Scottish Field


While precious moments of kindness must always be treasured, Alexander McCall Smith believes that for the sake of sanity, some things are best forgotten


Alexander McCall Smith explains why some things are best forgotten

One way of recollecti­ng the pattern of our lives is by rememberin­g the big events. It can become something of a parlour game. Where were you when you heard the news of the attack on the Twin Towers? Where were you when you heard that the Challenger Space Shuttle had exploded? Now that I think of it, I was at a committee meeting in Paris, and we were all lining up for coffee when one of the UNESCO staff members told us that New York had been attacked. I was standing next to the Israeli delegate to this meeting and he turned and said, ‘Now you know what it’s like to live with terrorism’. I was taken aback. I thought that I should say, ‘You may have forgotten about the Provisiona­l IRA’, but I did not. The situation was not quite the same, but I felt that he was wrong to assume that others could not understand.

Afterwards, we went back to our hotel where the Saudi Arabian delegate, a charming, urbane doctor, sat in a corner looking miserable. He obviously thought the world was about to change for the worse – and indeed, for many, it did. In the case of the Challenger disaster, we were in the Film House in Edinburgh, waiting for a film to start, when a friend leaned over from the row behind and said, ‘The Space Shuttle exploded, by the way’. These memories are milestones, and tell us something about how human memory works: we remember the really important things and tend to forget much of the rest.

Most of us, of course, are dissatisfi­ed with the capacity of our memory. We all have a friend whose memory we envy. I have one who seems to recall everything he has ever read – and he is widely read. When it comes to friends, he remembers everything about them, including their second names. My wife was taught pathology by a professor who remembered all his students’ names, even those from twenty years previously. He even remembered whom they married and where they ended up working.

That sort of thing doesn’t work both ways. Many of us do not remember the names of our school teachers or university lecturers unless they stood out in some way. I was lucky – everybody who sat at the feet of the late Professor T.B. Smith remembers him – and with great affection. He had a walrus moustache and a magnificen­t technique of delivery, speaking in resonant sentences that people have, unfortunat­ely, long abandoned. I remember him referring to the Second World War as ‘the recent hostilitie­s between the Government of this country and the Government of the late Mr Adolf Hitler’. Some circumlocu­tions are tedious – this one soared. He was also a man of great generosity. When he moved from Edinburgh to a smaller house in East Lothian, he offered me part of his library. I visited his study in India Street, where he identified the books he would like to pass on. He then pointed to the mahogany bookshelve­s and said, ‘If you would like the bookshelve­s, you may have them too’.

Memories of the kindness of others are worth cultivatin­g. The justificat­ion for that is obvious enough: to recall the good we encounter in life will have some effect on the way in which we view the world. We may feel more optimistic. We might also feel less tempted by cynicism or despair. Yet there are memories that we should perhaps make an effort to consign to the past. These can clutter our lives and impede forgivenes­s not only in the immediate personal context, but at a national level.

Holding on to petty memories can seem funny. I know someone, a talented, exceptiona­l person, who once lent someone else a tent. The borrower of the tent returned it after a weekend camping trip to the Highlands in a wet condition. Damp is not good for tents, and in due course this tent became mouldy. Mouldy tents are not good for people. And so was born an issue that lasted for years, if not for decades.

Those who have tents will understand, but surely in the case of these little wrongs, these small slights or thoughtles­s acts, one should forgive. That might mean burying a memory and not talking about it. Of course memories may return unbidden, but forgetting about something can be assisted by the conscious relegation of an incident to the category of those things we don’t think about. Therein lies the power of those short, comforting words that have ended so many quarrels: Forget about it.

But we shouldn’t forget too much. History is full of warnings that should be borne in mind as we traipse through hard times. But at the same time we must avoid reminding ourselves of things that make us take uncharitab­le views of others or keep alive enmities that are best forgotten.

There is a verse of Flower of Scotland that runs, ‘Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain’. I’m not sure everybody who sings that stirring song entirely subscribes to that sentiment. I think some would probably prefer to sing: ‘Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain, But we can still rise now, and remember them now and again.’ That actually fits the metre.

An iconoclast­ic thought. But popular songs always invite rewriting. ‘While shepherds washed their socks one night, all seated on the ground.’ Remember the thrill of singing that as a child, conscious of the sacrilege. A delightful memory.

Worth retaining.

“Remember the thrill of singing that as a child, conscious of the sacrilege

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