In the corners of the mind

Jun 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Ministry

Names surface, uninvited. Reading a Marilynne Robinson interview in this week’s Church Times, there is a memory of recalling a name from the past: Barry Davie.

Sitting in a psychology lecture once, the lecturer was talking about memory. He suggested that it might be possible that the brain retained everything we ever heard. (This seemed doubtful, I couldn’t recall what the lecturer had said in his previous point). The problem, he said, was in recalling the information from the depths of the memory

Wanting clarification, I asked him a silly question. ‘Does this mean that if I listened to the football results on the radio in October 1974, somewhere in the depths of may brain are all of West Ham’s scores?’

‘That’s the theory’, he said.

It seems an even more improbable theory now than it did at the time. I have no recall of who the lecturer was or whether he ever taught me anything else.

Experts in memory say that association is important to recall. Unlikely things can trigger a sequence of memories, some of them filed in the recesses of the brain for many years.

Barry Davie had been recalled when humming a tune. Making tea in a marble floored kitchen, I was testing the acoustics and humming one of the radio theme tunes from the 1970s – one of those odd pieces of music produced by the BBC radiophonics workshop, and there was Barry Davie.

Barry’s appearance was brief, walking alongside me towards the classroom block in 1976, humming that BBC tune. In his school uniform and looking as serious as he always looked, he appeared for a moment and then slipped back into the recesses of my brain.

Barry Davie’s appearance had made me feel guilty about words I had read that day in Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel ‘Gilead’. The narrator is John Ames, a Congregationalist minister and the central character of the book.

‘And I must say, too, that my mind, with all its deficiencies, has certainly kept me interested. There’s quite a bit of poetry in it that I learned over the years, and a pretty decent vocabulary, much of it unused. And Scripture. I never knew it the way my father did, or his father. But I know it pretty well. I certainly should. When I was younger than you are now, my father would give me a penny every time I learned five verses so that I could repeat them without a mistake. And then he’d make a game of saying a verse, and I had to say the next one. We could go on and on like that, sometimes till we came to a genealogy, or we just got tired. Sometimes we’d take roles: he’d be Moses and I’d be Pharaoh, he’d be the Pharisees and I’d be the Lord. That’s how he was brought up, too, and it was a great help to me when I went to seminary. And through the whole of my life’.

Would that I remembered verses, instead of long distant names and BBC theme tunes.

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  1. Recently someone mentioned in passing the songs we used to sing at school 40 years ago. The following day, while cleaning the bath, I heard myself singing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, a song that hasn’t entered my mind since sometime around 1975.

  2. I think music must rank second to smell in evoking memories.

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