Magazine article The Spectator

Memory's Weird Ways

Magazine article The Spectator

Memory's Weird Ways

Article excerpt

'She goes off to the Maldives. That's all I can remember about her, ' laughed Alan Bennett as he struggled to recall the name of the Australian physiotherapist he'd invented for his TV play about Miss Fozzard and her feet.

Bennett had volunteered to subject himself to a Mastermind-style grilling from Mark Lawson (for Radio 4's Front Row) after one of the contestants on the TV quiz had chosen Bennett's plays as his specialist subject.

Bennett scored more than his TV rival - just - passing on six questions (and getting a couple wrong). His lack of writerly pomposity, amused and not irritated by his own forgetfulness, was endearing. But the mockgrilling was also an intriguing insight into the workings of the creative imagination.

How could Bennett have forgotten something which had once been so real in his mind? It's a very real fear for anyone over the age of about 50 who's becoming aware that their powers of recall are distinctly less awesome than they used to be. What happens to all those memories that were once so vivid, and which we believe are so crucial to what we've become?

We heard more about the weird ways in which memory works on Ramblings, which has just returned to Radio 4 on Saturday mornings (far too early) and Thursday midafternoons (hopeless, for anyone with work to be done). Clare Balding, who's such a clever interviewer, never afraid to ask sharp questions but always in such a thoughtful way so as not to be off putting, was walking in Wiltshire with a group of people suffering from early-onset dementia. 'How did the Alzheimer's manifest itself?' she asked Derek, who was until recently the director of a wood recycling company. It was a terrifyingly blunt question, but spot-on. 'I was struggling to do simple calculations in my head, ' he told us frankly.

His answer has been haunting me ever since, as I struggled to recall how to switch on the sidelights of my car (which I've had for 20 years, but I've been driving three different cars in as many weeks, and the brain's got a bit confused). There was so much laughter on this brief, half-hour account of their day-long walk that, although Balding and her group of walkers did not flinch from describing the effects of dementia, it was all a lot less grim than you might think. …

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