Hazel McHaffie

Proust

Remember, remember

Whatever you think about the morality and efficacy of war, this has been a week to pause and reflect. I wonder what memories and associations it brought for you. Maybe of loved ones killed, maimed, bereaved, traumatised by conflicts past or present. Maybe of long-gone ancestors whose heroism has been romanticised by time. Maybe of traumas or fears you’ve experienced yourself. It only takes a simple wooden cross, a name carved out of granite, the sound of a lone piper, to unleash powerful emotions.

Thiepval memorialFor me, every Armistice day makes me think of my uncle, blown to pieces at the age of 21, before even my mother was born. But this November I’ve been struck in a different way by the power of the senses to trigger memories. I spent a considerable proportion of the week with elderly people, in their 80s and 90s, who lived through the last great conflict, but whose horizons have now shrunk, as mobility, mental agility, memory have gradually failed them. Locked away in their minds and hearts are hundreds of years of vibrant memories – of youth, of careers, of loves, of losses, of successes and failures, of huge world crises and calamities.

It’s part of my role to find that smell, that taste, that association, that word, that will unlock the reservoir, to listen carefully to the first-hand account, encourage the activation of surrounding memories. And I never cease to be amazed at the sheer variety of┬áseemingly ordinary things that release those unique memories and fascinating revelations … the aroma of caraway seed cake, a picture of the Queen repairing an army truck, the feel of a lace collar, a ringlet, the sound of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings

It was Proust in Swann’s Way (part of his monumental A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]) who captured this phenomenon best:

‘The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.’

What a privilege to sit at the feet of these people who have actually seen and heard and tasted and touched the things the rest of us learned from history lessons. They have forgotten more than I ever knew.

 

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