Memory and identity: a personal history

My father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He will be 90 this year. He grew up close by the docks in Beckton, East London, which are now long gone. He remembers seeing the first wave of German bombers flying over London on September 7, 1940.

He was stationed in the Pacific when he joined the Navy in 1944; he has photos of Nagasaki taken a few weeks after it was destroyed by the atomic bomb.

At Cambridge after the war, he joined the Communist Party only to leave in the 1950s, disheartened by the party’s refusal to fully endorse the democratic process. At least, this is what I remember being told long ago, when facts seemed more stable than they do now.

He spent almost his entire working life in the trades union movement.

I write these things not because my father’s life was remarkable in itself. Every life is surely as full with meaning as a spider is with eggs. My father simply had the fortune – was it good or ill? – to live in more remarkable times than our own.

I write these things because now, when he and I talk, I wonder about what it means to me as a historian, as well as a son, to see those points of personal history that make my father who he is pulled further apart, the way the threads of a cobweb recoil from flame.

It is true, to paraphrase JG Ballard, that the resilience of the decaying mind gives hope to us all: the stubborn persistence of memory and story, the indelible certainties of felt events, of sight and texture and sound.

But if I am honest, oblivion yawns more widely than it did. Yes, a version of his life could be constructed from the record – from material fact and the collective memory of his children.

Yet the things that distinguish his life from countless others of his generation, the stubborn salt of individuality and unexpectedness that gives history its savour, would surely be erased by his greater forgetting – all those numberless thoughts and feelings that have never been recalled to us.

And I can’t help but think now – now that it is too late – that omission is a species of sin for historians, too.

The present – this now of ours – is forever falling from our grasp.

Perhaps, when I have been elsewhere in archives and more distant reaches of the past, I should have been here in the present, finding a way to save more before it is gone, to hold a small beachhead against oblivion, instead of trying to rescue the already lost.

What duty, I wonder, does the historian hold to the present, and to the historians that come after?

After all, this very personal history of my father’s, as with all private histories, weaves its own awkward and often unpredictable dance about the political and intellectual rhythms of public life.

And if history is to have a human dimension, as I would argue it must, then it should surely focus on precisely that: the impact of the private on the public, and vice versa.

I was reminded the other day of Livy’s maxim that the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind.

I have always thought – perhaps glibly – that this said more about Livy’s anxieties than it did about history per se. But circumstance is making me feel the substance of Livy’s point more acutely.

History is an art, as fiction and poetry and drama are. It is, among other things, a way of contending with what time and decay and death do to human identity.

But history is more than art: history is art plus memory. Watching my father fade from the present into some other, merely somatic life is an acute reminder that memory and identity are the closest of bedfellows.

It is easy to despair. And if I am honest I can catch myself thinking more about the impact of the illness, on the decay of my father’s faculties, than I do about the man still living and breathing in front of me.

I am far from proud of this, either as a son or as a historian; it is, in a way, a denial of history.

If, as Livy said, the study of history is a means of ordering a disordered mind – of restoring its identity, its certainties of self – it is also perhaps a bulwark against a decaying one.

Perhaps it is never too late.

In the end, we all forget and are forgotten, in sum or in part. Remembering, and honouring the remembrances of others, is one of the most human and important things we can do.

As historians, we must believe in the recoverability of data, of sources, of life.

We must all, in our own way, be optimists at heart, however dark the horizon.