Friday, February 3, 2023

Lapses and love of our memories

At the summit of the Serles on that first visit to Austria.

Early in the new year, my wife was describing to our friends how a house in a nearby village was being converted into a restaurant.

Interjecting, in a mansplaining sort of way, I added that it was actually the old pub, going on to confidently describe its former décor and ambience. Jane cast her eyes to the ceiling and indeed said nothing as we drove past it the following morning… When sure enough, there it was, the Ship Inn open for business and next door to a house under scaffolding.

Something similar occurred a few weeks earlier when in writing an article I described the Dresdner Hütte as my first ever alpine refuge: it literally changed my life, I said. And yet on checking my diaries, I was reminded that we’d first stayed at the Maria Waldrast hostel, climbing Mount Serles before heading down to the Stubai Valley.

This fallibility of memory is common and even used as a literary device by writers — it’s known as the unreliable narrator. Perhaps by fessing up, I’m hoping for a redemption of sorts and seeking to make a connection by sharing a failing that many will recognise, especially those greying around the temples.

But the interesting thing is that despite these lapses, I’d suggest our memories are still real and valuable in their way. My description of the Ship Inn’s interior turned out to be accurate to a tee. And while I was wrong about the chronology of my first visit to Austria, it’s true that for forty years, those recollections have shaped my life and passion for the mountains.

It seems to me that in summoning our experience, what matters most is not so much the absolute veracity as the impression it leaves and the enrichment this brings.  As my art teacher once said when I was struggling with a likeness, 'Nobody knows what Lisa del Giocondo looked like, yet the Mona Lisa is a brilliant portrait regardless'. 

Of course, there are times when accuracy matters, not least in, say, navigation. As I was reminded this week after confidently heading down a shortcut to one of the quieter lifts of the Les Gets ski resort… Half an hour and two long diversions later, we eventually arrived at our intended destination!

Oh well, at least the view – and the snow – was spectacular.

* This post is a slightly revised version of an article for The Austrian Alpine Club (UK).


  1. All I can say after reading this is if you think your memory has got a bit suspect - wait until you get to 90!

  2. Not that long ago, I was able to come in contact with people and a community I had known sixty years ago and it was an incredible thing to realize that my memories, such as they are, are absolutely spot-on. Having been told as an adult by family members that certain incidents I remember from childhood definitely did not happen, I had come to distrust myself and yet, at the same time, I knew I was right. I felt very validated.

  3. Hari OM
    Individually such memory varigation is of little import... there can be rifts created where it might be expected that two folk share the same memory - yet don't! Trust me I know. This very week I witnessed my sister having a near melt-down thinking her version was the only one and true version of events............ we have moved on from that moment now. 😬 YAM xx

  4. And sometimes we remember the same events but the impression they leave depends on the individual. A case in point when a few weeks ago, my American friend Marse and myself were recalling her last visit to Scotland, about 12 years ago. I remembered it as incredibly disappointing - the weather was so vile - ferocious winds and rains almost the entire two weeks, so we did almost none of the mountain hike I'd planned and been so looking forward to. She insisted (and I think not just politely) that it was a wonderful trip, the landscape was magnificent, the weather full of drama etc. etc.)
    Cheers, Gail.

  5. It's interesting to me how siblings view their upbringing in such different lights. Perspective, personal experience, and even character and personality all shape our memories.

  6. I chuckled at the word 'mansplaining', crept into the dictionary via Rebecca Solnit and now in modern use. The only thing I would say against it is what with being 'snowflakes' and 'cancel culture' creatures we shall soon be unable to open our mouths. I am beginning to question how memories seem to flood through at the wrong end of life, whether interpreted in a real or a false syndrome state - I don't think it matters.

  7. "what matters most is not so much the absolute veracity as the impression it leaves and the enrichment this brings" - this and Gail's comment about the same events leaving different impressions on 2 people witnessing the same event are our takeaways from this post. We completely agree as memories shared with my brother of events we both had parts in are completely different, but not necessarily contradictory as we have always been able to see the other's perspective as an enrichment of the memory that remains of that shared event. I can see how he would have focused on the aspects that remained with him, and I would have missed those bits completely.

  8. Memories often soften or brighten things, enlarges them (as two comments in my garden blog "..sunshine, freedom.. show: the gardens of our childhood were always huge, the houses too, the ways longer (except some new impressions as by your short cut, haha).
    I am glad that I have meanwhile about 150 diaries - written from 10 years old to now - to compare my impressions then to my memories now - both subjective, of course.
    I often think that our memories are like a painting we draw without the real landscape or vase with flowers or a person in front of us - it might differ a lot from what there "really" was - but the structure is there.

  9. PS: I learned the word "mansplain" about 4 weeks ago from Rachel's blog and rejoiced about a new word I had learned - she then heavily reprimanded me that she did not want to see it at her blog - though I got it from there and wrote in a comment to that. Honestly: sometimes memory seems to be a mayfly :-)

  10. I read Patti Davis' open letter to Harry and Meghan. One of the reminders was that they have a piece of the picture, but that piece is not the whole picture. That's a good reminder to all of us, isn't it? Our memories are a piece of a much bigger picture.