Dot writes: as surprisingly compelling soggy reading over the past couple of weeks I’ve been moseying my way through Michael Palin’s diaries for 1980 to 1988. Surprising because it’s not spectacular laugh-a-minute stuff, nor suspense-filled nor racy; but he is an agreeable companion and this in combination with the structure of short entries makes one always ready to read a little more. The period is also an interesting one for me because it’s the period in which I began to be aware of events in the wider world; as the diaries go on they increasingly mention news that I remember. I’ve a very vague memory of the Miners Strike, for example. I certainly remember hearing about the King’s Cross fire and being horrified. The 1987 hurricane is one event that I actually experienced. I recall waking to the noise of the wind and coming downstairs in my nightie to join my mother as she watched the thrashing trees from the window; I was excited rather than frightened, and I felt grown-up to be sharing my mother’s vigil. In the morning our next-door neighbour’s greenhouse was twisted and smashed to bits and the road was choked with fallen trees.
My oldest official memory goes back to before I was two: going to the old doctor’s surgery in my village, a datable memory because the doctor in question died slightly before my sister was born. Only I’m no longer sure that I really remember it, because I’ve talked about it so often I suspect I’m now remembering the story rather than the experience. I think this is how it can make sense to talk of collective memory, because individual memory in any case blurs into shared stories and is modified and rearranged in the light of what other people say. Stories are often more vivid than experiences anyway, when time has passed, and the narrated memories of others can seem almost as real (or, vigorously told, realer) than our own hazy recollections. But they do weaken as they get passed along. I bought a copy of My Naughty Little Sister the other day. The 1950s world of Dorothy Edwards’s books has always seemed quite familiar to me, though even by the time of my own childhood there weren’t too many coalmen coming to call: but my parents were children in the fifties and so this world was as real and detailed as my parents. When I was a child, if you wanted to reach a long way back in living memory you could get to the First World War quite easily, and there was an old lady living in the next cottage but one (when I was very small) who had been born in the 19th century. To my own children, however, the 1950s will seem like a very long time ago indeed; and the First World War has already changed almost entirely from memory to history. This makes me feel old.
I’d be interested to get comments on how far back readers remember – both personal memories and the earliest big news events that made an impression.