I was in my late thirties before it struck me that there was something odd about the tableau I have in my mind of a familiar living-room, armchair, my father in it, silvery hair, moustache, brown suede lace-ups, and me, aged six or so, sitting on his knee. The layout is correct Ė I have been back to the block of flats and sat in the living-room of the flat next door, with the same floor plan. Door in the right place; chair Iím sure accurate, a burgundy moquette; patterned carpet; windows looking out onto the brick wall of the offices opposite. My father looks like my father in pictures I have of him. I look like Ö well, actually I donít have any pictures of me at that age. But Iím sure I looked pretty much like the memory I can call up at will. Itís not particularly interesting as a memory. Nothing special is happening. It could be a painting, or a photograph, except that I shift about as a child does sitting on her fatherís knee. Hereís the thing, though: I can see the entire picture. I can, you may have noticed, see myself. My observation point is from the top of the wall opposite where we are sitting, just below the ceiling, looking down across the room towards me and my father in the chair. I can see me clearly, but what I canít do is position myself on my fatherís knee and become a part of the picture, even though I am in it. I canít in other words look out at the room from my place on the chair. How can that be a memory? And if it isnít, what is it? When I think about my childhood, that is invariably one of the first Ďmemoriesí to spring up, ready and waiting: an untraumatic, slightly-moving picture. It never crossed my mind to notice the anomalous point of view until I was middle-aged. Before then it went without saying that it was a Ďrealí memory. Afterwards, it became an indicator of how false recollection can be.
LRB 9 February 2012 | PDF Download