Don’t think of an elephant

In the classic 1960s film version of HG Wells’ The Time Machine – accept no substitutes, even those starring Mike from Neighbours – there’s a famous scene showing the evolving fashions in a shop window as the traveller zips forward in time. Hems rise and fall, fiddly accoutrements come and go, hats balloon, explode with feathers and wither, and the traveller watches transfixed. Then the woodpecker clatter of planks boarding up the shop, and sand bags, sirens and war.

We are all time travellers, rushing into the mysterious future at a second per second. We see the fashions change, the shops appear and disappear, the fads come and go. And in our heads we can make the same journey as Wells’ traveller, skipping between memories with the tickle of a neuron.

The effect is more pronounced if you, like me, live in the same city for a long time. I’ve been in Cambridge for over 20 years, on and off (mostly on), both gown and town, and I can’t walk down a street without unconsciously recalling some event that took place there. Just as saying “Don’t think of an elephant” immediately conjures up an image of our big-eared nosey friends, so passing The Mitre brings to mind the time I walked in somehow without noticing it was a building site in the middle of refurbishment and was given an odd, impromptu tour of the work in progress. When browsing in TK-Maxx I’m plagued by flashbacks to its previous incarnation as Borders, a ghostly second image projected on the now. Was: computer books. Is: pants.

Music and smells are of course great triggers. Some songs at the pub immediately make me think of my friend John, now living in Canada (though still more up-to-date with Cambridge gossip than I am). The scent of aircraft fuel smacks my reptilian brain right in the synapses and whips me back to the first time I flew, and in its wake comes a rush of related memories. It was a Boeing 707, in-flight movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (the original). It was my sixth birthday. I visited the cockpit, but as I recall was not asked my opinion on the subject of gladiators. I’m serious, and don’t call me Shirley. Shirley Temple, On the Good Ship Lollipop. Lollipop ladies. Walking to school. Walking home from school alone, aged six or seven, to find we had a dog. The day the dog died (twenty-six years ago, and it still upsets me to remember it). And on and on in the great game of memory association football – that one a Ronnie Barker gag I think, “I know my place”, John Cleese was there too, now on to Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the war, don’t tell him Pike…

The chances are that your own brain’s now whirring and right now you’re glassy eyed in your own history, barely conscious of these words. Hello! Pay attention!

Our heads full of experiences, we can’t help rifling through them when an association triggers. (Hmm: “rifle”, “triggers”.) We can surf our own lives in a time sink worse than any Wikipedia session. But we can become locked in our memories very easily: our bodies ticking away the seconds into the future, our minds in Wells’ infernal machine wheeling through the past. The danger is that we spend so much time retelling old stories we stop writing new ones.

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