Eddie Mair: I’m lost in a memory minefield

"I could picture her. I could tell you a list of her films. But I could no more recall her name than eat a dingo. Panic"

There used to be an ad you would see all the time in the papers: “IQ of 145 but can’t remember?” I forget what it was for, though it was probably some whizz-bang formula to help absent-minded brainy people recall where they put their Mensa application forms.

Advertisement

There was a photo of a brainy-looking man with a pained expression on his face, as if he was struggling to remember something basic. Or perhaps he was cross that as a reasonably handsome but balding actor/model with ambitions to star in feature films, his agent only ever got him poxy photoshoots for… whatever this thing was.

My ability to recall names and other important information has never been impressive. A long time ago I was doing a live radio interview with someone about the surging/collapsing Deutschmark. I can’t remember whether it was way up or way down, what I vividly recall was that in the course of a question the name of the German currency slipped my mind.

In the archives of BBC Radio Scotland there is a scintillating piece of broadcasting history involving a financial expert being interviewed by a hapless git, who asks him: “But what do you think the long-term implications are for the… um… the er… the… um… er… the implications for the um… for the er… the German currency?” Just explain to me why I can struggle to remember basic words, yet all these years later I can recall the sinking feeling and rising panic as if it were one minute ago.

I had a similar incident recently on PM. It was a discussion about whether we should just let Helen Mirren become Queen and one of the guests mentioned Margaret Thatcher. I opened my mouth to say that she’d been played recently by… and I was instantly back in the Deutschmark moment as Meryl Streep’s name eluded me.

I could picture her. I could tell you a list of her films. But I could no more recall her name than eat a dingo. Panic. I think I mumbled something about “another very famous actress” and thankfully one of the guests picked up the idea and began to talk. I, meanwhile, was trying to remember the phone number of my dry cleaner’s.

I thought I was alone in this and then someone gave me Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections. Nora is no longer with us, but it turns out she did what I’ve been doing for years when she forgot things: “I scrolled through a mental dictionary, trying to figure out what letter the word would begin with, and how many syllables were involved. Eventually the lost thing would float back into my head, recaptured.”

When any writer taps into an experience that chimes, it’s an affecting moment. But it was especially sweet to realise that someone as gifted as Nora could be as forgetful as someone like me. The whole book’s a charm, but do read that first chapter for some hilarious insights into forgetfulness including – and I relate to this, too – how she met Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Peter Ustinov but can remember nothing about any of them.


Advertisement

Eddie Mair hosts PM Monday to Friday at 5:00pm on Radio 4