Childhood Memories

July/August 2016

Dear Lucy and Isobel,

“Rachel felt, somehow, that in the last hour she had made a long journey through time, back to some far-off, half-forgotten era in her early life. To her childhood even? The garden certainly bore no resemblance to her mother’s cramped old patio in Leeds, and it was three times the size of her grandparents’ garden in Beverley, where she had also spent a good many summers. No, they were not the images that were coming to mind this afternoon, as she sipped her coffee cautiously and looked around her. But still, there was an unmistakeable aura of childhood about this place.” [Jonathon Coe, Number 11Penguin, 2015, pp. 143-144]

Walking along the towpath by the canal basin, my eye was caught by the sight of a large Union Jack on a white post, the flag furling and unfurling in the breeze. The vivid red, white and blue of the flag stirred something in me, a barely perceptible feeling that brought me back in time to my childhood. There was nothing definitive about it, no revealing Proustian flashback, and the sensation disappeared almost as quickly as it came. Was it a memory, I wondered? Perhaps, I went on to reflect, I was remembering the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth in 1953 when the streets of Whitehaven were decorated in bunting and people waved Union Jacks, large and small. I was seven and we children had the day off school to celebrate this momentous occasion. It is not as though I can recall this event in any detail. It is simply part of my autobiographical memory; I know the facts, where I was living, where I went to school and what we did. This form of memory is known as episodicand is different from the feeling stirred in me by the sight of the flag.  That simply feltappropriate to the time when I was a young child and the world seemed vivid and exciting. This is the ‘aura of childhood,’ as Jonathon Coe calls it in the quote that begins this essay. I cannot say with any certainty that this feeling was related to the flags being waved at the time of the Queen’s coronation. The momentary fleeting sensation was all there was and as soon as I began to think about it, it became something else. This is how memory works. It is always a transformative experience, by which I mean that the act of recollection shapes the nature of the memory. This contrasts with the popular idea that memory functions like a camera or video recorder: if we push the right button we can access a pristine memory. There is no button and there is no store of pristine memories stashed in our brain waiting to be activated.

If you stop and think about consciousness, the awareness that accompanies us in everything we do, you will realise that we are remembering all the time. As I typed this sentence, I was remembering that I wrote about memory when writing To Hell and Backand again in The Trauma Therapies, making a mental note to read what I wrote. At the very same time I was half-thinking about the book of essays I am in the process of reading, comparing the author’s style to my own. Every action I am taking, whether typing these words or thinking about what to type or moving around restlessly in my chair or listening to M talking on the phone down stairs is suffused with memory. I couldn’t type if I had no memory of typing. This is my 6thessay and the memory of the others lies behind it. This desk, the place where I have done my recent writing, is redolent with all the associations that go along with those past experiences. Memories are being laid down all the time. I have been at the computer for 45 minutes and what I have thought and typed during that time is now part of my short-term memory. But I couldn’t flick a switch and bring these memories back in the same form that I experienced them. They have been transformed and filed into my autobiographical memory as discrete episodes. If someone asked me later what I did this morning, I could reply I was at my laptop writing, the myriad of individual experiences incorporated into a generalised statement of memory, not in any way like a reliving of the experiences.

Childhood Amnesia

Ageing is like the laying down of successive deposits of the earth, each superseding the next, the earlier ones buried deep in time and difficult to prise out. The ageing of the body affects experience. I have a cataract in my left eye, not yet bad enough to warrant surgery, but blurring my vision. Nothing is as vivid as it was 60 odd years ago. I also see the world through the prism of experience and that shapes what I attend to and what it means. At this time in my life I can describe myself as a retired psychotherapist, psychologist, writer, husband, father and grandfather, these labels referring to many experiences that make up my autobiographical memory and hence my identity. Yet there are gaps in memory. Although I know that I was born in Whitehaven General Hospital in February 1946 and spent my early childhood in Cumbria, I remember nothing of my infancy. This inability of adults to recall memories of specific events occurring before the ages of 2 to 4 is called childhood amnesia. I know, for I have been told, that when I was 5, we moved from a small terraced house in Whitehaven, 5 Inkerman Terrace, to Cartgate, a striking 18thcentury mansion in its own extensive grounds in Hensingham on the outskirts of the town. Yet I cannot recall anything about living in 5 Inkerman Terrace. In contrast I have many memories of living in Cartgate, of cricket matches on the lower lawn, of games of Cowboys and Indians with the local kids who came round regularly to play with us, of being given tennis lessons by the son of a miner and learning how to hit a powerful forehand, of the awfulness of hay fever in the spring and summer, of Stephen who lived in the cul-de-sac that abutted our garden wall and who became our best friend, of the brothers William and James who lived in a prefab just up the road and where I first understood that our wealth set us apart from most people, of our large barn across the yard at the back of the house and the barn owls that lived and died there, of our two Alsatian dogs, Roy and Glen. I could go on; the memories come to mind as readily as overripe fruit falls from a tree when shaken. But nothing of my infancy and very early childhood.

