Memory triggers

While on holiday a month and a bit ago, I came across a mysterious reminder on my phone. It had been set for 15th November and read simply ‘Donovan’. Had I set this reminder myself? I must have done, though I had no memory of it. And what on earth did it mean?

I turned the matter over in my head. I could approach this problem from two different directions: the word, Donovan, and the date, 15th November.

What does Donovan mean to me? Jason Donovan, of course. I was quite a fan of his when I was about six years old. And his father Terence, also in the cast of Neighbours when I used to watch it in the mid-’90s. Also Donovan, the singer-songwriter from the 1960s, of whom I know nothing (and, pace hippies, in whom I have approximately no interest whatsoever) and whom I probably confuse with Lonnie Donegan as often as not. And I have known of people called Donovan in real life, though not known them personally.

What about 15th November? Well, it’s no less attractive a date than many others. It is the birthday of mercurial Uruguayan midfielder Gustavo Poyet, currently manager of Brighton and, among South American players, the Premier League’s all-time joint top goalscorer – until, that is, Carlos Tévez overtakes him, which will surely happen before the month is out, very possibly away at Blackpool on 17th October. Watch the video below to see him put a couple past Man Utd legend Massimo Taibi. But apart from this spectacularly useless knowledge, I can’t claim the date holds any special meaning for me.

Nothing in these paltry associations, then, suggested any connection between the two known facts. I had frankly abandoned hope of deciphering the meaning of the word, but decided as a hopeless last resort to ask friends and relations for suggestions via Facebook. As I began to type the request into the status update box, the answer magically presented itself to me. Donovan is the surname of my piano tuner, and I need to call him in mid-November so I can book a time to have the piano tuned before Christmas.

Needs tuning before the little red tree goes up this year

I can’t work out which is greater: the complacency of my assumption that I would automatically work out what ‘Donovan’ meant if I forgot, or the shame of forgetting my piano tuner’s name. Or the proof this whole story provides of my irredeemable middle-classness. It’s funny, though, regardless of all this baggage, to contemplate how, after seemingly endless and exhausting efforts to remember a piece of information, the slightest mental process brings it suddenly into focus.

This instantaneous unlocking of information has, like everything I write, been better expressed elsewhere. This passage from the start of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is one of presumably many such expressions. The narrator, now middle-aged, has discovered a diary that is to awaken a trauma that has been suppressed since his boyhood:

I did not want to touch it and told myself that this was because it challenged my memory; I was proud of my memory and disliked having it prompted. So I sat staring at the diary, as at a blank space in a crossword puzzle. Still no light came, and suddenly I took the combination lock and began to finger it, for I remembered how, at school, I could always open it by the sense of touch when someone else had set the combination. It was one of my show-pieces and, when I first mastered it, drew some applause, for I declared that to do it I had to put myself into a trance; and this was not quite a lie, for I did deliberately empty my mind and let my fingers work without direction. To heighten the effect, however, I would close my eyes and sway gently to and fro, until the effort of keeping my consciousness at a low ebb almost exhausted me; and this I found myself instinctively doing now, as to an audience. After a timeless interval I heard the tiny click and felt the sides of the lock relax and draw apart; and at the same moment, as if by some sympathetic loosening in my mind, the secret of the diary flashed upon me.


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