and goodness knows where else.

I remember holding Grandpa’s hand, the curve of his fingernails, the smell of his jacket… Or I have a few sketched lines, a single fuzzy frame, and, like one of those machine learning demonstrations that lights up the internet every other week, my brain fills in the gaps with guesswork and borrowed textures.

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