Childhood amnesia is common in adults. But why does it happen? One suggestion is that, as we develop a sense of self, this has an effect on the encoding and storing of very early memories, overlaying them with the verbal memories that underpin identity. It is not as though very young children fail to remember. Far from it. As we were returning from a walk, you, Izzy, said to me “…’member the barbecue, running down the hill.” I said, “Yes, in France, and what were you carrying?” “Teabags,” you instantly replied. “And what about that funny business holding your head to one side. Remember that?” “Yes.” You showed you did by doing it again. This clowning is an endearing aspect of you, Isobel, something you love doing and we love seeing. Both of you know about events in the past and can talk about them. A couple of months ago you moved house, leaving behind the semi-detached house that was your home for almost two years. I know you can recall that house well and the neighbourhood where you went for walks. Yet years later those memories will have largely or completely gone.

Memory in childhood

As children we remember better than adults as this summary on Wikipedia indicates:

“Children can form memories at younger ages than adults can recall. While the efficiency of encoding and storage processes allows older children to remember more, younger children also have great memory capacity. Infants can remember the actions of sequences, the objects used to produce them, and the order in which the actions unfold, suggesting that they possess the precursors necessary for autobiographical memory. Children’s recall is 50% accurate for events that happened before the age of two whereas adults remember near to nothing before that age. By age two, children can retrieve memories after several weeks, indicating that these memories could become relatively enduring and could explain why some people have memories from this young. Children also show an ability to nonverbally recall events that occurred before they had the vocabulary to describe them, whereas adults do not. This increased ability for children to remember their early years does not start to fade until children reach double digits. By the age of eleven, children exhibit young adult levels of childhood amnesia. These findings may indicate that there is some aspect of the adolescent brain, or the neurobiological processes of adolescence, that prompts the development of childhood amnesia.”

Early memory is essentially eidetic: the past elides in a blur of vivid present-day images. As your linguistic skills have come to the fore – and you have both become adept at language – these images fade in importance; you learn to manipulate the world through speech. ‘Were you playing croquet?’ you, Lucy, asked me one afternoon. ‘Yes’ I said and tried to explain what croquet was. Izzy, you said, ‘Not tennis?’ and showed that you knew I played that game regularly. Neither of you has played croquet or tennis, not even a child’s version of the games. You may have seen people in local parks playing tennis or watched Peppa Pig play it or even croquet on TV. But I doubt that you could describe what croquet or tennis is like. What you have grasped is the power of language to take you beyond the present day. Language enables you to think back on the past and think forward into the future. ‘We will see you tomorrow,’ Mary and I say before we leave for our flat. I’m pretty sure you understand that it won’t be long before you see us again. When we leave for Oxford, our goodbyes are longer and tinged with sadness. I think you know that it will be longer before we return. You have not yet grasped exactly what ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ mean or how long is ‘three-to-four weeks’, the usual gap between our visits, but the words convey something to you and in using them yourselves, you gain the control that comes with language.

Psychologists have studied the nature of memory in childhood. In one experiment the childhood memories of 83 young children were assessed over several years. The children first visited the researchers’ laboratory when they were three and discussed six unique events from their past, such as family outings, camping holidays, trips to the zoo, first day of school and birthdays. They returned at ages between five and nine to discuss the same events and were asked to recall details they had previously remembered. The researchers found that between the ages of five and seven, the amount of memories the children could recall remained between 63-72 per cent. However, the amount of information remembered by the children who were eight and nine years old dropped dramatically to 35-36 per cent. Children also have a far faster rate of forgetting than adults and so the turnover of memories tends to be higher; early memories are less likely to survive. The findings help to explain why children can often have vivid memories of events but have forgotten them a couple of years later. It suggests that few of the exciting experiences you are going through at the moment will survive in your memory in later childhood, which is a great pity. When memories lack an autobiographical narrative that grounds them in place and time, they are not rehearsed or labeled. The lack of narrative leads to a process known as “retrieval induced forgetting” where the action of remembering causes other information to be forgotten. “The fact that the younger children had less complete narratives relative to the older children likely has consequences for the continued accessibility of early memories beyond the first decade of life,” said Professor Bauer, the lead experimenter in this study. “We may anticipate that memories that survive into the ninth or tenth year of life, when narrative skills are more developed, would continue to be accessible over time.”

