When the streets of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town were laid, I doubt they considered the consequences for social media.  While riding the No 19 bus over the cobbles of Frederick Street it is, I can vouch, impossible to text.  The tremor induced by the vibration forces your fingers in every direction but the intended one.  The cobbled streets, although pretty in a Dickensian Christmas sort of way, lead to a sensation best described by the Scottish word ‘shoogley’.

My father, a car mechanic, once said how valuable a cobbled street was.  Driving a car over the rumbling road, he advised, would help reveal any untoward mechanical difficulties that might otherwise remain hidden on a smooth Tarmac surface.  Whenever I drive over cobbles I think of him and I find myself listening—I’m not sure for what—but listening intently nonetheless.  This piece of wisdom, although in practice useless, is one of the few things I have left of my father who died suddenly one evening in the Christmas holidays when I was eight years old. I have photographs and even some old 8mm cine film footage, but what often troubles me is that I can’t hear him.  Somewhere along the way I have lost his voice among my memories.

I remember being woken by my mother crying that she could not rouse my father.

I remember shivering in the kitchen, while my elder brother, home on leave from the army, was beating my father’s inanimate chest, trying to force the life back into his bones.

I remember praying, or rather bargaining, with God, who either failed to hear me or didn’t like my terms—in truth, I had little to offer.

I remember the ambulance man casually reporting in on our telephone—’DOA’.

I remember being taken to the cinema by a relative, to get me out of the house and allow others to grieve.

I remember the warmth of the arm around my shoulders from my Primary 4 teacher when I handed her the letter explaining what had happened to our family during the Christmas holidays.

What I don’t remember is his voice.  My father stands silent in the family photographs I now hang on my wall.  He moves silently and slightly blurred in home movies.  But, he never speaks, or sings or even laughs.  Perhaps, he never did, but if that’s true how did I learn about the cobbles?

The silence of my memory is disconcerting, but maybe not surprising.  Memory, after all, is not a recording device. Rather, it is a selective, often highly selective, processing of our experience.  We alter and edit and fabricate our memories and in so doing we render them as increasingly unreliable witnesses to reality.  Without trying too hard we can recall smells and link these instantly to whole sets of vivid memories.  (No medical student who ever studied anatomy can encounter formalin later in life and fail to be back at the dissection table.) But, our other senses, especially perhaps our ears (or maybe just my ears), are less well developed when it comes to memory.

The reliability of memory is important if we are to use it as a primary source in our research.  Any historical research will only ever be as good as its sources.  We may believe that first hand accounts of those who were actually there will always trump any others, and that only by interviewing eyewitnesses may we hope to access the true history of an event.  However, the veracity of our memories may be questionable, through no fault of our own, but simply by virtue of our biology.  Bombarded by sensory inputs we must be selective in what we choose to acknowledge and even more selective in what we choose to store.  Our filters are necessary and allow us to exist and move on without being paralysed by information.

So much for an unreliable past, what of the present—the Christmas present?

Back on the bus, the December night air is chilled and Edinburgh is wearing its festive lights like jewellery.  The Castle, illuminated with soft floodlight, hangs massive yet weightless in the air over Princes Street where the trees are dressed, and glittered, for a night on the town.  The evening is thronging and beautiful and it seems that it will be difficult to forget.

Still unable to text, because of the cobbles, I listen instead for any rattle that might indicate malfunction, just as my father had taught me with his missing voice.  The bus is fine, and, while not entirely sure, I think this Christmas I am too.

© Allan Gaw 2013

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