Reminders of childhood

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

This well-known stanza from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad speaks to the fleeting memories of childhood that I began this essay with. The phrase, “blue remembered hills,” with the evocation of melancholy hidden in the word, “blue,” has come into everyday language. The playwright, Dennis Potter, used it as the title of a play in which adult actors played the parts of children.[1]Similarly with the phrase, “land of lost content,” which suggests the past is like a lost world that we will never find again, with the double meaning of the word, “content,” [the content of something, content as happiness or satisfaction] adding depth to the phrase.

Poetry is best at capturing the sensation of being drawn back in time to one’s childhood and the feelings of nostalgia and longing it evokes. One needs to be detached from everyday concerns to do this. It is no surprise that the sensation of recalling my childhood occurred as I was walking into town on a circuitous route for the exercise it provided. I had put my mind into freewheel and set aside the daily cares and demands. It made me more receptive to the world around me, allowing the feelings to come to the surface. I have had these fleeting sensations before. A particular shade of green – looking at colour charts I think shamrockis the nearest I can get to it – triggers a similar feeling. That green was the colour of my first football shirt, green with a white collar, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye. I played football at school in Whitehaven for a short period. When we moved down south and I went to the City of London School, I found that the school did not play football; the winter sport was rugby union. I know this for I recall being miffed that there was no football at the school and being at first reluctant to play rugby until I found I was good at it and it was fun. The green colour is a reminder of an important transition in my childhood. It has stayed with me because of this. Yesterday, I was walking in warm sunshine and when I looked up at the cloudless sky, the intense azure blue triggered the memory of seeing a similar blue in my childhood. This was the deep blue sky in a series of Disney slides that portrayed animal life in North America. The bright vivid pictures seemed so different from anything in this country and made a great impression on me. I longed to be there. The intensity of the colour is the trigger for the memory and for the feelings associated with it. It is my blue remembered sky, the equivalent of Housman’s blue remembered hills.


When I think about my childhood I think partly in images. I picture the high curved wall around Cartgate, I see the tennis court, the barn and the yard between it and the house at the back, the path up to the back gate, and the long drive that led from the front gate to the house with bushes and trees on either side. Some of these memories are a product of photos or, in the case of the front of Cartgate, a painting, commissioned by my parents, that I have hanging over the stairs to my study. Some are because I went back to Cartgate a decade or so a go when we celebrated the plaque to my father that Whitehaven City Council had put up.[2]Other memories are of significant episodes in my life. At primary school I was once the butt of the antics of other children: at break they took my cap and threw it around so I couldn’t get it. In tears I complained to the teacher who was not inclined to do anything about it. That taught me that some problems are best resolved oneself. That is why this episode has remained in my autobiographical memory. There are many other examples of ‘rehearsed memories’ where a specific stimulus reminds me of a significant event in the past and that reminder reinforces the memory. Whenever I get out of the bath, for example, I recall my mother’s surprised praise that I let the drips from my legs fall into the bath before stepping out. I have no memory of when that happened but it must have been before puberty. At least I hope so! I wonder what specific memories you girls will retain when you are older. The book I wrote about your first year, the many photos and videos your parents have collated, and this and other essays, will act as reminders of your childhood. They are not memories as such but keys to childhood. They open the portal and transfer you briefly back to the blue remembered hills and the land of lost content.



















© John Marzillier, Monday 28 August 2016


[1]Blue Remembered Hills is a British television play by Dennis Potter, originally broadcast on 30 January 1979 as part of the BBC’s Play for Todayseries. The play concerns a group of seven-year-olds playing in the Forest of Dean one summer afternoon in 1943. It ends abruptly when the character Donald is burnt to death partly as a result of the other children’s actions. Perhaps the most striking feature of the play is that, although the characters are children, they are played by adult actors. [From Wikipedia]


[2]There was already a plaque to Frank Schon who co-founded Marchon with my father. Some of the people who had worked at Marchon lobbied the council to put up a similar plaque to my father. They were right to do so and the family, including my sister Evelyn and my brother Leon and his wife Nina, went to the inauguration. We visited Cartgate while we there in which at that time Mrs Halfpenny lived. Her husband was a chemist who had worked at Marchon and to whom my father had sold the property. It was strange walking up the drive and that experience has made the memory of my time there more salient.